The Antagonist Beats of a Story
When we talk about the beats of a story, we're referring to the rise and fall of action that pulses through a story and propels the reader forward. At certain points, the action progresses in a pattern that is identifiable, typically falling into one of the many story structure models out there.
We might give the core beat points names like the inciting incident, the midpoint, or the all-is-lost moment. But we connect these beat points to the protagonist of the story.
It's the protagonist that the reader wants to see win, and in many cases, it's through the protagonist that the reader experiences the story. So, it only makes sense that the story structure is closely connected to the protagonist. However, the antagonist plays a significant role in the way a story plays out too.
The Role of the Antagonist
Just in case you're not 100% familiar with the terminology, the protagonist of the story is the main character, making decisions that drive the story forward. But don't be quick to think that they're the point-of-view character or the narrator. In Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's classic detective series, Sherlock Holmes is the protagonist, but the narrator (or point-of-view character) is Watson.
What really defines Sherlock Holmes as the protagonist is the fact that he has a goal that he is striving for, propelling the reader along the journey. Watson is just along for the ride. But every story has to have conflict in it somewhere, and the best way to provide conflict is to have something standing in the way of the protagonist achieving their goals.
The antagonist is the character, societal construct, idea, or internal philosophy that is standing in the way of the protagonist achieving their goals. In those classic Sherlock Holmes stories, the antagonist is often the criminal that Sherlock was trying to catch. But the antagonist doesn't need to be a character, and when they are , they don't need to be a bad guy.
In man-vs-nature stories, the antagonist is often Mother Nature, throwing a hurricane or a tsunami at the characters. In The Martian by Andy Weir, the antagonist is the unforgiving environment of Mars.
But when we look at movies like The Fugitive, Dr. Richard Kimble (played by Harrison Ford) is the protagonist with the goal of finding out who killed his wife and set him up. However, the antagonist is the US marshal (played by Tommy Lee Jones) tasked with recapturing Kimble. He's not a bad guy…just someone who is getting in the way of the protagonist achieving their goals. And you can have more than one antagonist in a story. The secondary antagonist is the killer of Kimble's wife. Both antagonists are hindering the protagonist's effort in achieving his goals, but in different ways.
The antagonist could also be society, like Big Brother in George Orwell's 1984. Or the antagonist could be the self-sabotage nature that is often used within romance novels.
It is important to understand the nature of the antagonist for your story. With that insight into exactly how the antagonist is getting in the way of the protagonist achieving their goals, you can build on how the antagonist influences the overall plot and the way a story beats.
The Antagonist Beats
The Inciting Event
Early in a story, the inciting event starts the protagonist off on their journey, kicking the main story into gear. While that inciting event is a kick-start for the protagonist, it is also directly connected to the antagonist.
It might have been an event caused by the antagonist (like a dead body in a murder mystery). Or it could be an event that introduces the antagonist (like the reading of a will, and someone has now missed out in a big way).
The denial that follows directly after the inciting event, where the protagonist clings to status quo, will also be a key moment for the antagonist too, as we start to define what it is that the protagonist wants and how the antagonist might thwart them at every turn.
The Pinch Points
In Story Engineering, Larry Brooks introduced the concept of pinch points. These are moments where the reader gets to see the true nature of the antagonist without the filter of the protagonist.
That concept can be a little hard to get your head around, particularly if you are writing a first-person story from the perspective of the protagonist, but these are moments where we see what impact the antagonist has on the world.
In a serial killer story, the first pinch point might be when another body shows up. In that romance, this might be the disastrous first date where the heroine's insecurities come to the foreground, and she decides that it was all a mistake after discovering that the hero is a prince. Or in a man-vs-nature story, this could be when an earthquake hits, destroying the only bridge out of the township.
The shorter that you can make the pinch points (say, getting it down to one sentence), the more impactful they become. (And the less chance that the reader sees these moments through the protagonist's eyes.)
Within a long-form story (like a novel or a feature-length film), there will be at least two pinch points. Both pinch points will occur during the second act of the story (if you were to break down the story into three acts), located on either side of the midpoint. And the second pinch point needs to be worse than the first one.
The All-is-Lost Moment
Both pinch points within a story have a ripple effect that results in the protagonist taking action to avoid whatever obstacle that the antagonist has put in the protagonist's way. The reaction to the first pinch point is likely to be reactionary, but eventually leads to the protagonist taking a proactive stance. However, the second pinch point directly leads to the all-is-lost moment in the story.
For those not familiar with the term, the all-is-lost moment is the point in the story where everything seems to be going well for the protagonist, but something fundamental happens (defined by the second pinch point) that shakes the ground out from under the protagonist's feet and the protagonist spirals into despair, believing they will fail. But it's the protagonist's determination to not let the antagonist get the better of them that finally pulls them out of the darkness and launches the story into the final act.
(Are you starting to see how the antagonist is just as important for the story structure as the protagonist?)
Final Act — False Castle & Final Takedown
If you subscribe to the Save the Cat! story structure model, there are five beat points that all happen in quick succession in the final act:
• Gathering the Team
• Executing the Plan
• High Tower Surprise
• Dig Deep Down
• Execution of the New Plan
These beats work well in an action/adventure story, but they are present in other stories too, just not as obvious. But one beat that is present in almost every story that I've ever read or seen in the movies is the High Tower Surprise—or what I call the False Castle.
In that romance story, this is the moment when the hero runs through the airport, determined to stop the heroine from getting on the plane—only to show up at the wrong gate, likely getting there after the plane has already left.
In the thriller novel, this will be when the protagonist has found the hideout of the bad guy, only to discover that the bad guy has already flown the coop and has left an explosive surprise in his wake.
In both cases, the false castle is a moment when there is a shift in the antagonist's actions, making it look like the antagonist has won. But there are still thirty pages left to read in the book, so there is plenty of time for the protagonist to turn it all around.
And this eventually leads to the final takedown, or what Blake Snyder called Execution of the New Plan. This is the final climax of your story where the protagonist achieves their goals against all odds. And the antagonist is right there, in that moment, staring the protagonist in the eyes.
The antagonist is just as important as the protagonist.
From start to finish, the antagonist is just as present in a story as the protagonist is. The difference is the protagonist is in the foreground.
As long as you remember that the antagonistic force has as much impact on the core beats of the story, with beats of its own, known as the pinch points, then the conflict that is created by the antagonist/protagonist dynamic will come to life on the page.
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Kiwi Judy L. Mohr is a writer, developmental editor, and writing coach with Black Wolf Editorial Services, and a science nerd with a keen interest in internet technologies and social media security. Her knowledge ranges from highly efficient ways to hide the bodies through to how to improve your SEO rankings for your websites. When she isn't writing, editing, or doing something for writing within the local community, she can be found plotting her next foray into mischief and scouting for locations to hide the bodies. (Shh... Don't tell anyone.) You can follow her crazy adventures on her blog (judylmohr.com) or on Instagram (@JudyLMohr) or Twitter (@JudyLMohr).