I recently heard screenwriter Robin Brown discuss the roles of the protagonist and antagonist in Hollywood movies. The protagonist drives the action from within a flawed world. They are ready for a change and the antagonist is instrumental in forcing that change. The antagonist serves a deeper dramatic function than simply blocking the protagonist’s goal.
The protagonist and antagonist explore the same thematic values, only in opposition. The protagonist must bridge the two ends together. For instance in Batman, the Joker pursues disorder and chaos while Batman pursues order and harmony.
At the end of act 1, often called the first turning point, first culmination or first point of transformation, the protagonist makes an irreversible choice to enter the new world from the flawed one. At the end of act 2, often called the second turning point, second culmination, or second point of transformation, the protagonist reaches their “all is lost” moment and undergoes another transformation or trans substantiation. They face progressive complications and exterior conflict throughout.
During the third act, the protagonist decides to stay in the new world and fight, or revert to the familiarity of the old flawed world to reach a resolution.
Both protagonists and antagonists don’t follow a smooth arc to transformation. They vacillate before making quantum leaps at the turning points when they make major decisions of their courses of action.
The most common themes in Hollywood movies explore are REDEMPTION and SALVATION. They resonate best with global audiences. The key theme strands are TRUTH, LIFE, LOVE and HOPE. Themes are explored differently among various genres as they balance expectation with a deeper truth. The theme is often verbalized by the protagonist and antagonist. Consider how revenge is manifested in a horror film versus romantic comedy.
Most screenwriters are aware of A and B plots. The A plot (main plot) is the superficial action or sequence of events. The B plot is the underlying plot (sub plot) which explores thematic content and the emotional core of your story. High concept stories are heavy on A plot, while low concept, character driven stories are heavy on B plot.