4 Tips for Writing Antagonists

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As a reader we’ve all encountered an opposing force or an antagonist in our works, something physical which stands in the way of the heroes. Why is it then that it is so hard to get them right? What is it that separates a good antagonist from a bad one? This is something I’ve thought about a lot since I’ve started writing and so here we go. These are bits of advice for writing antagonists.

1) They do not have to be a villain.

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It is common for the antagonist of the story to be the villain and to many the two words mean the same thing, but there is a reason why I am using the term antagonist as opposed to villain. In truth stories are complex and many times we can find ourselves following a protagonist who goes well and beyond anti-hero territory, actually becoming the main threat of the story. Contrasting them are antagonists who are actually quite heroic. These can crop up in any work but are especially common in works where the protagonist is either a villain or anti-hero.

Basically these antagonists are only an antagonist because they are forced to pursue the protagonist, usually if said protagonist is not on the side of the law, and are generally nice people despite this. These types of antagonists are usually quite well written and can serve to enhance a story. Not every antagonist needs to be a villain and if your protagonist is an anti-hero, villain or just on the wrong side of the law then this type of villain can add an extra dimension to the conflict which a typical cackling villain wouldn’t.

2) They must be a challenge to the protagonist.darth-vader-10-most-dangerous-star-wars-villains.jpeg

A good antagonist should provide some kind of challenge to the protagonist, whether it be a physical challenge or a psychological one. The antagonist may be able to kill the protagonist, or otherwise be able to capture them. Or alternatively they could pose as a psychological barrier, which creates the threat. For example, Batman could take out a lot of his rogues gallery swiftly if he fought to kill but since he does not, he has an added challenge of having to talk them down or having to take them in alive. Likewise in Return of the Jedi, is unwilling to kill Darth Vader since Vader is his father. A good antagonist makes the reader wonder if the protagonist will be able to overcome them. Doesn’t matter if it’s a small time crook or an evil king with a powerful magical sword, they must make the reader ask the question: will the protagonist win?

3) A good motive is essential. Why do they do what they do?

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A good villain also needs a good motive, whether they’re the vilest thing on the planet or someone with a bit more sympathy behind them. We’ve all seen the cackling villain who is evil for evil sake and to be honest they’re somewhat boring. Even the most vile villain should have a reason for doing what they do, and more importantly their behaviour, personality and flaws should reflect this motive. The question you need to ask yourself is why are they doing what they’re doing? Does their motive alone explain their actions, or is there something else explaining their more antagonist actions, for example anger issues or a complex of some sort? Simply put, your villain needs to make sense more than anything and be more than just an archetype with no sense of purpose beyond being villainous.

4) They can sometimes be a personification of the real threat.

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Sometimes there is no real antagonist driving the conflict the story, but rather circumstances, and the antagonists are merely something the protagonist encounters during the course of a larger adventure. Stories such as Finding Nemo, feature the vast ocean environment as the main driving force of the conflict, and the individual antagonists are animal personifications of the dangers posed by said environment. The real antagonist isn’t always something you can see, and as a result it may be better to have a series of smaller antagonists which represent dangerous circumstances or a dangerous environment. The antagonists of the story are instead tests for the protagonist, whose overall conflict is with something much larger. One does not necessarily have to write the antagonist in this way, but it is a reminder that sometimes the antagonist doesn’t have to drive the story but rather be a part of it, an obstacle to overcome.

The Seven Basic Plots – A Summary

Basic Plots.jpgThis is a summary of the narrative theory shown by Christopher Booker in his book The Seven Basic Plots. This theory lists the seven types of plots commonly found in fiction. It is useful for figuring out what kind of story it is you are writing, and the best part is that the theory transcends genre and to be honest every single plot on this list can by applied to any genre with enough creativity. So without further ado let’s begin:

1) Overcoming the Monster

The name explains it all. In short the learns of an evil, a “monster” if you will and seeks out to destroy it. This evil may be either a literal monster, like a dragon or other kind of beast, or a more humanoid evil such as a hitman in a thriller. In my interpretation this evil may also take the form of an organisation as well i.e. an army or an evil corporation. T

There are typically three types of monsters. There is the Predator, who goes around looking for victims, the Holdfast, whom guards a treasure or a person and the Avenger, whom is similar to the Holdfast except that when its treasure is stolen it leaps into action and seeks to eliminate those responsible.

