Howdy, new people! Let’s give this A-Z Challenge a shot, shall we? I try not to blog unless I’ve actually got something to say, so I don’t update all that often… normally. But I’m going to do this daily thing if it kills me.
My philosophy, and also the basis for most of my posts, is that the best way to understand the rules and conventions of writing is to see them in action, to analyze stories and figure out what makes them work and why. So to kick things off, let’s look at the different ways you can reveal the identity of your antagonist, and at The Rocketeer, which conveniently features all three.
When you talk about imparting information in a story, there are actually two groups that need to get clued in: the audience and the protagonists. So, we have three potential combinations for how we start:
- Established Villain: Both the audience and the characters know the bad guy
- Dramatic Irony: The audience knows who the bad guy is, but the characters don’t
- Big Reveal: Neither the audience nor the characters know the bad guy
(There is a fourth combo, where the characters know something the audience doesn’t, but that one doesn’t often apply to the identity of the antagonist. And it would kind of ruin my thesis here, so shh.)
The Feds in The Rocketeer know from the outset that the rocket thief is working for gangster Eddie Valentine, and as we learn around the second act break, they also know that Valentine has been hired by an unidentified Nazi spy. In general, you see this one mostly in retellings where the audience is already familiar with the story, or in series and serials where characters reappear frequently.
Benefits: There’s not a lot of mucking about with setup. Nazis frequently get used in this capacity (though not in The Rocketeer, funnily enough) for exactly that reason. You don’t need to spend a lot of time establishing who they are, what they want, or just how nasty they can be. Both the audience and the heroes say, “Oh shit, Nazis!” and we can get on with things.
Drawbacks: Our current storytelling culture tends to favor novelty, originality, and surprise, and the identity of the bad guy is a frequent source of that mystery. As such, you don’t see this one much anymore.
Our first introduction to Neville Sinclair is when he’s chewing out Valentine for fucking up the robbery. Though we don’t yet know why he wants the rocket, there’s no question that he’s up to no good. Tends to be common in kids’ movies where the “sides” are clearly delineated.
Benefits: Easy source of tension. The audience is on edge from the moment Sinclair sets his sights on Jenny, although she doesn’t realize the danger she’s in until much later. If you didn’t suspect Sinclair from the start, the only emotional investment we’d have in his seduction of Jenny is pity for Cliff that he’s going to get dumped.
Drawbacks: Be careful to keep track of who knows what, or of treating something as a reveal when the audience already knows. It’s also easy to fall prey to accusations, fair or not, that a character is carrying the Idiot Ball. After all, we may know a character is in a horror movie, but they don’t.
Oh shit, Nazis! We actually get the reveal in two consecutive scenes demonstrating the two different flavors: Jenny stumbles upon information that solves the mystery for both her and the audience, while Cliff puts the pieces together for himself when he’s told about the Hollywood spy, and then explains his conclusions to the group.
Benefits: The aforementioned suspense and surprise! We all live under the shadow of the spoiler now, so it’s rare to find a story these days that doesn’t have a reveal of some sort. Throwing this sort of curveball at the characters can also force them to reevaluate and change tactics, as when the reveal to Valentine prompts him to betray Sinclair. (As a side note, I always thought that development was kind of cheesy, but rather awesomely, it’s Truth in Television: prominent gangsters worked with the government during WWII to aid in the war effort.)
Drawbacks: Setting up a good reveal is a tricky balancing act: too much information and the audience will figure it out early, but too little and it feels like an ass pull. Also, a lot of times you end up with a reveal for the sake of the reveal, which is something I’ll discuss later this month.
As demonstrated here, the different ways that the antagonist’s identity can be revealed aren’t necessarily better or worse than each other; they just do different things. Which one is best for your story depends on what you’re trying to accomplish.