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Establishing Badassery

So, as I've whinged about recently, I've been taking some time lately to work on a horror/action screenplay instead of finishing the first draft of my post-apocalyptic comedy book.  I'm hoping it's one of those things where I just need to purge it from my system and then I can stay focused on my actual priorities again.

But who am I kidding?  Any story I write, regardless of form, is going to sideline me with its own challenges and foibles.  The thing giving me grief right now is how exactly to establish some level of badassery with my characters.

Y'see, the plot involves an organized crime syndicate, and the story requires that we spend a lot of time with a colorful cast of goons - maybe six or eight of them.  In order for the later parts of the story to work (i.e., when people die), you have to believe that these guys are all a) evil, and b) total badasses.  It's okay if they're archetypes or one-dimensional; they're ultimately going to be more like props than anything else.  The important thing is that I hit those two beats early or else the moments that come later won't have any impact.

This is actually really, really hard to do in a compelling way.  This is one of those challenges that I always talk about when I casually say that story structure is hard. If you are just focused on the story, then you want to open with something spectacular and get into the premise very quickly - like within the first 20% of your story, you should be invested and have some idea of where things are going.  That's not very much time - in a movie, that might only be about twenty minutes.

Now, twenty minutes on its own is plenty of time to establish a group of hardasses.  But I also need to establish some back story for the antagonist and seed some conflict between him and the protagonist.  And, on top of all that, I need to establish the setting and set some boundaries so the players have a good space to work in.  And I need to do this all in a way that's organic, preferably without info-dumps, voiceover, on-screen text, or anything else that would interrupt the flow of the on-screen action.

When you put it that way, it seems impossible.  But I've watched a lot of movies, so I've picked up on a few ways other writers do this.

For example, you could do the Guy Ritchie method.  This is basically a direct cast call, sometimes accompanied by on-screen stamps with the characters' names, in which you briefly see a blurb of each of the major players in their element.  There might be some snappy voiceover to go with it.  The thing is, if you're not Guy Ritchie, this is usually awful.  It's also entirely up to the director and editor to make it work - a screenwriter can't get it to leap off the page the same way.

You could go with the Darkman method, in which you open up with a completely unrelated scene and show your cast of characters working together on some random subplot.  (Ironically, even though I call it the Darkman method, I don't think Darkman is the best example - I love the movie, but you don't get much of a sense of personality from the goons during their opening action sequence.  Mostly you just see who they are and you go, "Oh, I'll recognize those guys when they come back later.")  This method also pulls double-duty as a way to open up the story with something punchy, so you don't have to worry about managing a slow burn.  The drawback is that you've now spent five to ten pages on something that doesn't actually matter to your movie.

My favorite, though, is the Predator method.  That movie's structure as a whole is one of my favorites and I go to it often for inspiration.

Here's how it goes.  You open with your protagonist being given direct instructions that they are obligated to follow (e.g., military orders).  It gets them to the location where they need to be (e.g., jungle).  Then you introduce your supporting badasses via banter (e.g., a helicopter ride to their drop-off zone).  Then you seed hints that the initial conflict might not be the real reason you're watching this movie (e.g., strangely dismembered corpses).  Then you insert an action scene that wraps up the initial arc, and during this scene, you see all your badasses actually being badass (e.g., they attack a small outpost in the jungle and wreck that shit).  Then - and only then - do you finally insert the true conflict (e.g., by the way, there's a killer alien following you).

It sounds cumbersome when you break it out like that because what you're actually doing is building a miniature movie to serve as the first act.  The advantage of this is that you get things moving and start building tension from the get-go, but you don't have to tip your hand right away - you can let the plot breathe and let the tension build.  More importantly, you give your badasses a chance to shine bright and early, so there's no question of their fortitude later when they start dying. (Spoilers.)

Even better - since you've established how badass they are now, you've made your villain that much more terrifying.  A monster who stalks and kills a bunch of unarmed school children might be creepy and gut-wrenching, but when you stop and think about it, it's more upsetting than it is scary.  Now, a monster that stalks and kills the most badass team of professional killers in the world?  That's scary.

The downside to the Predator method is that you have to resign yourself to losing a good chunk of your run-time.  If you look at the clock on Predator, you'll see that the division between that first big action sequence and the beginning of the legitimate plot is right around thirty minutes.  That's a long time to go, particularly if the twist you're working at will shift your movie's tone dramatically.  The little hints that you drop along the way will help to ease that shift, but you still have to trust that your audience will stick with you, and that's a tall order.

Which is why I'm torn on what I want to do with my present screenplay.  Do I go for the Predator method?  Do I maybe do a kind of hybrid with the Darkman method?  Do I ignore both and just make my screenplay 200 pages long like a psycho?  I don't know.  Haven't decided yet.  Just hope I figure it out before I completely run out of time to get back to my novel.