Writing Wednesdays

The Second Act Belongs to the Villain, #2

By Steven Pressfield | 10 Comments

  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. Why? 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…

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The Villain Believes in "Reality"

By Steven Pressfield | 27 Comments

  It seems like a long time ago—pre-Trump, pre-Obama—but I remember vividly when Vice President Dick Cheney declared in the wake of 9/11 that to counter the threat of terrorism the U.S. was now going to have to start “working the dark side.” Cheney articulated this thought with barely-suppressed glee. I remember thinking at the time, “Wow, this guy is the ultimate movie villain,” not just because he was expressing a classic Dr. No/Dr. Evil/Dr. Strangelove sentiment but because his point of view contains more than a modicum of truth. I’ve always wished that Dick Cheney would write a book.…

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The Villain Embodies the Counter-theme

By Steven Pressfield | 9 Comments

   If our hero’s object is to save the world, our villain’s object is to destroy it. Whatever the protagonist wants, the antagonist wants the opposite. But it’s a little more complicated than that. Every story must have a theme. It must be about something. The theme, as Blake Snyder so helpfully declares in Save the Cat!, is the case that the story is making to the reader.   Better to sacrifice oneself (or one’s personal happiness) for the greater good than to live a life of prosperous selfishness.   Or   We are defined by our past and cannot…

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The Villain is Not Always a Person

By Steven Pressfield | 21 Comments

  Or even a creature. Sometimes the villain is entirely inside the characters’ (almost always the protagonist’s) head. The villain can be a fear, an obsession, a desire, a dream, a conception of reality, an idea of what “the truth” really is. The villain in Blade Runner 1978 would seem at first glance to be the replicants, Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) and his team of Leon (Brion James) and Pris (Daryl Hannah), who have escaped off-world and come to Earth sowing destruction. But the real villain is an idea—the conception of creating faux-human slave labor. The replicants are actually the…

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The Villain Drives the Story

By Steven Pressfield | 15 Comments

  I sometimes get asked, “Why does Resistance exist?” It’s a good question. Why did Creation include this monster? For what purpose? Just to screw us all up and make life difficult? (When I say “Resistance,” I mean in story terms “the Villain.”) Isn’t Resistance entirely negative? What possible evolutionary purpose could it serve? Here’s my answer. It might not be anybody else’s answer, but it’s mine.   Resistance gives meaning to life.   Or to put it in narrative terms:   The villain gives meaning to the story.   Think about it. If there were no villain, there’d be…

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"Keep Working"

By Steven Pressfield | 31 Comments

  [I’m gonna interrupt this series on Villains for a quick “Bulletin from the Trenches.”]   When I first came out to Hollywood from New York and I was scuffling around desperately for employment, I wound up doing a couple of small writing jobs for the director Ernie Pintoff. Ernie was a seasoned pro (he had actually won an Oscar for a short subject, titled The Critic). My frantic state was very clear to Ernie and, one day after we had finished work, he drew up and gave me a look that told me he was about to impart some serious…

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The Difference Between Heroes and Villains

By Steven Pressfield | 14 Comments

  We’ve seen in prior posts that villain and hero are often opposite sides of the same coin. Hero believes X; Villain believes Opposite-of-X. Hero seeks Outcome X; Villain seeks Outcome Opposite-of-X. Does this mean the Good Guy and the Bad Guy are equivalent? Is the hero really no “better” than the heavy; he just happens to believe something different? What separates the Good Guy from the Bad Guy (at least some of the time) is the Good Guy is capable of sacrificing himself for the good of others. In fact, the climax of many great stories is exactly that.…

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Start With the Villain

By Steven Pressfield | 11 Comments

  There’s an axiom among screenwriters:   Start at the end.   What they mean is, “Figure out your climax first (Ripley blasts the Alien into outer space; Moby Dick takes Ahab down to the depths), then work backwards to figure out what you need to make this climax work. I’m a big believer in this way of working—and its corollary:   Start with the villain.   Once we’ve got Anton Chighur (Javier Bardem in the movie), we’ve got No Country for Old Men licked. Once we’ve got Hannibal Lecter, we’re halfway home in The Silence of the Lambs. It’s…

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Everybody Loves the Bad Guy

By Steven Pressfield | 4 Comments

  Shakespeare, Milton and Dante all understood villains. They loved villains. Their villains are their greatest creations. The Bible is loaded with spectacular villains, as are all cultural myths from the Mahabharata to the Epic of Gilgamesh to the saga of Siegfried. Great villains eclipse even the heroes who vanquish them. Flash Gordon was a pale shadow alongside Ming the Merciless. Clarice Starling was cool, but who could forget Hannibal Lecter? The villain not only steals Paradise Lost but walks off with the most unforgettable line.   SATAN Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven.   Film directors…

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Nothing New After Act Two

By Steven Pressfield | 10 Comments

  One of story checkmarks you learn writing for the movies is   Every main character should be introduced in Act One.   This precept is probably not as critical for novels, where we have more time for the story to unfold and for new faces to appear. But it still seems to me a good rule. Get everybody onstage early. (Including key props and concepts like the ’66 Ford Thunderbird convertible that Thelma and Louise will have their adventures in and the Tyrell Corporation’s invention of the latest series of replicants.) The last thing we want is for some…

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