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Intro: All right, welcome to the successful screenwriter podcast, where we are dedicated to anything and everything screenwriting. Here, we interview successful screenwriters and filmmakers to discover just what it takes to make it in the industry.
Geoffrey: Welcome to the podcast, this show is coming life from Script Summit 2020 Virtual. We have the talented, the fantastic Ryan LaPlante with us today. Ryan is a staff writer at WeFixYourScript.com. He is going to chat with us today about how to write villains, answer questions from the community about that, and his interactive content, as well. We will be going through and answering questions from the community here at Script Summit. Ryan thank you again for joining us.
Ryan: Thank you for having me! It’s always a pleasure to talk about putting words together in different orders.
Geoffrey: That is actually a tougher job than it sounds. I want to actually speak first about villains, as the questions start rolling in. You have this really cool take on villains that I haven’t really seen anybody touch on before. It’s the five rules to villains. Do you want to just go through that real quick for the people at home listening?
Ryan: I’m happy to speedily run through it. Anything anyone tells you definitively about how something works is always kind of it’s own fiction within the world of storytelling. I wanted to look at a large number of villains and look at the different levers you can pull, as a writer, to create a really strong villain or antagonist. With villains, people tend to think of sci-fi comic book action formula. But you can also have an antagonist in your teen romance. I worked at Wattpad for a year and a half, and I ended up crafting [stories like], “and now the Olympic gymnast, whose so beautiful, shows and hits on your boyfriend.”
There’s a scale there.
The Five Pillars of Villainy/Antagonism are:
1. Theology: Any great villain has their own worldview and their own philosophy that they’re working towards. They’re not always the hero of their own story because sometimes they like that they’re villains, but they still have rules on the way that they interact with their opponent and the world.
2. Drive/Ambition: There’s not really a villain who’s like, “I’m tired! You know what? I think I’m gonna just tuck it in and move in with my parents.”
3. Personal Stakes: This is a really big one because I’ve seen a lot of stories where it’s done effectively, and not as much in others. It’s the difference between the really iconic villains you remember forever where they have a strong personal stake in the hero’s journey; versus, for lack of a better term, a lot of the canon films in the eighties and a lot of B-movies. “I’m a villain who believes in crime!” “I’m a cop who believes in cops!”
4. Skilled: They have great ability. There aren’t a lot of villains who are incompetent that are terribly iconic. They need to be good at what they do. It doesn’t mean they don’t have flaws, it doesn’t mean they’re great at everything, but it means they do have to be good at something.
5. The Heel Quality: In wrestling, the good heroes are called Faces, and their villains are called Heels.
Geoffrey: Right, baby faces.
Ryan: One of the defining qualities of a heel that I found really interesting as I was diving into how wrestling does storytelling, because we were learning it for video games, is the idea that the heel has the skills to become the hero at any point. They could actually be a protagonist of their own story because they are as strong as a hero, but they will cheat every time. Even though they could win without cheating, they will cheat, and that’s why they fail in a lot of ways. Those are the five pillars.
Geoffrey: I’m really good at picking out holes in theories and structures of screenwriting gurus. But I have to tell you, this is solid. These five rules for a villain are solid. I was watching it and thinking, “Yeah, he’s 100% right.” Just to see you put it in terms like that, that are easily understandable where you can apply this to your script, is just brilliant, sir. Absolutely brilliant.
Jeremy Span: Is it possible to have an unlikeable hero? Is he still a hero or is he just a villain you’re forcing people to root for?
Ryan: This is where I think the terms “hero” and “villain” end up being limiting in a way that the terms “protagonist” and “antagonist” don’t. It is absolutely possible to have an unlikeable protagonist. Walter White sucks: he’s an awful person, he’s a bad husband, he’s a dangerous parent, and he becomes a meth dealer. He’s also a great protagonist, because we want to watch him succeed. Sometimes I think of characters in terms of levers: there’s skill and there’s sense of humor, etc.
