Monday, 20 April 2009


I'll let you in on a little secret. Sometimes, a part of me rebels against my own strictures.

It's a kind of teenage rebellion. Screenwriting, I tell myself, is a creative art. How can there be rules? How can I stipulate that this, that or the other must happen? Surely there are exceptions! Surely, a gifted writer can break all the rules and fashion an absolutely brilliant screenplay! Not all screenplays have to look the same.

And then I read yet another screenplay in which a basic 'rule' has been overlooked. And I realise that, these so-called 'rules' actually do mean something.

Let's take the antagonist, for example. Other names include Villain, Rival, Enemy, Nemesis, Shadow, Bad Guy ... but ultimately, they're all the same. The hero of a script tends to be the protagonist ('First Contestant' or 'First Actor' in the original Greek meaning of the word), and whoever he or she is up against is the antagonist.

It's rather surprising to find that, in script after script, it's hard to pin down an actual bad guy.

I reckon that would-be screenwriters often have a great idea. They then imagine themselves as the lead characters in the story and start spinning a yarn around that lead character - and a few other characters for ballast - making their way through that great idea.

But they haven't thought it through. They're creating a kind of daydream on paper. They've imagined themselves into the role of the lead actor of hero in the story, but they've forgotten to provide that hero with a shadow, a nemesis, a rival.

I don't think that this is a peculiarly British thing. But it does betray a lack of planning and preparation. No bad guy equals no drama. The essence of drama is ... no, not conflict ... it's struggle (or, rather, it's what happens to a character as they engage in that struggle). It is possible for the hero to struggle entirely against non-human factors, or against something within themselves, but a story tends to come alive when the struggle is personified. The hero wants something, they have the gall to go ahead and try to achieve it, but there's someone who's determined to beat them, to oppose them, to steal their triumph or to finish them off.

Now, I've given this post the title 'Common Errors', of which there are plenty. You come across them all the time: scenes which wander randomly from one precise location to another without a scene break; a lack of thought given to structure (script structure or story structure); a tendency to rely on dialogue to do all the work; too many characters who aren't introduced properly, so that the reader can't really tell who's who ...

But one of the most frequent errors I come across is the lack of a clear antagonist.

Now, as my last posting mentioned, there can be a great deal of fluidity about the four principal characters (HERO, VILLAIN, SIDEKICK and LOVE INTEREST). Any of these can turn out to be the antagonist (yes, even the hero can be revealed as the bad guy). Some great stories play games with our expectations in this respect.

Hitchcock's 'Psycho', for example. It's some way into the film before we discover that the bad guy isn't the man at the start with the stetson and the money, or the cop with the mirror sunglasses, but that nice young man at the motel.

Last night, I watched Ken Loach's 'The Wind That Shakes the Barley'. The antagonist, to begin with, is the British government, in the form of the notorious Black and Tans, or certain English landowners in Ireland, and only gradually does the hero's friend emerge as the antagonist.

So it's not necessary to establish your typical bad guy right from the outset. But your story does need one.

The more daunting the opposition, the greater the danger you're hero will find themselves in, and the greater the struggle they face. Which makes for a good story.

Hence the need to prepare, as you develop your project, rather than dreaming up an idea and launching yourself straight into the script. Because some things simply cannot be overlooked. And one of those things is the antagonist.

Some stories try to get by without the hero really wanting something. By and large, this doesn't work.

And some stories try to tell themselves without the hero facing any real opposition.

Where's the drama in that?

1 comment:

Deaf Indian Muslim Anarchist! said...

hear, hear... I am so bloody sick of Hollywood and everything else out there making the bad guy seem soooo BAD and evil (unless he's a real-lfie sociopathic serial killer like Ed Gein), while the good guy is sooo good, fake and boring... I always root for the bad guy becase he's really NOT that bad, he's just "misunderstood." while the good guy is just some boring, average yuppie who ain't worth a shit.

if I base all the protagonists on ME, well, then it's not going to be very interesting.