Give Your Hero a Hero Speech
Let’s take a break today in this series on Villains and turn to the guy or girl opposite him: the Hero.
We’ve been saying in these posts that the Antagonist needs to be given a great Villain Speech, a moment when he or she gets to try to convince us that greed is good or that we can’t handle the truth.
The hero needs her moment to shine too.
It’s our job as writers, yours and mine, to serve up some juicy, soul-defining, U.S. Prime dialogue for our protagonist to deliver.
Here’s one of my faves from the movie Fury, the Brad Pitt-starrer about a lone American tank driving deep into Nazi Germany in the closing weeks of WWII. The crisis comes when the tank hits a mine and becomes incapacitated just as a battalion of SS infantry is tramping down the road in its direction.
Do our heroes take off into the bushes and live to fight another day? Or do they make a stand, knowing it will cost them their lives?
Brad Pitt as the tank commander makes his own decision. “This is home,” he says, setting a palm on the turret of the tank. The other crewmen (Michael Pena, Jon Bernthal, Logan Lerman, Shia Labeouf) at first reluctantly, then with mounting spirit, join him. Each takes his last-stand position inside the tank, waiting for the SS, who are now only a couple of hundred yards away.
It’s a classic hero moment, the hour when the ultimate sacrifice is imminent, when ordinary men stand at the threshold of rendering themselves extraordinary.
The director/writer David Ayer gives the critical lines to Shia Laboeuf (who does a fantastic job delivering them) as Boyd “Bible” Swan, the tank’s gunner. Swan speaks quietly, in the steel intimacy of the tank’s interior, to his comrades, each of whom is isolated inside his own skull, awaiting the terminal moments of his life.
There’s a Bible verse I think about sometimes.
Many times. It goes, ‘And I heard the voice of the Lord
saying, Who shall I send, and who will go for us? Then
I said, Here am I. Send me.’
The sacrifice of one’s own life (or happiness or future prospects or whatever) for the good of others is the defining act of the hero.
Have you seen The Wild Bunch? I watch it once a year at least, just to remind myself what great storytelling and filmmaking is all about. The hero speech in that movie (screenplay by Walon Green and Sam Peckinpah) is two words, delivered by Warren Oates as Lyle Gortch.
Here’s the setting:
The surviving members of the outlaw band known as the Wild Bunch (William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Ben Johnson, and Warren Oates) have seen their companion Angel (Jaime Sanchez) captured and tortured by the evil generalissimo Mapache (Emilio Fernandez) and been unable to rescue him because of the overwhelming numbers of Mapache’s soldiers.
The Bunch pass the night in a debauch in the village where Mapache and his troops (and Angel, still in captivity) have laid up. Waking in the morning, William Holden, the leader of the Bunch, pays the poor young mother with whom he has passed the night.
Plainly he is thinking about Angel and how he and his companions have failed to deliver him.
Then something changes in Holden’s face.
Plainly he has come to some kind of resolve.
Note: not a word of dialogue has been spoken so far.
Holden crosses to the room in which Warren Oates and Ben Johnson are squabbling over payment with the woman they’ve spent the night with. Holden appears in the doorway. Ben and Warren look up. Warren sees the expression on Holden’s face. He squints, as if thinking to himself, Is Holden thinking what I think he’s thinking?
One more look convinces Warren.
His own expression hardens into the identical resolve.
That’s the hero speech.
The three outlaws step outside into the sun, where the final member of the Bunch, Ernest Borgnine, sits in the dust with his back against the adobe wall of the house, whittling a stick.
Again without dialogue, the companions’ eyes meet each other. Borgnine barks a curt laugh, plunges his stick point-first into the dust, and rises eagerly to his feet.
The final scene of course is these four taking on Mapache’s hundreds and giving their lives in the process.
I’ve seen, in e-mails and in the Comments section of this blog, these posts referred to as “tips.”
I hate that.
What I hope these posts constitute are the collective tool kit of a writer. Today’s post is one I use in every book or movie I write, as are all the other posts in this series and all others.
It’s a box I check to help myself find my story.
“Do I have a hero’s speech? Have I given my protagonist a moment, even if it’s silent, when he or she gets to define the action they will take and explain the reasons why?”
If I don’t, alarm bells go off in my head.
“Take care of this, Steve. Figure it out and do it.”
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