Geoffrey: That’s the role player in you.
Ryan: It’s a technique that Brandon Sanderson teaches on online storytelling courses for free. They’re on YouTube, you can search “Brandon Sanderson How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy.” He also teaches everything, and it applies to all genres. Generally speaking, if you’re going to make a character less likeable…I would suggest making them funny. Deadpool kind of sucks as a person but he’s funny so we forgive that. Or you make them very skilled at what they do. The more specifically talented they are, then it becomes a power fantasy. We can respect Dr. House because he is such a great doctor. If he right half the time, and the other half of the time he was rude and then his patient died, he would be the antagonist of the story. But he’s the protagonist.
Geoffrey: That’s why I like to focus on the term Central Character. Because your central character can very much be antagonistic. To get stuck in the protagonist, term wise, can be limiting to you, as a storyteller. I think that’s absolutely right.
Mike Lusch: Regarding dual antagonists, I’ll see an act-one antagonist, then around the end of act one we’ll meet the real antagonist. ‘Black Panther’ for example…
Geoffrey: Or another example, you did the Dark Knight Trilogy for your web seminar, so it would be Bane and Ra’s al Ghul’s daughter.
Mike Lusch: Would you say this is an example of dual antagonists as a story device that you can use in a film?
Geoffrey: They did the same thing in Batman Begins with Scarecrow and Ra’s al Ghul.
Ryan: Then act three circles back to the act one villain which I find to be, of the three examples, the most effective use. Dual antagonists, by definition, there are two antagonists in Black Panther. I would argue that, and I know everybody loves this movie… but structurally, I don’t think they do the best work to support Killmonger. I would love Killmonger to appear more in act one, and then setup Klaw as another villain, but a lesser villain. Otherwise, they setup Klaw as the big bad, but he doesn’t feel quite like the big bad, but we don’t have a big bad. Yes, it is dual antagonists, I think they could’ve done better if they established Klaw and Killmonger were on equal footing in an unwilling alliance. Then it could’ve become a game of ‘who’s going to betray who?’ and the big bad comes out on top.
Geoffrey: I agree, I think bringing in the antagonist early on in a film really helps you get behind that antagonist, understand them more, and develop a little bit of potential empathy. Especially with Killmonger, when we learn about his childhood, you go, “Wow, this is a guy who’s been through some stuff. I understand why he’s doing what he’s doing.”
Ryan: That’s the narrative purpose of henchmen or the muscle in a James Bond movie; to have an antagonist your hero can punch in the face and then theoretically kill at some point. At the same time, if you make that person really dangerous, you can actually build the mystique of your primary villain through a secondar villain. The Emperor is only scary when he shows up in Return of the Jedi because Darth Vader has been talking about him for two movies. “Oh my god, this guy has a boss?!”
Geoffrey: Lightning out of the fingers doesn’t help either.
Joaquin Hernandez: How hard is it to have the audience empathize with your villain regardless of how cruel or totalitarian they are?
Ryan: “Empathize” can be tricky, “understand” I think is the key to the whole thing. “Empathize” comes down to “Can I give the villain an opinion that your audience also feels, but may not be willing to express?” If their moral center of beliefs matches the audience’s, they’re just willing to go farther, then people can empathize with it. Otherwise with villains, I think for people to understand them, you want to take something most people might believe a part of and then build it further. The trick is a consistent ideology. Even their ideology can be like the Joker…the Joker’s theory is that there are no laws or rules, and people who pretend there are rules are fooling themselves. [The Joker] will prove to those people that they themselves have no rules.
Geoffrey: I like that, but they create moments of sympathy/empathy with that character by his backstories, “How did I get these scars? I cut my face for my wife.” [In that scenario] he’s a guy that’s so selfless for his wife, he cut himself. Or it’s the abusive father that cut his face, so then you feel for that character because [the father] cut his face. He kept changing his origin story, which was really interesting.