These stories have their own structure. First is the call and anticipation stage where the hero becomes aware of the threat and seeks to confront it. Next is the dream stage, is the build up to the confrontation with the monster, which can take the form of the journey to the monster or preparation for the monster’s arrival. The frustration stage is a confrontation against the monster, where we finally see the monster in all its power, with things starting to turn against the hero as the monster seems to large to defeat. This is followed by the nightmare stage, a battle against the monster in which the odds are stacked against the hero. Ultimately the hero comes out on top, and gains a reward in the death of the monster stage, which is usually a treasure of some kind, whether it be literal or metaphorical.

2) Rags to Riches

The Rags to Riches plot is your Cinderella type plot. The protagonist starts off in poor, not too well off state before eventually gaining things such as wealth, power  and often love. After a few bumps along the road the protagonist usually gains a happily ever after involving some of these things, if not all of them.

Like with Overcoming the Monster there is a call where the protagonist is pulled out of their miserable life into the world. There they have an initial success, where they overcome a series of ordeals and gain a few rewards for their trouble though they do not gain the emotional wisdom that comes with them. Then there is the central crisis, where things start to go wrong and the protagonist is driven to despair, usually due to the work of a villain or rival. Once again there is a final ordeal, this time the protagonist shows their growth and overcomes one last ordeal which overcomes their growth, possibly via a confrontation with the villain. Then the protagonist receives their rewards in a fultilment stage, where they get both their rewards and the emotional wisdom to use them wisely.

3) The Quest

This is probably a type of plot associate a lot of people with the fantasy and science fiction genres and shown best in works such as Star Wars and Lord of the Rings. Basically involves a journey, which is usually motivated by a search for a location, an object or piece of information which the protagonist or their group need.

Like most plots on this list the plot is kicked off by a call to adventure, where the protagonist leaves their home. They then begin a journey, which may involves ordeal such as monsters, temptations and a “journey to the underworld” where the protagonist must venture to a dark and dangerous place before they reach their destination. This is followed by an arrival and frustration stage, where they arrive at their destination but find more obstacles in their way. Then a final ordeal occurs where the protagonist must face one last test, which may be a literal test or a confrontation with an antagonist. Finally they reach the goal, where they win a treasure similar to Overcoming the Monster.

4) Voyage and Return

This plot revolves around the protagonist being forced into an unfamiliar environment, another world if you will. This is usually against their will or by accident. This may be either a real world location or literally another world, but basically this other world is usually alien the protagonist and they must adjust to their new surroundings. Usually the protagonist learns and grows as a result of this journey before returning home.

It begins when the protagonist is transported into the other world in a “fall into the other world” stage. This is followed by an initial wonder stage where the protagonist gradually gets used the the new world and usually becomes entranced by it, though not enough for them to feel at home. Then comes a frustration stage where the darker aspects of this world make themselves known and begins to cause problems for the protagonist. Then there is a nightmare stage where these forces becomes a dire threat and the protagonist’s survival is at stake. Then just as these things become too much the protagonist overcomes the obstacles before leaving back home, having learned valuable lessons from their experience.

5) Comedy

Comedy is a tricky plot to define as the word holds so many different meanings amongst the various literary circles. By Booker’s terms, his definition of a comedy plot is a plot revolving around a large cast, a series of miscommunications and a large mesh of relationships. Basically Jane Austen’s books, a lot of romantic comedies and Shakespeare’s comedies fit into this definition. The plot usually starts with the characters gradually becoming broiled in misunderstanding. Gradually this gets worse, possibly being stirred up by an antagonist. Eventually everyone is caught up in a dark tangled mess. Gradually these shadows are dispelled and the villain may either get what’s coming to them or may be redeemed. A rather tricky one to define and probably rather strict in its definition of “comedy” and what constitutes such.

6) Tragedy

Tragedy, by contrast, is a bit easier to define. It revolves around a protagonist who is usually more morally ambiguous than most. They gradually do more and more morally ambiguous things, or simply pursue a tragic dream that is never meant to be. The story usually ends with the protagonist’s tragic demise. Usually the protagonist’s of tragedies have a mean streak about them, but they may just be flawed good guys in bad situations.

