I’m currently taking a writing, blogging, and coaching sabbatical due to family health issues. For now, I’ll repost selected articles from my Fiction Writing School.
One way to think about plot is as a “push-pull between protagonist and antagonist.” Although the protagonist is the character who frames and, indeed, decides the story’s structure, the role of the antagonist in story structure is equally important.
Last week, I shared an overview of the antagonist’s role in the first five major structural beats within a story. I originally intended it to be one post, but it turned out to be nearly twice as long as usual, so I split it in two. Today, we’ll be rounding out the subject by examining the role of the antagonist in the second half of a story’s structure—the Second Pinch Point through the Resolution.
Once again, it is important to remember the distinction between the antagonistic force that impacts storyform in a general sense and the antagonist who is a specific character representing this force within the story.
1. The antagonistic force will function in fixed (and therefore relatively universal) ways within story structure, in order to evoke the most resonant responses from the protagonist.
2. The antagonist, as a human character, however, will be much more dynamic and even unpredictable within the story. What I’ve shared in this series is focused more on the antagonistic force’s impact upon the structure, and is therefore very general. Within your specific story, the antagonist as a character may function in ways much more nuanced than what is presented here.
The Antagonist’s Role in the Second Half of a Story’s Structure
6. The Role of the Antagonist in the Second Pinch Point
For the protagonist, the Second Pinch Point mirrors the First Pinch Point in emphasizing the stakes and the potential threat of the antagonist. Specifically, it will foreshadow the “Low Moment” of the Third Plot Point to follow. Whatever the antagonist threatens here will be significantly endangered or destroyed later in the Third Plot Point. However, the very threat itself is what prompts the protagonist into the (possibly hubristic) gambit of the False Victory that precedes the Low Moment.
For the antagonist, the Second Pinch Point also mirrors the First Pinch Point in representing a moment of significant aggression (to whatever degree) against the protagonist. Here, the antagonist flexes his muscles, acting from his place of strength after the Midpoint. His strength is real, but because he has not gained any new insights (either practically or thematically), his ability to adapt to the forward momentum of the plot is beginning to stall out. In short, the protagonist is evolving faster than the antagonist—and this will be the deciding factor in the end.
Antagonist’s Role in the Second Pinch Point: The antagonist will initiate the events of the Second Pinch Point based on his advancements at the Midpoint. From his perspective, what he enacts here may seem like the beginning of the endgame. He may push back at the protagonist in the belief that one more shove will be enough to topple his foe and remove the protagonist as an obstacle. However, he will likely overestimate his own position and underestimate the protagonist’s. As a result, he may not even fully realize that the effort he expends here does not have its desired effect. The protagonist may seem to retreat, but unbeknownst to the antagonist, this retreat is only so the protagonist can gather her forces for what the protagonist deems as the beginning of the endgame.
7. The Role of the Antagonist in the Third Plot Point
At the Third Plot Point, everything changes for both characters. The protagonist initiates this major beat with a calculated pushback against the antagonist (or, alternatively, toward the protagonist’s own plot goal). In many ways, the protagonist’s gambit will succeed. She will use what she has learned in the previous beats to overcome the obstacles that once stymied her. She may well strike a significant and damaging blow against the antagonist. But because of her own ongoing and incomplete inner conflict between Lie and Truth, she will also pay a huge price for this attack. For the protagonist, the two sides of the Third Plot Point can be termed False Victory and Low Moment.
For the antagonist, this beat is similarly complicated. On the one hand, the protagonist just hit him where it hurts. Prior to this, the antagonist believed himself in a good position from which to triumph. Now, his weaknesses and blind spots have been exposed. But on the other hand, as we’ve already seen, this was a Pyrrhic victory for the protagonist—meaning the antagonist may still be able to win, if only by default. Both parties will retreat to lick their wounds. From here on, a final confrontation is not only necessary but inevitable. Their next meeting will decide who will reach their ultimate plot goals and who will not.