Ryan: Eventually you go, “Oh, these are all probably lies.” He’s giving people just enough of a justification that they feel like they know him.
Geoffrey: Exactly, he’s playing to who the audience thinks he is through manipulation. It’s working two-fold, both on the character he’s talking with and the audience watching itself. It’s brilliant screenwriting.
Ryan: The other thing to structurally think about there, that I don’t think hits a lot of audience members, we get really fascinated that he’s telling multiple stories because we as an audience member hear multiple stories. He’s telling those all to different people who never hear a countering version. He’s creating a mythology to each opponent he has, that they now believe to be true.
Geoffrey: You’re such a great story mechanic. This is why I want you to write a book on this stuff. We’re going to verge slightly into interactive content here:
Question: Do you have some kind of a structure sample, that is publicly available, for how you would structure an interactive story for mobile gaming.
Ryan: I currently don’t, actually, because all of the work [I’ve done] has been work for hire, so they literally own every word I wrote down in terms of outlining and planning. However, I can talk about the outlining process and theoretically put one together in the future. Traditionally, what I would do is, I would write out a scene and then I would write out the three answers to that…if we’re talking personalization choices. There’s a lot of lingo in that video, I’ll explain anything if you ask in the chat, but I’m just going to assume you watched the video for this to make sense. I would list the three personalization choices…then I would write below those the first half of the next scene that would match that choice. “If I choose 1A, I get this. If I choose 1B, this is the beginning of the next scene. If I choose 1C, I go here.” Then the second half of the next scene, which is the same for all three personalization choices, would be what I write next.
Geoffrey: It’s very visual.
Ryan: I would linearly go through those that way. When it came to branches, I would work in Microsoft Word for the sake of outlining, because you can bullet point it a lot easier for tracking. You can also color-code with highlighting words, if you want. I would say, “Go to this page,” and then send people there. One of the bigger challenges when it comes to interactive fiction and outlining is that there’s not actually an accepted/public format for how you want to create the game itself. If you’re just doing the text version of what I’m talking about, you can outline in Twine and just go back and fill in the options. I’ve also done that. With Twine…it will just give you a box and however many boxes you’ve said ‘Next’, and they’ve got lines between them. You can create a Christmas tree [branch model].
Geoffrey: This is a software program called “Twine.”
Ryan: It’s an open source, zero dollars, everybody uses it; and if you download any Twine game, a lot of which are free, you can actually just open them up and look at their code.
Geoffrey: There you go, that’s perfect!
Ryan: I highly recommend taking a look at it. I will also say, I think a lot of people get lost in [the idea of], “I need a million versions of the code.” There are some really fun and easy ways to hack it. I’ve done entire games where I looked up how to create an inventory for an RPG. The idea way that you could type ‘pick up key’ and later it says, ‘if key, this.” I just created a bazillion different story terms in the inventory rows. They have ‘Angry Dad’ and ‘if Angry Dad’, then I’d write that so I could drop those in, code wise.
Geoffrey: Wow, so you were working a little bit with code with Twine, as well. Beyond just writing a story.
Ryan: It’s all HTML related. At that point, we were writing directly into that system. I worked in three different systems with different strengths and limitations over the course of it all.
Geoffrey: Well there you go, that’s another direction you can go for writing.
Ryan: I saw samples from the mobile Kardashian game, because we had somebody submit for that. They work out of Writer Duet.
Geoffrey: Oh cool, that’s one of our sponsors.
Ryan: I love Writer Duet, I live on that thing. I don’t want to criticize them, but I also don’t work there so I can, that game was real lazy. Any choice you make will affect the next sentence and that’s it. If you read their scripts, it’s a full page of, “Do you say this or this or this?” and then it’s one line of difference with the same scenario.
Geoffrey: But it’s got the Kardashian name on it, so there you go.
Ryan: I didn’t have the heart to tell the writer, “I don’t think this is a great sample for your ability to write interactive fiction.”
