“Education consists mainly of what we have unlearned.” — Mark Twain
Here’s something I picked up when I was listening to a few interviews about a screenwriting book called, Dan O’Bannon’s Guide to Screenplay Structure. Okay, okay… so I technically didn’t read the book but I was curious enough to look into it. And guess what? The curiosity paid off when co-writer, Matt Lohr, dropped a few teases from the book.
Please note I’m not truly regurgitating the information here. Most of this, is me filling in the blanks. If what is in the actual book different from what is said here, it’s just me misinterpreting the clues.
If you’re also a novice screenwriter, this might be a good purchase. The book supposedly has an overview of the other screenwriting gurus before stepping into Dan O’Bannon’s way. And if you don’t know who Dan O’Bannon is and why you should consider his opinions, here’s a sampler of his output: Alien, The Return of the Living Dead, Total Recall, Dark Star, Screamers, Lifeforce and some other B-horror goodies.
So let’s jump to it.
If you ever had problems with a main character who was lazy and inactive until they had a more colorful bad guy throwing obstacles after obstacles at them… then maybe it’s time to unlearn the terms “protagonist” and “antagonist” and opt for something different. Instead, think of them as the positive antagonist and the negative antagonist.
Thinking in these terms, makes it feel like the two opposing forces are now actively gunning after each other. Like two chess grandmasters trying to outwit each other at every move… actively reacting and responding to the other’s actions.
Raiders of the Lost Ark is probably the perfect example to use (perhaps too perfect). Here we have the positive antagonist and negative antagonist in the form of Indiana Jones and René Belloq. They’re rival archaeologists with contrasting beliefs and methods and they both have the same goal — the search for the Ark of the Covenant. Now this doesn’t mean they have to be in the same occupation but it’s a good example if they were.
Alien is another you could look into for a learning experience. Here you have the crew of Nostromo pitted against the Alien. The goal in this movie is more primal since it’s basically the survival of the fittest.
Dan O’Bannon also employed a concept called hedonic adaptation (or hedonic treadmill) when it came time to map out how these two antagonists would interact. It relates directly to the dynamics of how to gradually build toward a satisfying climax that doesn’t make your viewer go, “That’s it? All this for THAT?!” I’m just saying now that it’s going to be a lot of guess work and reading up on the Wikipedia entry. Since it’s mainly a psychology concept, it may take a bit to connect the dots.
For now, enjoy the two antagonists.