Where To Start A Screenplay (Part 2)

This entry is part 2 of 2 in the series Start Screenplay:

Why Now?

Note also the timing of the event which is a crucial part of all this.

In Star Trek: Discovery, the Klingons, who are the antagonists in the first season, are ready now to start unifying the 24 houses. This agenda of their ascendant leader, T’Kuvma, will become the drum that beats under the first season. Commander Michael Burnham’s (Sonequa Martin-Green) ego will start the war but only because the Klingons are planning for it already when Burnham encounters them. Of course her subsequent mutinous actions are all hers except for the fact that she’s anticipating the Klingon’s responses, again an agenda set forth first by the antagonist.

Let’s go back to the Churchill example in part 1 of this series. Winston Churchill’s life was a tapestry of amazingly dramatic events, but none more so than when he ascended to power at the start of the Nazi aggression in Europe. The entire movie aims at the finale which is the seminal “We will fight them on the beaches” speech in parliament.

Leading up to that glorious speech are the machinations of his foes who don’t want him to lead the country. Picking that one moment, probably the most crucial one in Churchill’s (and Britain’s) life, determines the story but it’s the antagonists – both Churchill’s political enemies and the Nazis – who determine the specifics of the storyline that is told.

The Nazis are on London’s doorstep and the ineffective Neville Chamberlain regime resigns. Churchill must step into the shoes of fate (to put it in overly-dramatic terms) but his enemies will do anything in their power to stop him. The focus against Churchill was always there but until his antagonists actively schemed against him and the crucial moments on an imminent German invasion, there wasn’t this sharp focus. Even Churchill’s failure’s during World War I  and early World War II weren’t as dramatic as this one moment in time where the story of his administration gets challenged in life and death stakes.

Simply put, without the antagonist(s) there is no story to plan, even a historical one.

Interesting Characters, Concept, or…?

Certainly, characters, concepts, events all provide great impetus to story. But let’s look at a set of incredible characters who define genres, but actually do not drive story.

Sherlock Holmes is probably the most brilliant and extreme of the detectives who solve crime, but consider this passage from the books.

“It all began early in October on a chilly Sunday afternoon during a lull in my friend’s casework. Holmes was deep in the sway of a cocaine-induced stupor as was his habit when no interesting cases occupied his intellect.”

Holmes rejected all but the most challenging cases. So, that prodigious intellect was in neutral until an antagonist worthy of his attention came about. Until and unless that happened, Holmes literally just fiddled.

Another detective, Phillip Marlow, played chess while waiting for a client which meant an antagonist at work. Before that, he did little if nothing. No focus.

Inspector Morse does crossword puzzles and listens to opera until someone murders someone.

Columbo never says the “Well, just one more thing…” until a serious crime is committed.

The movie Wonder is about a boy who can’t cope with life well because of his genetic deformity. Home schooled until fifth grade, the decision is made to mainstream him into school. He is poked fun at because he’s different. He’s an interesting character but until his parents decide to put him in school his story is strictly limited to the safety of his home. The antagonism of his school mates when he goes to school is where his story really begins.

Seabiscuit covers years in setup but until Toby McGuire (jockey), Jeff Bridges (owner), and Chris Cooper (trainer) become a team there is no story to speak of. Each of these characters and the horse itself are flawed and failed. But their failures create a bond once they get together to take an undersized horse to championship realms. The fight is against societal expectations; a consensus that nobody on this team is a winner. They prove everyone wrong and in the process transform a nation suffering through The Great Depression.

All these characters, situations, or concepts are fantastic but they rely on one thing to make them work – the antagonist.

Internal Antagonists

Many internal antagonists are also externalized to provide a way to reflect the internalization. Many times the externalization is tightly focused on the internal flaw as the reason why the external antagonist is acting.

Smashed starring Aaron Paul and Mary Elizabeth Winstead is a drama about addiction. The couple, married and both addicted to drugs and alcohol, struggle when one decides to become sober. The addiction is shown in many, varied ways as hurting their lives. Ultimately, they can no longer communicate when the shared addiction goes away. Their lives unravel because of their internal demons and even though getting sober is a good move, the dysfunction remains in their lives. The antagonist is both internalized and externalized in the form of a marriage built on dysfunction.

The Dark Knight series of films reveals a sick soul for Batman who cannot get beyond the murder of his parents. All the antagonists he faces in the three-film series by Christopher Nolan are reflections of the darkness he lives with; Two Face being the most obvious. Indeed he is little better than these villains himself because he’s basically a vigilante who answers to no one. His training with the League of Shadows feeds his dark soul and even though he ultimately rejects the League, he continues along their path. Once he leaves the League he becomes The Batman. He may fight for justice but he retains the League’s lawlessness. His internal villains are fed by the external ones in Gotham.

Why Now? The Reason For Everything

The point about these examples and this article is there is only really one place to start with a story – with the antagonist.

The antagonist always determines the plotline and is essential to be clear on before you start writing. But there’s also something else an antagonist determines that I rarely see covered  –  the why now?

If you don’t have a clearly defined why now your story will flail around looking for grounding. Certainly, you can say ‘because’ but the strongest stories depend on the why something is happening at this particular time.

A situation usually has reached critical moment for a protagonist to get involved. This is tied into the stakes which creates the ticking clock, etc.. There’s a whole interlocking set of circumstances that you have to deliver on that are determined by first defining the antagonist’s agenda which then leads to how and why your characters respond.

My book Quantum Scriptwriting goes into much more detail about all this and takes each circumstance in detail.

In Conclusion

Why and when something happens is wholly dependent on the antagonist. Want to write about World War II?  We know the antagonists (probably) but what in particular are they doing that will focus your story?  Bosch never made a move without a bad guy doing something, well, bad. City On A Hill had a group of armored car robbers killing four guards in the commission of that crime.  Now the story really begins as the various law and order factions try to bring these crooks to justice. Even 30 Rock”doesn’t really get rolling on the madcap antics of the crew until a decision is made to bring in Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan) and he unleashes the crazy that truly defines the series.

Attention must be made to your antagonist and that’s where every story should start.
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