Some Basic Definitions

What follow are some of the important and widely used terms that we will be using throughout this book:

Protagonist, meaning main character, is a word that comes from the Greek words for "first" (protos) and "struggler" or "combatant" (agonistes). So the protagonist is the main struggler in the story.

The word antagonist comes from the Greek words for "against" (anti) and, once more, "struggler" or "combatant" (agonistes). The antagonist, whether human, man-made, or a force of nature such as a mountain, desert, or raging storm, is the force or obstacle with which the protagonist must contend. It is the story of that struggle that provides the plot. In some stories, the main characteristics of the antagonist are virtually the direct opposites of those of the protagonist; in others, the antagonist can seem almost a twin or second self of the protagonist. That is not to say that the most engaging antagonist of all can't be the protagonist's own nature, his or her own arrogance, fear, or unadmitted needs.

It is also important to note that the stronger the antagonist, the stronger the conflict, and the harder the protagonist must struggle to achieve his or her goal. The decision as to who or what should be the antagonist in a film script is always a crucial one; the designation sometimes shifts from one character to another as a writer goes through revisions.

In any drama, the main conflict is the struggle between protagonist and antagonist—again, whether the antagonist is another character, a man-made disaster, a force of nature, or simply an aspect of the protagonist's own character. The more there is at stake, the more dramatic—in every sense of the word— the conflict.

Dramatic action, or "movement of spirit," as Aristotle defines it in the Poetics, is the life force, the heartbeat, of any screenplay.2 Psyche, the word he uses for spirit, meant both "mind" and "soul" to the ancient Greeks—the inner energy that fuels human thoughts and feelings, the underlying force that motivates us.

The catalyst is the incident that calls the protagonist's dramatic action to life. It is sometimes called "the inciting incident," e.g., the little boy rescuing the magical balloon in The Red Balloon, or the breaking of the rope as the hero is about to be hung in Incident at Owl Creek Bridge.

The climax is generally the moment of greatest intensity for the protagonist and a major turning point in his or her dramatic action. Even in a fairly short script, the climax is often the culmination of a series of lesser crises.

Recognition—according to Aristotle, "a change from ignorance to knowl-edge"—usually, though not always, closely precedes or follows the climax3; it is the point at which the protagonist realizes where the dramatic action has taken him or her through the course of the events that have made up the story. In some forms of comedy, where the protagonist does not experience any kind of illumination, recognition is often reserved for a character who is an interested onlooker, or for the audience itself.

Scene is a word with many definitions. We will be using it primarily in the sense of an episode that presents the working out of a single dramatic situation. The scene is the basic building block of any narrative screenplay. Every scene in a short script should serve to forward the action.

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