The Second Act Belongs to the Villain, #2
I learned this from my friend Randall Wallace (“Braveheart”), who learned it from Stephen Cannell, the maestro of a thousand plotlines from The Rockford Files to Baretta to 21 Jump Street.
What Steve Cannell meant was not that the second act should be packed with scenes of the villain twirling his mustache or plotting in his lair. He meant bring the villain’s effects on the heroes into the foreground and keep them there.
Because the havoc and jeopardy incited by the villain energizes the story and keeps it powering forward.
The villain in The Godfather (at least the personified individual) is Virgil “The Turk” Sollozzo (Al Lettieri). Remember him? He’s the gangster who comes originally to Don Corleone (Marlon Brando) with the proposal that the Corleone family finance his nascent heroin business. Brando turns him down.
This is the inciting incident of The Godfather.
This moment with Sollozzo comes right at the start of Act Two (in other words, exactly where Steve Cannell would want it to come.)
What happens now as this second act unfolds?
- Sollozzo and his allies in the Tattaglia family kill Luca Brasi by garroting him in a hotel bar. (Remember Sollozzo pinning Luca’s hand to the bar with a smashing stab of his knife.)
- Sollozzo’s gunmen attempt to assassinate Brando in the street outside his office at the Genco Olive Oil company.
- Sollozzo kidnaps consigliere Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall).
- When Brando miraculously survives, Sollozzo’s goons and his allies in the NYPD plot to kill him in the hospital. Only Michael’s (Al Pacino) quick thinking on-site prevents his father’s murder.
- Sollozzo’s menace forces the family to “go to the mattresses.”
- Sollozzo sends a package to the Corleones—a dead fish wrapped in Luca Brasi’s bulletproof vest. “Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes.”
Even after Sollozzo is killed by Michael in the Italian restaurant, the villain continues to dominate (and energize) the second act, culminating in Sonny’s (James Caan) Tommy-gun murder on the causeway.
Even in far-off Sicily, we’re not safe. Michael’s wife Apollonia gets blown up in a car by a bomb meant to kill Michael.
See how the second act belongs to the villain?
And how this keeps the story vivid with momentum and emotion?
The first act belongs to the hero. We meet her or him, learn a little about their world and their predicament, and the villain is introduced.
Then comes Act Two. The villain moves to the fore.
The second act should be packed with the villian’s threats, machinations, plots, and attacks. The hero should have to react and react and react again.
I wrote a screenplay once for a producer who called these incursions of the villain “bumps.”
“We need more bumps,” he would tell me. “Gimme a bump here on page 41 and another on page 48. Never let ten pages go by without a bump.”
He was right.
When you and I find ourselves struggling in the middle section of our story, we could do worse than to take a cue from this producer and from Steve Cannell.
Give us some bumps.
The Second Act Belongs to the Villain.
Excellent! The direction I needed.
Thanks for this! It gives me a remedy for a sagging Act Two.
I love this post.
bingo! Thank you.
It took quite a while for me to accept that structuring a work freed creativity (rather than inhibiting it). These posts are a great reminder on the mechanics of structure that drive great stories.
Damn you, damn you, damn you! Now I have to go back and rewrite the whole second portion of the book. I have the bastard there but clearly not in the proportion in which he needs to be.
So the real answer is “Thank you” for making clear to me what I need to make clear to the reader.
I just finished a Mario Puzo binge. Terrific. As I was reading (actually listening), I thought it funny how much I wanted the criminal enterprises of the Corleone family to succeed!
The heroes were barbaric thugs, and yet their honor code was admirable.
This is a very interesting way at viewing ‘middles’. Has helped a great deal. Thank you.
The first Act of Star Wars belonged to the hero(es), Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan. Darth Vader (the villain of course) was introduced.
The second act, The Empire Strikes Back, belongs to Darth Vader. Vader is given plenty of bumps – Showing up as a hallucination (if I have that correct) to Luke on Degoba, freezing Han Solo in carbonite, and revealing that he’s Luke’s father and making a case for Luke to join him on the dark side. And, what do the heroes do? They react, react, react!
Great advice channeled from Stephen Cannell. Now I’m off to find Cannell’s direct musings or guidance about writing and this two-part post is now ensconced in my writer’s toolbox.
What a timely piece now! Thank you so much for such a good post.
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