Writing Challenge: Basic Elements

Happy St. Patrick’s Day everyone! I wanted make sure we kicked this challenge off right with a classic script, but with the holiday it seemed only appropriate that I also fit the spirit of the day. There are some great Irish films to pick from, but no matter how much people live for the DCOMM “Luck of the Irish” or the cult classic “Leprechaun”, I just could not bring myself to break them down. So we’ll keep it traditional with what was considered the best St. Patty’s Day viewing: “The Quiet Man”.

When I say “Basic Elements”, I basically want you to look at the broadstroke elements of your script and then, if you want, start looking at the structure. We want to nail down our logline, who our protagonist is, what he/she/they want or need, and then the antagonist and their want or need. Here’s how these things look for “The Quiet Man”.

The Breakdown

Logline: Irish-American boxer Sean Thornton, recovering from the trauma of accidentally killing a man in the ring, leaves his life in America behind to return to his family’s home in Ireland where he meets and falls in love with Mary Kate Danaher. In order to start a new life with Mary Kate, Sean will have to go toe-to-toe with her bully brother, Will, and play by the rules of a new culture.

*This is not the official logline. The ones I ready were long and kind of boring so I tried to streamline it a bit.

Protagonist: Sean Thornton (John Wayne)
Want: To marry Mary Kate (Maureen O’Hara)
Need: To let go of his guilt from the past and be a partner to his wife in a way she needs

Antagonist: Will Danaher (Mary Kate’s brother)
Want: Land and wealth
Need: Be a brother to his sister and less selfish

In the film, Sean goes to Ireland to buy his family home, but also to escape his past. He was a professional boxer who killed a man in a fight and feels immense guilt about it, leaving the career entirely. When he moves to Ireland, he wants the land and home that was once his family’s but that is not his want/goal in the script. He meets Mary Kate and they fall in love, but her brother Will gets in the way. Will tests Sean’s resilience to not use the anger and violence that used to drive his job. Sean is a powerful and strong man but his actions seem that of a coward to Mary Kate, who has a temper of her own and insists on receiving her dowry. Sean doesn’t need the money, but he refuses to accept what the belongings and money mean to Mary Kate, selfishly accepting her to just go with him and his wants. For Mary Kate, she is trading one selfish man for another, and the culture dictates that she can’t get these things for herself.

Three Levels of Antagonists

There are three kinds of antagonists: inner, personal, and extra-personal. All three will be present, not matter how big or small the story.

Inner: Selfish/Stubborn
Personal: Will (negative); Mary Kate (positive)
Extra-Personal: American vs. Irish culture

Sean’s inner antagonist, and this goes for any protagonist, is always the emotional need or connected to it. Sean needs to get over his selfishness and stubborn resolve in order to be a better partner to Mary Kate and also to have the strength against her brother.

The personal antagonist is the one-to-one relationship that you’ll recognize in any movie. It’s usually one or two individuals, and these kinds of antagonists can be separated into either Positive or Negative. Positive antagonists are a better version of our protagonists. They push the protagonists to become better versions of themselves. Mary Kate may seem like a jerk for bringing up her dowry all the time, but the fact is that the belongings and money are hers and society dictates she needs a man to get them for her. Sean needs to get his courage back and Mary Kate pushes him to fight for what’s right more than he wants to. The town priest also acts as a positive antagonist, pushing Sean to move past his grief over killing a man. Positive antagonists may have a want (for Mary Kate it’s the dowry) but not necessarily a need. After everything she fights for, Mary Kate burns the money because she needs to prove to her husband that what she wanted was her reputation, she didn’t need the money. This need comes from the story as it grows however, and not because of a decision in the first act, which is why I didn’t do a break down for her above.

On the flip side, negative antagonists are the worst version of the protagonists. If Sean leaned into his anger and money for selfish reasons, then he would be more like Will. Will also doesn’t really interact with the rest of the town in a positive way. Sean is a fairly introverted person, the audience might have a hard time believing that he could become like Will, but when you really look at their individual traits you’ll see similarities.

Lastly, we have extra-personal antagonists. These are bigger issues and themes, not individuals that the protagonists come up against. For Sean, he doesn’t understand Irish customs or small town life. This lack of knowledge holds him back in how he courts Mary Kate, his dealings with her brother, and how he communicates with everyone in this small town. His unwillingness to adapt throughout the story plays into his inner-antagonism and his arguments with Will and Mary Kate. We see him try to understand this world, but he greatly struggles.

Once you have these elements, you’ll want to go back to them as you’re creating your sequences over the next two weeks. Even as you’re working on them, ask yourself over and over again: what is the hardest thing that could happen to them? What setbacks attack not just your protagonist’s want but their emotional core?

Tomorrow, we’ll start working on the first sequence of the script: Pre-Existing Life. If you have time and think you’ve got today’s exercise down, that’s great! If you want, you can start just looking at the overall structure of your idea and thinking about big setbacks and beats that you want to include.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day and Happy Writing!

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