The Use of Opposition in MICHAEL CLAYTON

I first came across the technique of using an ‘Hierarchy of Opponents’ in a Screenwriting class given by *John Truby in London, and have used it ever since as a means of challenging the levels of conflict and Internal/External Opposition in my crime fiction.

It works something like this: 

  • Create an Hierarchy of opponents, which are linked together by alliances
  • Hide this Hierarchy from the hero and usually the reader – except for flashes which indicate just how much danger the hero is getting into.
  • Hide the TRUE Agenda of each opponent
  • Have the hero go up against a main opponent early in the story
  • As the conflict escalates, allow the hero to discover that there is a secret, STRONGER hidden opposition which then attacks him.

If you link this to a sequence of Reveals in the crime, this should help to increase both the personal stakes for the protagonist AND the plot. No sagging middles here, thank you.

Example – The use of Opposition in the excellent crime movie Michael Clayton.

clayton

Although it could be argued that, in many ways, the antagonists for the first half of the movie are Micheal and Arthur, the story still builds around the use of Hidden, Stronger opposition.

Here are a few I have come up with. I have not added the moral dilemma, social drama aspects since these are conceptual but they are there for the audience of course.

Hierarchy of Opponents

Their True Agenda which is revealed as the pressure grows

Himself

His own self-disgust at having taken the bribe of 80K and a 3 year contract from his boss to forget that Arthur was killed and suppress any evidence.

He knows that Arthur was murdered. He found the evidence in the champagne glasses, the farmer girl Annie witness, and the report Arthur had printed up.

He knows that he can convince Karen to believe that SHE can buy him off because he is capable of it. Especially for 10 million.

‘I sold out Arthur for eighty grand and a three-year contract and you’re gonna kill me?’ 

For me, Michael becomes his own most powerful hidden opponent, since by going to the Police, he has almost certainly lost his job re the non disclosure contract he signed as part of the 3 yr deal. No job. No certainty as to what he will be doing next.

The head lawyer at the U/North Firm – Karen, played by Tilda Swinton

Karen knows that they are guilty and so is her boss, and has to cover up their joint culpability. And her own terrifying inadequate weakness and insecurity.

To do that, she has to remove the evidence = the audience knows that her henchmen followed Arthur and killed him, and are now following Michael and blow up his car.

Michael has no idea that he is a target, even when he starts to investigate Arthur’s murder.

THIS is one hidden, powerful opponent.

His boss at the law firm, Marty, played by Sydney Pollack

He needs to keep his biggest 3Billion dollar class action suit client. To do that he pays Michael off with the money he needs and a 3 yr contract.

Arthur – the Manic Depressive lawyer who is having a breakdown since it stopped taking the medication

Arthur has discovered that they represent is guilty and cannot deal with it.

He has built up a report with one of the key witnesses Annie and believes that he loves her. Of course he also believes that he is ‘Shiva the God of Death.’

Arthur may be Micheal’s friend, but he is going to bring him down and he cannot see the depth of that at the beginning – it will build.

The fixer, Zabel, who wants his money back on the restaurant

Just doing his job. His boss wants the money. Zabel is powerful enough for Michael to be afraid of him. And he wants to protect his brother Timmy. Possible physical threat.

His brother, Timmy, who has cost him his restaurant and his get-out money, which will drive him to take the bribe from his boss.

Family conflict. His closest social system.

Linked to his failure as a husband, as a father to Henry, as a brother to his cop brother, Gene, and as a son to his sick father.

The family are also the symbol of how far he has come. Humble beginnings to a public lawyer to private jets and the contacts needed to become a janitor lawyer in a 600 lawyer firm.

You can use the same technique to develop a series of revelations and surprises. It works! Have fun.

http://www.truby.com/

Character Arc

Jake Sully and his avatar - ready for his character arc

Jake Sully and his Avatar – all ready for his character arc – Image Copyright 20thCenturyFox

Transformational CHARACTER ARC

The Mystery Man on Film and Joshua James have been engaged in a fascinating dialogue on the concept of ‘Transformational Character Arc’ as opposed to ‘Emotional Connection’ – that unique aspect of story telling which we, as readers and viewing audiences, find so compelling and compulsive, but which may not, necessarily, involve a deep, visible, character arc.

There are a huge number of articles online about to create character arc, including excellent notes from my pal Julie Cohen, but for me, some of my light bulb moments have come from studying screenwriting, where character arc is seen as a fundamental component of any screenplay.

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