Geoffrey: I think it was probably on there for the name recognition… Let’s talk about this term “Proactivity Bias.”
Ryan: Yes, this is the most useful thing I have learned as a writer, ever. It is the key lesson. One of the things you can do with a character, that I would argue makes a character the most interesting or theoretically “likeable” on film, is make them proactive.
Geoffrey: Absolutely! Oh my god, that’s so important.
Ryan: By proactive, I mean the character has to do things. They don’t sit around thinking about doing things, they don’t decide not to do things, and they don’t talk about how they want to, but they just can’t bring themselves to do it. You can actually have a character who is stupid and always says the wrong thing, but if they do things every scene, you’ve just written Mr. Magoo and it works. You can just have it happen. One of the biggest challenges with antagonists is, the reason the villain is often more interesting than the hero is, the villain is more active than the hero. You see so many movies where the hero ends up going from place to place, talking to the villain, seeing the villain’s crime scene, and then being like, “I just can’t figure it out!” And then the villain shows up and says, “How about a monologue that includes three lies and a truth? Also, I set up a bomb and your daughter’s been kidnapped!” Then the hero’s like, “Time for me to look at this crime scene, again.”
Geoffrey: I feel like I just heard Speed, “If this bus goes below 45 miles per hour…”
Ryan: Exactly! The reason Speed is actually a really solid action script is because every other person around Keanu Reeves says, “We need to sit down and carefully plan this.” But Keanu Reeves steals a car and puts himself on the bus. That’s the key. People create protagonists who end up being not so much hollow in the terms of not having a character. That’s where that term has confused people where their like, “The character has a rich inner life, they’re making smart choices, and they’ve got an expansive world around them.” Yes, they’re not hollow in the fact that you didn’t create a character, they’re hollow in that the character is really just a vessel to experience what other people are doing around them.
Geoffrey: That’s a real problem.
Ryan: The key is you want your protagonist to be going on a journey and your antagonist is affecting that journey…I think a lot of people think of the hero’s journey and the villain’s journey as being parallel. They’re occurring in the same place but they can end up being the thing of, “I’m trying to catch a criminal” Then you end up doing this thing where your hero’s journey is just following the villain’s journey. That’s why your villain is actually the star of the story. What you want is your protagonist should have plans, even if its actively doing things to try to catch the villain rather than following clues.
Geoffrey: That’s a thriller.
Ryan: That’s also great where action movie stuff is always going to be actively trying to catch the bad guy. The trickiest version of this to do is in mystery. But even then, you don’t have a detective just look at clues, then sit and quietly think.
Geoffrey: Yeah, where they go, “Eh I don’t know, I guess I can’t figure it out.”
Ryan: Or the ones who walk into a room and go, “One of you four is the killer,” and then they leave the room. Their assistant says, “Is that true?” and the detective says, “Nah, I just want to see what they’ll say, because we’ll get this other thing we need.” Then it becomes proactive and that’s what draws us to characters. If you accidentally set it up so your characters are turning down or refusing to go on a journey given to them, that’s where we as an audience start looking at the character and say, “Come on, just do it!”
Geoffrey: The debate is part of the hero’s journey but it’s not the whole act…If you look at Raiders of the Lost Ark, the debate plot beat is one line. “You’ve got to go on this journey.” “Okay.” That’s it, it’s not like, “Well I need to think about it for the next thirty minutes.”
Ryan: And he doesn’t think about it again once he’s committed to it.
Geoffrey: Once he’s in, he’s on it.
Ryan: It’s also usually right up front. They don’t do it at the end of act two. The end of act two is, “Oh no, I’m doomed! I’ll never win again! No one will love me!” Then they fight through that and it’s interesting, again.
Jeremy Span: If a protagonist is inactive throughout a story and letting the antagonistic force move them from beat to beat, can a character’s defining moment be them becoming proactive? Can becoming proactive be part of the arc?
