To make your hero succeed, he or she must battle against a villain. Your villain needs to make an appearance in each Act of your screenplay. In Act I, you introduce the villain so the audience knows what the hero’s up against. In Act IIa, the villain needs to threaten the hero so we know what the villain can possibly defeat the hero. In Act IIb, the villain needs to demonstrate his or her power by demonstrating what’s in store for the hero. In Act III, the hero has to defeat the villain.
In “Star Wars,” you can see this basic four-part structure. In Act I, Darth Vader boards Princess Leia’s starship. In Act IIa, Darth Vader blows up Princess Leia’s planet. In Act IIb, Darth Vader kills Obi-wan. In Act III, Darth Vader’s Death Star is threatening to blow up the rebel base and kill Princess Leia in the process.
In “Die Hard,” Act I shows the villain killing the security guard at the front desk and then killing the president of the company when he refuses to open the safe. In Act IIa, the terrorists try to kill the hero. In Act IIb, the terrorists kill a man who knows the hero. In Act III, the terrorists try to kill the hero and his wife.
Even in a movie like “Cocoon,” the threat to the hero constantly appears. In “Cocoon,” the villain is death. In Act I, the hero sees an elderly resident of the nursing home dying as paramedics unsuccessfully try to save him. In Act IIa, the hero’s friend learns that swimming in the pool has cured his cancer. In Act IIb, the hero’s friend’s wife dies, which makes the hero’s own impending death seem imminent. In Act III, the hero takes off in a flying saucer to live forever and cheat death.
By constantly introducing the threat to the hero from the villain, you keep reminding your audience of the danger. If you don’t remind the audience of this danger in each Act, then the threat gets easily forgotten and the story suffers as a result. Without a threat to the hero, there’s no sense of danger and thus no suspense. No suspense typically means a boring story where scenes start to drag.
The next time you watch a bad movie, ask yourself if the scenes are dragging because the movie lost focus on the threat to the hero from the villain. In “Pleasantville,” the hero is trapped in a 1950s sitcom world. That situation gets dull because there’s no sense of danger to the hero and no deadline forcing the hero to act. In comparison, “Back to the Future” put a deadline and danger in one situation by forcing the hero to get his parents to kiss so they’ll marry later or else he’ll cease to exist. Because “Back to the Future” constantly poses danger to the hero, the hero is forced to keep taking action and overcoming obstacles. In “Pleasantville,” the hero isn’t forced to act and faces no real danger from any villain, so the story tends to drag into boredom.
Threatening your hero creates suspense. Don’t just threaten your hero physically but emotionally as well. Physical threats create great visuals, but emotional threats draw us in and makes the hero’s victory over the villain much more enjoyable.
Keep threatening your hero. That will make your screenplay interesting and exciting.