The stages mirror those of Overcoming the Monster. It begins with an anticipation stage where protagonist, who is in some way incomplete, begins pursuing some kind of object of desire whether it be love, money or something else. Following this is the dream stage, where the protagonist becomes committed to the goal, usually via some kind of “deal with the devil”or rather do something which they shouldn’t. Things seem to right for them until the frustration stage, where things start to wrong and the repercussions of the protagonist’s actions start to come back to bite them. This cumulates in a nightmare stage, where things start to to go horribly wrong and the various opposing forces begin to close in on the protagonist. Finally is the destruction stage, where the protagonist is in some way destroyed, either left broken or dead in some way. This is usually as a result of some final act, which causes them to finally reach rock bottom and possibly commit suicide or be killed by their enemies.

7) Rebirth

Finally is Rebirth. This is essentially a more positive version of the tragedy, where the protagonist is ultimately redeemed and achieves something resembling a happy ending. The protagonists of this plot usually have redeeming qualities to show that they deserve their happy ending. Like the tragedy the protagonist usually gets caught up in darkness and deal with the threat growing in similar stages to the tragedy, seeming almost non-existent at first before becoming so prominent it can no longer be ignored. However rather than let the darkness triumph the protagonist eventually redeems themselves, negating what would otherwise be a tragic ending.

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As a whole some of these stages may prove more useful than others. In particular I feel Comedy is lacking somewhat, referring to older definitions of the word rather than it’s modern uses. However it is hard to definite what it means to be a comedy, and some confusion was inevitable regardless of how Booker chose to define it. Regardless I hope that this list was useful, and that you will use this when planning your stories. With a bit of thinking any story can fit into these plots so it is definitely worth using them if you can.

 

Five Things I Learned While Writing My First Full Length Screenplay

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I recently finished writing my first full length screenplay, a ninety page monstrosity which I wrote for my Final Major Project/Dissertation for university. It took me most of the academic year to plan and write and it was quite the learning process to say the least. I picked up a few things during my time in writing which may come in useful, so without further ado let’s begin. These are five things I’ve learned over the course of writing my first screenplay:

1) Give yourself plenty of time to plan

This is a bit of a no brainer but it is very tempting to write by the seat of your pants. It is essential to give your idea a lot of thought before you begin, else you may come to the awkward realisation halfway through that your idea isn’t working, or that it doesn’t have a strong market as you first thought. Needless to say this is not a good thing.

I fell behind schedule at one point during the production in order to rewrite my idea completely, keeping only a few core concepts such as its genre and the premise in its simplest form.  This caused problems for my schedule since I had to rewrite most of the script from scratch. Always plan ahead so you have an idea of where you want to go before you start.

2) Write a step outline if possible

This relates to my previous point of planning. A step outline is like a synopsis but more detailed, breaking the film down scene by scene. The purpose is to get a rough idea of how the film will work out on a scene by scene basis. It will also help you recognise any flaws at an early stage. I failed to maintain my step outline once production finished and that created a lot of the problems I had in the middle of production since I failed to give the story more thought as smaller changes made me diverge from the step outline.

3) Watch films similar to the one you are writing. Read works in other mediums if possible.

Basically you should be watching films similar to the one you want to write. It is good to know if your film is original compared to those with similar themes and content. This may also give you ideas if you struggle during the planning or production stages. Reading works from other mediums is also a good idea. Film is a limited genre and thus one may be more likely to encounter an original idea after reading a book, graphic novel etc. Market research is essential to any work, and I found myself watching and reading works similar to my script long into the production stage.

4) Get the first draft out the way

I found it was beneficial to try and write the first draft as quickly as possible. The purpose of writing the first draft is to get the idea on the page. The first draft wasn’t going be a masterpiece. Thus I wrote my first draft at a reasonably swift pace so I could redraft as soon as possible, allowing me to devote my time to the tedious editing process. As a writer the editing stage is far more important to the overall work, therefore one should get the first draft out the way so that one can begin editing the script into something worthy of studio submission.

5) Be prepared to do a lot of editing

Editing is what makes an okay script into something more worthy of someone’s time. I spent a large chunk of the overall production process redrafting my idea until I was finally satisfied. A poorly edited work will be full of plot holes, spelling and grammar errors, as well as inconsistencies within the script format. Therefore it is important that you spend a lot of time editing. If you struggle, it is always beneficial to have a friend or two to look at it and point out problems, but you should be prepared to do a lot of the legwork yourself.

I hope this list has been of use to you all. These are things which I just picked up during the production process, rather than from any particular writing books. They may come in useful, or they may not. Writing is a difficult art, more so when you are writing something full length and hopefully my experiences have been of some use to you all.