Ryan: I would argue, traditionally, the arc you’re describing is actually for a supporting character and not for your central character. That’s usually their friend who doesn’t commit or their ally who doesn’t want to save them. They do a lot of the apolitical character where they’re the quiet one, like the other three people around the council chamber in Black Panther. They just sort of agree with what the old laws are and then they become proactive. It’s possible to do this because I believe anything is possible. Would I suggest that as a primary journey? I don’t know. I actually would just want to ask more questions about your story, specifically in terms of genre. In romance, for example, the person being brought through a journey either by their love interest or by an antagonist force, or more often both, is actually really common because there’s wish fulfillment for the audience of being that person. It’s different if your character is going, “I don’t know what to do.” If you’re Chidi from The Good Place, that’s a good version of a character getting in his own way. He’s also vey smart and very kind. He’s got every other lever to the max and his proactivity is the lowest.
Geoffrey: And he’s a supporting character, he’s the love interest. It makes sense. For me, this rings true if the debate is just too long. If your character’s debating for too long on whether or not to join the journey, we have a serious issue and that need to be corrected. I’ve heard this debate put to me before where they argue that The Dude from The Big Lebowski is a character that never changes. He remains absolutely the same throughout and [they argue] that’s the point of the film. I don’t agree with that. They say he’s not very active and changing, but he is, it’s just subtle.
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Geoffrey: This is a guy who’s an aging hippie who didn’t want to have change in his life. That’s what it is, he fights change. But when he realizes the girl might be pregnant, he accepts the fact that, “Maybe I do have to change.” Then it changes subtly.
Ryan: I think the other thing to use in The Big Lebowski is that the movie is kind of like Hamlet, it’s a movie that works really well, even though on paper it probably shouldn’t. Don’t try to write The Big Lebowski if you want to sell your script. You want to write stuff that is more accessible. One of the big focuses of We Fix Your Script, which Geoff and I talked about with a number of other people in Script Summit and all these other workshops is, we want to teach you the ways to improve a script and make it more sellable. That’s one of the challenges, it’s why I know Geoff’s guiding philosophy is…You’re going to write the story the way you want to write the story, and your style could very well carry the whole thing. But we can’t teach you that. The other thing I would say is, you can have a character who’s technically following along in an antagonistic force in a kind of fish out of water story. That doesn’t mean they make decisions in the overall plot, but it does mean they should be making decisions in individual scenes. A fish out of water is only funny to watch if they’re saying the wrong thing or affecting the water they’re in, someway. A villain could put them in prison, and then it turns out they befriend their cellmate.
Geoffrey: Or they’re really great in prison, like Orange is the New Black. I think our philosophy at We Fix Your Script, and Ryan definitely exemplifies this, is we view ourselves as mentors. That’s the big difference, we’re going to take you in, we’re not just going to try to improve your writing, we’re going to try to help you improve as a writer. It’s just a whole different mindset.
Ryan: Thor: Ragnarök is an example of a pretty well-structured movie where the protagonist is swept through the first half of the film based on other forces. But then all of the choices he made in those first scenes pay off when he becomes more active in the second half of the film.
Joaquin Hernandez: If a protagonist, who is stubborn and selfish, tries to juggle a multitude of problems, does that make the audience feel bad along with him? Building on the tension and unease, for example, Howard Ratner from ‘Uncut Gems.’
Ryan: Yes, it is possible to not like a protagonist. From what I’ve heard, that is a character who constantly steps into his own problems. That’s fine. I would argue, what you’re getting there is, the proactivity is so high. He has so many problems and he’s not just like, “Op, this problem again.” He’s lying on the phone and he’s manipulating everyone around him. He’s doing so much that it becomes, “Can he keep this up? I don’t even know if I want him to, but the stakes are so high if he doesn’t.” You’re watching plates spinning and feeling that tension. Uncut Gems falls into the realm of more arthouse/film festival films that you’re looking at. I don’t think that story would do the traditional big Hollywood blowout, and if it didn’t have the directors it had attached to it and Adam Sandler attached to it, I don’t know how well it would’ve sold. It might’ve sold in the version it is and be rewritten into something more traditional: three-act, he’s a little more likeable, the ending is a little more satisfying, etc. That’s where I’d fall on that one.
