Explaining the Villain’s Motives

In many bad movies, especially bad James Bond movies, the villain explains to the hero what’s going on. This generally slows the action to a crawl and often means the screenwriter didn’t adequately set up the villain’s motives and drop hints along the way to help us understand what’s going on. By Act III, we should know what’s going on with the villain and simply waiting to see how it all turns out.

Notice at the end of “Star Wars, ” Darth Vader doesn’t launch into a monologue explaining what he’s planning to do? That’s because we already learned earlier that the Death Star can blow up entire planets and that Darth Vader is looking for the rebel base.

“Under Siege” is an interesting example of the villain explaining to the hero what’s going on, but the villain’s also threatening the hero with a gun at the same time. This makes the villain’s explanations secondary to the threat the villain poses to the hero. In comparison, bad movies simply have the villain explain his or her motives while the hero stands around with little risk other than being guarded.

The villain’s motives need to be set up ahead of time and if the villain needs to explain anything, it’s to surprise us with something new. In “Snowpiercer,” a train runs perpetually on tracks around a world frozen by an ice age. The villain explains to the hero what’s going on, but also reveals a secret. The reason the villain recruits children from the poor is to use them as human replacement parts when the train parts break down.

So the worst way to end a story is to have the villain patiently explain everything to the hero while the hero passively stands there. A slightly better way is to have the villain explain everything to the hero while threatening the hero. A much better way is to set up the villain’s motives throughout the story. An even better way is to set up the villains’ motives along the way and then spring a surprise on the hero (and the audience) at the same time.

Remember, movies are visual, not dialogue. Picture a silent movie where dialogue appears as text that the audience has to read. If the villain has to explain his or her motive, imagine replacing the dialogue with blocks of text for the audience to read instead.

The villain’s motives must be clear at the end, but make sure you explain bits and pieces along the way so the audience and the hero can figure out what’s going on without the villain explaining everything.

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