Writing for Prose: The Eight Point Arc

The Eight Point Arc is one of many plot structures I have read over the course of my studies, and has its origins in another teach yourself book Write a Novel And Get It Published by Nigel Watts. This one relates to the prose medium and bears a few similarities to the three act structures. For a bit of clarification, the Eight Point Arc is not the Three Act Structure, though there are a number of ways you can reconcile the two which I will eventually go into. In some ways the theory is basic, but is still very functional. Like my article on the three act structure, this is a tutorial rather than a review so sit tight.Eight Point Arc.jpg

The eight point arc, as the name suggests, revolves around eight stages of the narrative. These are as follows: the stasis, trigger, quest, surprise, critical choice, climax, reversal and resolution. These points coincide with a number of common stages within stories, and some of you may notice similarities with other narrative theories since a lot of them do share a lot of common themes.

The Stasis – The name is self explanatory. This is the stage where everything is peaceful, showing the status quo before the start of the main conflict. In books this stasis can last for several chapters or last for less than a page. In the latter case the stasis is usually implied rather than shown, especially in stories which begin in media res.

The Trigger – This is almost identical to the inciting incident which is present in many structures, including almost every variation of the Three Act Structure. In essence this is the event which starts the plot and leads the protagonist into the novel’s conflict. Relating to the stasis, the time at which the trigger occurs can vary and can even start at the first page of the story.

The Quest – This is the main bulk of the story, and lasts for a significant part of the story and generally involves the protagonist pursuing a need. The quest can also evolves throughout the story. Nigel Watts list an example of how a story could evolve from a quest about money, to a quest about love to a quest for survival. This stage is a bit vague but generally the writer should ensure that the quest evolves over the course of the novel as the protagonist’s needs change.

Surprise – The surprise is something which solidifies the conflict and the character development. This can either be a pleasant surprise but it is more likely to be negative. It can be used to make the protagonist commit to the conflict, or alternatively can be used to question their role in the conflict. In relation to the three act structure of the story, I would recommend placing this anywhere between the halfway point and near the end of the second act.

Critical Choice – Eventually the protagonist will face their greatest obstacle. From their they will be forced to make a choice as to where their path will proceed next. This usually leads on from the surprise Stage and leads directly into the climax stage. In general the protagonist is usually forced to make serious choices about where they will proceed next and continuing on their path usually requires them to change their approach. Character development usually comes to a head in this stage.

Climax – The climax is the staple of most stories and the stage is no different here than it is anywhere else. The climax brings the conflict to the forefront, escalating it to its highest point and puts the your characters’ skills and emotional growth to the test. Usually the climax occurs when seem most dire for the characters, and there is usually a sense that it is all or nothing. They have everything to lose but also everything to gain. In order to get the ending they deserve, they must pass this final test.

Reversal – This is a stage within the climax where things begin to turn around for the protagonist. In most stories things usually start to turn around in their favour, but it can also work against them, going from a good state of affairs to bad. Negative reversals are common in horror novels where the protagonist usually dies at the hands of the monster just as they think they’ve almost won. Regardless of which type you go for the reversal should feel natural, a consequence of the previous actions and not come out of nowhere.

Resolution – This stage is a return to an equilibrium after the climax, creating a new status quo for the story. The writer should wrap up any loose plot threads during this stage, and ensure the story has a tight conclusion with a sense of closure, even in stories which end on a cliffhanger. Like the stasis, this stage can last entire chapters or possibly less than a page depending on how long you wish the ending to be.

The eight point arc is strange in that it is very open ended in terms of where the stages actually go in the story, whether they go beginning, halfway or near the end and a lot of it is dependant on the interpretation of the writer. The writer may struggle to write the second act of their novel using this method. Strangely enough, I find the method actually works better for short stories than it does novels since the short word count means the stages usually a few pages apart at most. If your work is novella length or longer I recommend using a variation of the Three Act Structure along with it, since a lot of three act structures greatly enhance the middle of the story. If you wish to read more on the eight point arc, I recommend that you read Nigel Watts’ Write a Novel And Get It Published for yourself as in my opinion it is a staple for any writer who wishes to write prose fiction. Alternatively one can find an article I wrote for the three act structure here. While the article focused on film, many of the concepts still translate and it may be worth a read.