Geoffrey: I think once you get a heat in the industry, you can start getting more creative with the projects that you can get people behind.
Mike Haluche: I like the betrayer being something that an audience can see coming but I don’t necessarily mind that they see it coming. By the end of act one it’s clear that yes, the betrayer, who we assumed was the betrayer, is in fact the betrayer. Personally, I think that’s where ‘Spiderman: Far from Home’ suffered. Would you say the end of Act One is the concrete place to tell the audience what they may assume to be true?
Ryan: In reference to Spiderman: Far from Home, spoiler alert for a movie that came out a year and a half ago, but they spoiled it in the trailer, so I don’t have to care. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Mysterio, who says he’s from another dimension, he shows up and he’s helping Spiderman, then he turns out to be the villain.
Geoffrey: He becomes the mentor character.
Ryan: It’s the mentor turned betrayer, the perfect superhero movie arc. It’s a good idea but one of the challenges there is they spoil it in the trailer and the character Mysterio is known to be a huge liar at all times. It would be like having Loki show up and mentor Thor for Act One. I would argue yes, I agree with you, I think that reveal came too late in that film because we were all expecting it upfront. If I was going to choose a solution you could do with that, the secondary antagonist being an elemental force was too weak for us to believe as an audience that those were the real Marvel villains. That was a perfect point to have a second antagonist for Act One. If I was going to choose from a Spiderman lens, you choose a Spiderman villain with clout equal to or more famous than Mysterio, then you get your twist. I do think by the end of Act One, you should at least have a clear antagonist. In terms of Batman Begins… in Act One he goes over with Ra’s al Ghul, but Falcone’s been the bad guy the whole time. When we hit Act Two, there’s Falcone and they introduce Scarecrow right up front, so he’s got them. By the end of Act One, you should be solidly into the core part of your story. If you’re saving your actual reveal of your villain for the end of Act Two, that’s a bad call. Then the audience doesn’t know what your character’s going through, it’s like Act Two road of trials, too bored.
Geoffrey: A lot of writers, when they’re sussing it out, they want to leave the good stuff because they want to have the big reveal and the big surprise. The problem is, what you don’t realize your doing is you’re sacrificing your own storytelling, you’re sacrificing structure, scenes, and beats so you can have that big payoff. Then when you get to the payoff, it’s too late because you’ve already lost the audience. I have a student I’m working with right now at Script University and that’s one of the things we’re working on: if you’re going to have a big surprise/story beat, it has to be justified for the story. You can’t just sacrifice the story for it.
Ryan: I think people really get caught up in the idea of surprising an audience. I would argue that your focus should be on satisfying an audience. You can do that while including a surprise.
Geoffrey: Everyone wants the big twist. Shyamalan got that going so now everybody expects a big twist, even producers expect a big twist. Ryan is absolutely right, you need to satisfy the audience with your story first, then if you can take them in a surprising direction that isn’t jumping the shark, do it.
Rebecca Gyns: What are your thoughts on including an alternate ending?
Geoffrey: I’m assuming this does not relate to interactive content.
Ryan: In terms of interactive content, yes, do that. That’s one of the defining hallmarks and people get really excited to talk about endings. In terms of a traditional screenplay, no. Ideally, in a screenplay, you should have a best ending. There’s probably one that’s better than the other, and if there isn’t, then you can actually go through and pick the ending you think is the strongest. I almost guarantee you, structurally, you can find points that will make that ending even more of that inevitable yet satisfying surprise, where you can have that moment. I, at my core, don’t believe that a traditional narrative story would have more than one ending that’s equally satisfying. Those endings will change the meaning of the whole story. It’s not that you couldn’t have a different one, but they will reflect on your whole journey. Ultimately, you should choose the journey that you want people to go on. Otherwise, it’ll weaken your script in the eyes of the reader because then it will become their movie that they’re writing, instead of your movie.
