by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)
Despite the fact that many stories pit heroes against non-human forces as their central point of conflict, the vast majority of stories throughout history have been about a hero fighting a single human antagonist. For every San Andreas (man vs. nature) or Jurassic World (man vs. monster), there are 10 films that focus on the struggle between two people – one who wins and another who loses.
[Read the first three Jurassic Park scripts.]
When asked, most people assume the antagonist in the story wants the opposite of whatever the protagonist wants. The problem with this approach is that both characters could potentially achieve their goals at some point in the story without having to battle at all – or even be in the same room. The most powerful stories are about heroes who want something and enemies that want the exact same thing. Only one can walk away with the prize. Here are three types of stories that will force your hero and your antagonist into the same physical space to fight for a single goal.
1. THE CONTEST
Narratives about sports or athletic contests have a long, rich history in film. Structurally, these stories can be easier to tell, because they naturally lead to a final battle in the third act, where both our protagonist and antagonist will collide in a confined space, and only one will emerge the winner. While most of these tales conclude with our protagonist on top (The Karate Kid, Hoosiers, and The Mighty Ducks), it can be just as powerful to see the antagonist as the victor (Rocky, Friday Night Lights, Tin Cup, Million Dollar Baby, Coach Carter). While these stories often do center on sports, there are many other types of contests that match a hero against an antagonist (Pitch Perfect 2, Election, Slumdog Millionaire).
2. THE TREASURE HUNT
In one sense, stories about a treasure hunt are a play on sports contest stories, in that they are a race toward a finish line. Indiana Jones and the Nazis are both racing toward their goal of the lost ark. Robert Langdon and a secret Catholic order are both racing toward the Holy Grail in The Da Vinci Code. Romancing the Stone, Lord of the Rings, The Goonies, and the National Treasure films also revolve around a similar premise.
Sometimes, however, the treasure is a person. In Titanic, the treasure is Rose. In Sixteen Candles, the treasure is Jake Ryan. In Django Unchained, the treasure is Django’s wife. Often, in these stories a major theme emerges — people are not prizes, but beings with their own free will.
3. THE CONTROL
In films about control, protagonists and antagonists battle for control of some one, some place, or some thing. Many times the battle is for control of the protagonist’s freedom. In Star Wars: A New Hope, Luke Skywalker and The Emperor both want to control the fate of the galaxy. In Mad Max: Fury Road, the battle is for Max’s freedom, similar to the battle Andy Dufrane faces in The Shawshank Redemption and Maximus faces in Gladiator. In Cinderella, she must battle against her evil Stepmother for control of her life. In The Dark Knight, Batman and the Joker battle for control of Gotham. In Jaws, Chief Brody and the shark battle for control of the beach.
This structure is also the basis for most horror films, where a protagonist battles against a supernatural force or person for control of a physical space or the character’s life. Think The Shining, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, or Scream.
Whatever your antagonist’s desire, it should be equally as motivated as your protagonist’s. The “bad guy” always has a compelling moral argument in strong stories. We understand why the character is chasing after their desire. In the best stories, we see a little of ourselves in both the protagonist and the antagonist.
John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and the upcoming Secrets of Short Visual Storytelling. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to International Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his blog, welcometothesideshow.org.