Writing for Film: The Three Act Structure

Trying something a bit different for my writing articles since I only have so many writing books in my library. Hence I will talk about an important concept in writing, the three act structure. The three act structure is one of the most common forms of storytelling. For those who have never heard of it, the three act structure is exactly what it says on the tin. It is a structure for stories, where the story is split into three acts. The first act represents the beginning, the second act the middle, and the third act the end. The three act structure, regardless of variation, is typically used to aid the writer in plotting out the elements of plot in detail. For the purpose of this article I will be looking at the three act structure in relation to scriptwriting for film, though those of you who write prose or another form of medium may find that the lessons translate over to other forms of media.

The three act structure in question is one I picked up in the book Breaking Into Screenwriting, a book by Ray Frensham in the teach yourself series. His three act structure in turn is derived from that of Syd Field. The basics of the theory is that each stage takes up a certain portion of the act. The first act takes up a quarter of the story, the second act half of the story and the third act a quarter again. Syd Field’s three act structure is notable for its detail, with a number of narrative stages outline along the three act structure.
Listed below are these stages. Since Frensham relates the times of each stage to a 120 minute script I will also be using this format. For a script of a different length one can use mathematics to work out how each would fit.Three Act Structure.png
Hook – The hook is the event which grabs your audience’s attention. In a 120 minute script this should ideally be within the first ten minutes. It is important to establish characters, plot and the story’s genre within these first few minutes in addition to having an event which will make them want to keep watching. Some films may have a prologue scene during these first few minutes before getting into the main first act.

The Inciting Incident – The time between the hook and the inciting incident should be spent continuing to establish things such as the characters and setting, and setting up plot points for use later on in the script. Ideally the inciting incident should happen somewhere around the 20 minute mark of the film. As the name implies the story begins with this stage, and the protagonist is usually confronted with a problem which kicks off the rest of the plot. The action should gradually rise until the first turning point.

Turning Point 1 – Also called Pinch Point 1. Turning points occur at the end of the second act, at the thirty minute mark. A turning point pushes the story in a new direction and in the case of the first turning point, it must push the story into its second act by creating new stakes and creating some kind of change in the protagonist’s motivation in some way.

Focus Point 1 – After the beginning of the second act Frensham recommends giving the audience some breathing space, and using the first moment of the second act for reactions or set-ups for later complications. Focus Point 1 occurs somewhere around the 45 minute mark. This is a scene or sequence which tightens up the action, reminds the audience of the conflict and keeps the story going.

Point of No Return/Halfway Point – Following the first focus point the action tightens up. The story should reach a point where obstacles gradually get tougher as they start to tackle the story’s conflict. Halfway through the script the protagonist should reach a midpoint where they either reaffirm their goals, reconsider their quest and generally make a solid decision concerning their goals.

Focus Point 2 – As a result in the changes brought about in the halfway point the protagonist should suffer an increase in stakes and the obstacles brought against them. The second focus point should test the protagonist’s new character development and reinforce the raise in stakes. This should occur around the 75 minute mark.

Turning Point 2 – The protagonist’s development should be gradually tested further. Gradually things should set up the second turning point, which is preceded usually by some kind of failure. The second turning point occurs at the end of act two, at the ninety minute mark and leads directly into the climax and should confront the protagonist with their biggest obstacle in the story. After that Act 3 begins.

Climax – This begins at and lasts for the majority of the third act. The climax should tie up the film’s loose end and build up to a final confrontation between the protagonist and the antagonist, or whatever the final confrontation in the story is intended to be. The climax should be a constant build up of tension all the way up to the end.

Final Climax – The Final Confrontation. Typically occurs in the last five minutes, beginning at the 115 minute mark. This is the one I like to take a lot of leeway with since I like to have a few extra minutes with the ending sometimes. The protagonist should face their final obstacle, whether that be the antagonist or a more external force. The main plot should be fully resolved and any transformation within the protagonist must be fully realised.

In Act 1 and Act 2 the script should be more about setting up the climax and plot points later on in the script. Over the course of the Act 3 the writer should start cashing in on these set-ups, giving the film a sense of continuity between the acts. The tension in the film should constantly build up, never relenting since. Unlike novels and other mediums, the audience can quickly get bored if there is a sudden lag in the tension or if the film’s climax doesn’t live up to the hype.

The three act structure is almost universal and I have seen variations of this structure applied other mediums as well. Concepts such as the hook, the turning points and focus points all translate well to novels and comic book scripts, and the percentage divide of quarter, half, quarter between acts can work well depending on the medium. I hope that whatever you use it for, this is a useful resource that you will use when writing. I would highly recommend picking up Ray Frensham’s Break Into Screenwriting if you wish for more detailed analysis of the three act structure in addition to other aspects of writing a screenplay.