Geoffrey: If you’re trying to pitch this thing to a producer, they’ll think that this writer can’t make up their mind, so that’s the last thing you want to do. Or I’ve seen some scripts where they include an after-credits/blooper scene, don’t do that. Just write a straight story with a solid ending, send it out, and go that direction.
Ryan: If you’ve got a script where you know the ending is going to be controversial or it might be an issue for a producer, it is worth thinking of alternate endings you can have in your head. For example, Seven when it was first written it had the head in the box at the end, but the studio said, “No head in the box, she’s fine.” The only reason it’s in the movie is they accidentally sent out an earlier draft to Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman who said, “We’ll quit the movie if you change the ending.” Which is very funny. But having those things in mind is useful because you will often have almost any element of your screenplay changed to a crazy degree. I have a script, called Redcap Towing, that is about the mythical monster The Redcap as a horror villain. I got it optioned and the first thing that came back was, “Can we take the redcap out of it?” And I was like, “Did you option my monster movie, but you don’t want my monster in the movie?” That’s what I said to my wife, what I said to them was, “Absolutely, what are you looking for?”
Geoffrey: Do you want blue, green or yellow?
Ryan: They were like, “We’re going to go with serial killer.” So that became a serial killer script. In a tossup of if a good guy wins or a bad guy wins, here’s an interesting thing to consider, it’s your audience and who you’re selling to. With film audiences, even though we as writers like when a bad guy wins and a good guy loses, unless it’s broadcast as a tragedy then people don’t generally enjoy that terribly much. Even tragedies are really hard to market. The big example would be Get Out, which I watched in theaters and absolutely loved. Spoilers for Get Out; it won a bunch of Oscars so you should’ve seen it. Even if you do, it’s so good, it doesn’t matter if you know how it ends. In the end, he kills the family, the house is burning down, he’s out on the street, and then a police car pulls up. As a horror writer, I was thinking, “Oh, you nailed it! He’s going to go to jail forever, and that’s the end of his story.” That’s the best ending you could possibly do, but then it’s his friend from the TSA. I was like, “You copped out, you cowards!”
Geoffrey: I thought he was going to get shot by the police. That’s where I thought it was going.
Ryan: Then he goes home and it’s a happy ending, which was due to audience testing. If you’ve seen the deleted ending, he’s going to jail for life for the murder of the family and his friend says, “We can keep fighting this.” But he says, “Nope. I am black, and they did what they did, but they’re not going to be able to do it anymore. And that’s what I got.” Then he goes to jail for life. The movie tested so poorly in the ending that even they agreed [to reshoot it], despite the fact that was the statement they wanted to make. The happier ending is what the audience needed. If they had gone with the original ending, it wouldn’t have blown up the way it did, it wouldn’t have won the Oscar the way it did, because that is what made it palatable in a wide-scale way.
Scaring the s#!t out of the audience, here’s a trick that I use for horror because I love horror. One of the tricks that is really common in horror is to let the hero beat the villain and then establish the threat remains. You get to give them the full arc and the horror twist at the end. Nightmare on Elm Street does this really well in the first one, where she’s battling Freddy and she goes into the dream world, then she drags him into the real world and they fight. She gets her denouement where she’s back to her life with her family and it’s all great. She’s standing at the door, then Freddy’s arm bursts through a window, grabs her head, pulls her back in, and then it cuts to credits. If you do that, the audience gets their full satisfaction. You get to scare them and suggest the world isn’t safe, then you can leave them with horror. I do that all the time in horror.
Geoffrey: That’s a trope of the genre. That’s like every horror film. Even Dawn of the Dead, SPOILER ALERT, they’re stuck in a mall full of zombies everywhere. They get out, they lose a bunch of people, they get out to the boat and escape, a handful of them make it, and when they get to the island, we see zombies.