The Role of the Antagonist in the Third Plot Point: The antagonist will be consolidating his own resources and preparing for a major pushback against the protagonist as well. He may receive the protagonist’s efforts with some sort of ambush, which turns the tables on the protagonist at the last minute. The antagonist will not be defeated here and may even gain some significant ground in the overall conflict. However, for the antagonist too, the Third Plot Point will usually represent a comparatively desperate moment. Time is running out; both parties will recognize that the conflict will soon have to be decided. Although the antagonist may well still hold at least a slight advantage over the protagonist, the playing field will have leveled some since the beginning of the conflict. Even if the antagonist’s goal is within reach, he is still likely to be feeling the tremendous pressure of the stakes.
8. The Role of the Antagonist in the Climax
The Climax properly begins halfway through the Third Act and will ramp up to varying degrees until the Climactic Moment at the end of the entire story. This turning point is what moves the protagonist and antagonist out of their respective reactions to the Third Plot Point and into their final confrontation.
This confrontation may be directly between these two characters and may even be the entire point of the story. One character will defeat the other. This defeat is either the goal of the story or the single remaining obstacle to enabling the goal.
However, the “confrontation” may also be indirect or even incidental. It’s possible the protagonist’s final pursuit of her goal may not require that she directly move against or overcome the antagonist; rather, just in doing whatever she must to triumph in her own goal, she may incidentally defeat the antagonistic force. The latter is particularly likely in stories that focus on inner or relational conflict.
The Antagonist’s Role in the Climax: At this point in the story, it is more important than ever to keep in mind that the antagonist is a character with personal desires and goals of his own. Although his primary goal at this point may indeed be to destroy the protagonist, he must still be pursuing that end for a reason—and now that the conflict has reached its final deciding stroke, that reason will be more important to the antagonist than ever. What he has been working toward throughout the story is about to be decided in a definitive way. Even if the stakes seemed higher for the protagonist throughout most of the story, now the playing field has been leveled. The antagonist has every bit as much at stake as does the protagonist.
9. The Role of the Antagonist in the Climactic Moment
The Climactic Moment ends the Climax—and the plot conflict. It is the moment that decides who “wins” and who “loses.” In a positive story, the winner is almost always the protagonist. However, the concept of “defeating” the antagonistic force should be understood in the context of the obstacles having been removed from between the protagonist and her ultimate plot goal. This is what brings the conflict to an end. (Thus, it is not so much that there is no conflict without an antagonist, but more so that there is no antagonist without the need for conflict.)
In a story in which the predominate aspect of the antagonistic force is found within the protagonist, the external antagonist’s ultimate positioning within the finale will not be as important. For instance, returning to last week’s example of a story about competitors, the protagonist’s victory may be moral than literal. Even if it is a literal victory within the competition, the emphasis will be less on the protagonist’s having overcome at the antagonist’s expense and more on the protagonist’s own inner transformation into strength.
In fact, in some stories the conflict will end with the protagonist and antagonist resolving their differences and perhaps even mutually claiming the plot goal.
The Antagonist’s Role in the Climactic Moment: The Climactic Moment functions similarly for both characters. It is the beat in which the conflict ends. The relationship of both protagonist and antagonist to their plot goals will be definitively decided, via their actions, in some way. There will be no forward progression toward this particular goal any longer.
10. The Role of the Antagonist in the Resolution
The Resolution is the beat after the Climactic Moment. In most stories, it will be given at least a scene, maybe more. In other stories, it is literally nothing more than a beat. It is the closing note in the story, the “fade out.” Functionally, it exists to provide closure to the cause and effect of the entire story and the Climactic Moment in particular. It shows the reactions of the protagonist and antagonist to what just happened.
The Antagonist’s Role in the Resolution: In many stories, the antagonist will not be present for the Resolution. Either he will have been functionally eliminated from the story world (killed off, banished, etc.), or he will have become irrelevant to the protagonist now that he is no longer an obstacle. In other stories, particularly those in which the antagonist is an important relationship character, the Resolution may offer a conciliation between the characters. This may range from a full-on partnership agreement between them to merely a shaking of hands and a nod of respect before they go their separate ways. It is also possible that one party (probably the protagonist if she’s following Positive-Change Arc) may be willing to reconcile but the other is not and simply walks away, effectively banishing himself.
Too often, we synonymize “antagonist” with “bad guy.” From a structural perspective, the antagonist is merely a force opposing the protagonist’s forward progress and therefore prompting the protagonist’s growth. Understood in this way, the role of the antagonist in structure can be strengthened to create a more rounded and convincing story at every beat.