Keep the Heavies in Motion
This is the second of Stephen Cannell’s axioms (see last week’s post for #1) that Randy Wallace taught me.
What Steve meant was not just “Keep the villain active during Act Two,” but “Keep him coming at the hero from as many directions as possible.”
This works even for interior villains, for antagonists that reside only inside our characters’ heads.
Consider one of my all-time faves, David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook.
The villain exists only inside Pat Solitano’s (Bradley Cooper) head. It’s his obsession with getting back together with his estranged wife Nikki.
The inciting incident of the movie is when Bradley meets Tiffany Maxwell (Jennifer Lawrence). In the audience, we know instantly that these two were meant for each other.
What’s keeping them apart?
Bradley’s obsession with Nikki.
That’s the villain.
Steve Cannell would be proud of how David O. Russell (who wrote the film—based on the novel by Matthew Quick—as well as directing it) “kept the heavies in motion.”
Bradley’s obsession with Nikki cross-crosses Act Two like an Oklahoma tornado.
We see Bradley jogging wearing a plastic trash bag to make him sweat, so he can lose weight for Nikki.
Bradley tells Jennifer again and again how he’s going to win Nikki back.
He obsesses with his shrink about getting Nikki back.
He composes a letter to Nikki and gets Jennifer to deliver it.
Even when Bradley starts rehearsing with Jennifer to be her partner in a dance contest, the endeavor (for him) is all about Nikki. He’s trying to prove that he’s a good guy helping Tiffany so that Nikki will see he has changed and not be so spooked by his nuttiness.
Poor Jennifer is whipsawed by this villain that keeps coming at her from every angle, deep deep into Act Three.
And this whipsawing works.
It makes Jennifer react. How she responds reveals her moxie, her toughness, her love for Bradley.
In the audience we are riveted, rooting for Jennifer and Bradley to get together and energized/terrorized every time Bradley’s Nikki-obsession rears its crazy head.
Try this yourself if you’re stuck in Act Two.
Steve Cannell knew what he was talking about.
Keep the heavies in motion.