Recently, a student started a very complex script. It had flashbacks, flash forwards, non-linear narrative framing, illusion, delusion and just about every other non-standard story device you can imagine.
When I read his synopsis I cautioned him the story probably wouldn't work as envisioned. For one thing, it was horribly complicated - I've been doing this for 20+ years and I wouldn't attempt it. And, although the student was a good writer in other ways, this was his first script.
He started it several times, getting feedback about the things that worked (not much) and what didn't (a lot) and he worked to improve it. And although it has gotten a bit better and more digestible it still doesn't work.
But not for the reasons I thought although those are still there.
Without getting into too much detail his story involved a man who was destined to be destroyed and in the process the world. That seems like terribly important stakes, right? The entire fate of the world. And it is. The problem is that the man was fighting against something he couldn't see. And by extension, something we couldn't see,
This is not a drama like "A Serious Man" where his actions caused a problem. This was big picture, big world stuff - a very large, supernatural agency that was out to get this guy. It had big scope and big villains...
But we never saw them.
If you examine a movie like "The Davinci Code" you can see where showing a group of highly-placed cardinals and Vatican administrators is just not enough. You need an on-the-ground villain to make the movie work. Without the Albino played by Paul Bettany, the story might have worked but certainly not as effectively as it did.
They had to put a face on the Devil. They did. My student has not - yet. But hopefully he will when I bring this up in class this week.
Do I Actually Have to Show The Villain?
I was misdirected by the enormous stakes in his script. Such much so that I missed some story fundamentals. You need a villain that you can see, smell, touch. Audiences need that anchor element to process the story.
Do you actually have to show said villain? I mean put that villain on stage? Although the true answer is "it depends" the real answer is yes. People need the physical villain to feel the same emotions you hope you're illuminating through your character's eyes. And that villain has to be a 'flesh and blood' manifestation. None of this cosmic cloud thingie that you see in some comic book movies or a mysterious boss behind the scenes.
Darth Vader was the on-the-ground bad guy - not the Dark Side. Buffalo Bill was killing girls, not Hannibal Lector who is trapped in a prison cell. What would "The Untouchables" be without Frank Nitti who gleefully blew up taverns and murdered accountants for his boss, Al Capone?
The stakes were/are there in my student's script but the anchor villain was not. So we're watching this character react to...nothing. Things happen but it's not clear what is driving it. We don't have a person to lock on to, someone to empathetically fight against. We can't see the villain, we can only watch the results which really doesn't work.
Movies like "San Andreas" and "The Happening" don't work as well as other films like "No Country For Old Men" and "Star Trek: Into Darkness" where there's a quantifiable villain.
There's an old saying "Kiss The Baby, Kick The Dog." Meaning, the hero must be established by "kissing the baby" and the villain by "kicking the dog." The Albino is relentless and merciless in "The Davinci Code." Defining the villain, putting a face on evil is essential to all scripts. We have to be polarized toward the hero and against the villain.
Even if that villain is interior - like Paul Newman's alcoholism in "The Verdict" you still need to draw the face of evil. Without James Mason's Concannon character Newman's struggling ambulance chaser would have just seemed pathetic. Mason's superciliously evil character challenged Newman's character and made him raise his game.
The villain defines the hero. If we don't like the hero much (as in the case of "The Verdict") we have to hate the villain more.
Iron Man may be a smart-ass, seemingly heartless, cold fish but the people he's saving us from are worse.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle understood that without Moriarty (and the mysterious Irene Adler) Holmes would always just come out on top. Moriarty made Holmes better than good - he made him great. There's a similar connection in "Luther's" Alica Morgan, a psychopathic redhaired mayhem machine.
The villain, the physical manifestation of such, forms the crucible of our hero's sometimes Sisyphean tasks. What would Jax Teller have been without his murderous uncle? In fact, that villain-hero relationship has been long understood and was based on a play written in the 1600's by William Shakespeare - "Hamlet." Heard of it?
How about these villains:
- Barzini from "The Godfather"
- The Terminator from "Terminator"
- Lord Voldemort from "Harry Potter"
- Maleficent from "Sleeping Beauty"
- Nurse Rachet from "One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest"
- Hilly Hollbrok from "The Help"
- Frank Booth from "Blue Velvet"
- The shark from "Jaws"
These villains not only defined the characters they defined the story itself.
Villains are essential for many, many reason. Without them, the hero's journey is limp and lackluster. Without the crucible of this force the hero doesn't compel and engage. But without the villain the story itself has no bones. A villain's plan is in operation before the hero becomes aware. In that sense, the villain, not the hero defines the story and how the hero will move inside it. That's why it's important to clearly define that relationship.
Elliot Ness only comes to Chicago to stop Al Capone when Capone's empire becomes infiltrated in the police force and social fabric of the city/. Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi only leave the planet to fight for The Resistance when Darth Vader goes after Princess Leia to get the plans to the Death Star hich will soon come online to destroy the Universe. Hamlet becomes focused on one thing - avenging his father's death by his uncle's hand which defines the entire scope of the story. On an on, it can be showed that the villain focuses the main character and also defines the story itself.
I've know and taught this for a long time but even I forget it as fundamental as it is.
If your script is having issues, look to your villain. Put a face on that devil and it will help in many. many ways.