This is the first in a series of articles exploring storytelling through genres and mixed genres, starting with Thrillers. I have boiled down these genres to their essential elements.
The primary source for these articles comes from the seminars that I’ve taught with Keith Cunningham and on my own for the last fifteen years. Secondary sources include Neill D. Hicks’ fine book, “Writing the Thriller Film: The Terror Within,” as well as the taped lectures of LA screenwriting teacher John Truby.
Chapter One: The Antagonist is the Protagonist
What is the Driving Engine of your thriller?
The Driving Engine — what propels your story forward — in most dramas is based on the back-story wounds and desires of your main character. It’s very different in thrillers.
The driving engine in thrillers is generated by the back-story plans and actions of the antagonist. “The antagonist is the protagonist” is another way of saying that the antagonist is the catalytic character who starts the story in motion. This does not imply that the antagonist is the main character, though there are thrillers where this is the case, like “The Talented Mister Ripley.”
In thrillers, the presence, tone and threat of the antagonist is felt in the first image and the first notes of the soundtract. Consider the opening title sequence in “Seven.” These grainy, jumpy images suggest John Doe’s (Kevin Spacey) preparation for his series of punitive murders. In “Silence of the Lambs,” Clarice Starling (Jodi Foster) is desperately running through the forest as if she is being chased by a demon. In the backstory, Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine) has already been abducting women to fattening them up, like Hansel-in-the-cage, before skinning them and wearing their skins (a reverse rite of passage like the snake shedding its skin, to die and so to grow).
In “North by Northwest,” genteel spy Van Damm (James Mason) has been stealing and selling state secrets when ad-man Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) bumbles across his path and is mistaken for a U.S. Intelligence Agent. The Mechanical Monsters in “The Matrix” are already sucking the energy from babies when Neo (Keanu Reeves) is enlisted by Morpheus as the messiah for the humans who are unaware that they have been colonized by technology.
Is there one antagonist, or an antagonistic network?
Thrillers can have one antagonist, like John Doe in “Seven,” or a network of antagonists, like in “The Matrix.” “The Matrix” utilizes a network of antagonists comprised of Agent Smith, Agent Brown and Agent Jones, their machine masters , and the Judas-character “Cipher” on board the retro cosmic vehicle.
The antagonistic threat becomes more complex when you mix thrillers with other genres like in “The Sixth Sense” (thriller plus love story), “Fargo” (thriller plus black comedy) and “Life of the Others” (political thriller plus melodrama).
And sometimes we never see the antagonist, as in Peter Weir’s “Picnic at Hanging Rock”
Does the evil come from within the world, beneath the world, or from another world?
In Hitchcock’s “Shadow of a Doubt,” the evil comes from within the society. Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotton) returns home to his sister’s family after killing a series of widows and taking their money. In “Silence of the Lambs,” the primary evil comes from beneath the society: Buffalo Bill is a disenfranchised psychopathic Vietnam veteran. The agents in the Matrix reside beneath the society while the machine monsters come from another world, like the extraterrestrial antagonists in the “Alien” films.
To determine where the evil resides in your stories, you can ponder whether it would be possible to have dinner with the antagonist. Living in a fictional world, you could have dinner with Hannibal Lecter, though you might wind up being served for desert. You probably wouldn’t have dinner with John Doe in “Seven,” as he seems to be asocial, and would probably go-off on the waitress if she appears lazy, sexy, or materialistic. And you might have dinner with Dr. Crowe (Bruce Willis) in “The Sixth Sense,” though the conversation might be one-sided.
Next time, we’ll talk about the thriller main character and their relationship to the antagonist, and in the subsequent article, we’ll discuss the Core Triangle of characters that form the through-line in thrillers.© 2011 by Tom Schlesinger
all rights reserved
Links to other posts in this series:
part 1 - The Antagonist is the Protagonist
part 2 – The Main Character’s Weakness