Ryan: Intercut in the credits. You can let the hero win, but you can leave the threat unresolved.
Question: Can a supporting character have a conflict with a protagonist long enough to be resolved by Act Three?
Geoffrey: Yes, but go ahead Ryan, answer that one for us.
Ryan: Yes. I will always struggle with these questions because they exist in a Yes/No formula: “Can this thing happen in my script? Yes/No.”
Geoffrey: Look at Star Wars: A New Hope, you’ve got Han Solo and Luke. They don’t agree all the way through until the death star.
Ryan: In terms of a supporting character, absolutely. Because a supporting character ultimately isn’t the antagonist of the story, it’s a supporting conflict that ultimately defines both characters. It should lead your protagonist to change in a positive way, as well as altering the supporting character. If you’re talking about the antagonist, switching antagonists halfway through a film without doing some pretty solid foreshadowing upfront will just mean the audience will be left unsatisfied because they’ll have watched a journey end. Then you try to restart a journey without necessarily the same amount of personal stakes. Which is why betrayer plots are so common because they defeat the villain, then they discover their friend was actually the villain, then betrayal has higher stakes. Then they can continue forward.
Geoffrey: You want to get people grabbed by the story and into the characters early on. If you’re bringing in characters mid-journey, it’s a problem because we don’t have enough time to develop them. There’s a lot of films out there that will bring in a character right at the middle of Act Two, and it’s like, “I don’t even know who this is.” And they’re trying to do all these gimmicky things to get you to like this character because inevitably, they’re going to affect the journey somehow. I don’t like that. For me, bring them in the earlier the better.
Ryan: Also, it’s just the sheer amount of time you can spend building stakes into things. The faster you have to work, the harder it is to make an audience care. If I’ve got an hour to watch characters bounce back around to someone not wanting to be a dad and then do the right thing, that’s a lot easier to do than if you introduce them at the hour mark and you have ten minutes for me to find out who they are and care about the journey they’re on.
Geoffrey: This is a great question, Ryan, I really like this one.
Aaron Lieban: How can you make a story work where the internal conflict of the protagonist is the antagonist?
Ryan: There’s also questions of scales of antagonists that I would put in, because I don’t think there are stories without conflict. If the conflict is entirely internal but everyone in the world loves him, that won’t work. There could be their boss who kind of sucks, and that’s an antagonist. An antagonist doesn’t always have to be to the level of the comic book villain, where it’s Thanos or it’s no one. There’s Thanos and then there’s the boss from Office Space. One of the things there is, if you spend the time establishing the character as well as their flaws, then we’re watching an active character struggle with their own problems. Maybe if they’re dislikable but proactive…Uncut Gems falls into this category, which is his biggest problem is himself but there are other things that are problems for him in the environment.
Geoffrey: I think of A Star Is Born, you’ve got Jackson Maine where people think he’s a supporting character but he’s actually the central character and the antagonist of the story is his addiction, his struggle with that addiction, and how he goes through it. If you follow his journey, Lady Gaga’s character is supporting him throughout the journey, and through the end, he gives her the final push. That is one way to do it, to have that internal flaw they’re struggling with as they’re making action and decisions of trying to go through this journey. But that flaw is just continuously beating them down.
Ryan: Something else you get to do in that case, which could be interesting, is you watch a protagonist who has supporting characters as allies turn them into antagonists because of their own personal demons.
Geoffrey: That’s true, you’re getting me all excited, I love this stuff! I think we are going to call it, that was fantastic, Ryan. I love having you on this show, you’re such a resource. Really good questions from the Script Summit community, thank you very much. Ryan, so glad to have you on here.
Ryan: Thanks for having me! I’m always happy to talk story, screenwriting, just putting words together, it’s all fun.
Geoffrey: You have a good one, sir.
Ryan: You too!
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