YOU WILL NEVER FIND A BETTER WAY TO POWER THROUGH THE TRICKY SECOND ACT OF YOUR STORY
A LESSON FROM THE COBRA KAI VILLAINS
In my previous life as a screenwriting lecturer, I would often tell my students that the second act of any screenplay is where writers go to die. The second act of a story is the designated graveyard for struggling writers. Writers have no problem coming up with a smashingly good idea. No issue with devising strong inciting incidents that disrupt the world of the hero. But as the story progresses through the second act, the energy of the narrative is likely to diminish, the light fades, and eventually, the story engine sputters and comes to a halt.
Welcome to the second act.
Here’s a way to power through via a lesson learned from one of my favorite series based on a classic movie called …
THE KARATE KID
The Karate Kid was an iconic movie for many of my generation. I was sucked into this coming-of-age story and wished I had teachers like Miyagi who taught Karate with off-beat methods like fence painting. The movie left me on an emotional high. It was a feel-good well-structured commercial movie that brought the characters on a journey and ended on a satisfying, triumphant note. I thought the tale of the Karate Kid had ended for good.
But really, is any good story ever done being told?
Years later, three writers (Josh Heald, Jon Hurwitz, and Hayden Schlossberg) began to stake out fresh story territory by invoking the magical question that all storytellers ask when they wish to trigger their muse.
What if the Karate Kid grew up?
What if the boy who was defeated by the Karate Kid grew up into a dysfunctional adult?
What if their lives grew apart but collided years later, re-opening old wounds, causing the sting of all those years of enmity to be felt with even more intensity?
What if Karate once again, became a source of conflict between these characters?
And thus, was born….
COBRA KAI — THE SERIES
Cobra Kai is an American martial arts comedy-drama television series and a sequel to the original The Karate Kid films by Robert Mark Kamen. The series stars Ralph Macchio and William Zabka, who reprise their roles as Daniel LaRusso and Johnny Lawrence from the 1984 film The Karate Kid and its sequels, The Karate Kid Part II (1986) and The Karate Kid Part III (1989).
While the original movie focused on Daniel LaRusso as the hero, the writers for the television series did a genius move by turning the hero spotlight on Johnny Lawrence instead.
Thirty-four years after being defeated by Daniel LaRusso in the 1984 All-Valley Karate Tournament, Johnny Lawrence, now in his 50s, works as a part-time handyman and lives in an apartment in Reseda, Los Angeles.
The years have not been gentle on him.
He suffers from depression, and alcoholism after being traumatized by his former teacher, John Kreese in The Karate Kid Part II (1986). He has an estranged son named Robby from a previous relationship, whom he has abandoned.
He’s a total loser, someone whom you would pity, and in short supply of hero material. Until one day, he uses Karate to save his new teenage neighbor, Miguel, from a group of bullies. Then you realize that goodness still flickers inside his heart. It’s a weak flame but it stubbornly persists. It is all you need to feel the stirring of hope for this character. When Johnny decides to reopen the Cobra Kai karate dojo, so he can train Miguel, you know that it is more than just training a kid in the art of self-defense. For Johnny, it is a bid to reclaim his past. A chance to seek redemption.
We are with him now as an audience.
But in setting up the dojo, he reawakens his rivalry with Daniel LaRusso, the man who defeated Johnny all those years ago. A defeat that Johnny has been trying to live down for so many years. Daniel fears that Cobra Kai will lead the youths down the wrong path and instill a deviant philosophy of Karate.
And thus the writers have skillfully brought back the conflict between Daniel and Johnny, except now the hero is Johnny and the villain, strangely enough, turns out to be Daniel, the former hero of the original The Karate Kid.
What will happen? How will it end?
Season one answered those questions and set me up for Season 2.
By then, I was already a fan of the series. After I finished the second season, I waited for the third and the fourth. And as of today, I have finished the fifth season of Cobra Kai. And am queuing in line to watch what I would imagine as the final season of Cobra Kai.
What kept me watching? Season after season?
The clue lies in the –
Villains In Cobra Kai
Depending on how you look at it, season one either had Johnny as the villain or Daniel as the “bad” guy. Or vice versa. Johnny is impetuous. His philosophy is always to fight first, and apologize later. He is led by his guts and his libido. Anything resembling the voice of reason goes to his arch-enemy, Daniel Larusson. Daniel thinks ahead. He’s measured in his approach to life and Karate and focused on the self-defense aspects of Karate. It was refreshing to watch these two go at each other for one season.
But I suspect the writers realized that their narrative energies would run out, and the engine begin to sputter if they kept on milking the Johnny/Daniel conflict.
And so to stir things up, they brought in an even bigger villain than Johnny.
Enter Johnny’s ex-Karate coach — John Kreese.
John Kreese was cunning, in ways that exceeded whatever Johnny’s mind could muster. When it came to plotting the dominance of Cobra Kai, John Kreese was always thinking a few moves ahead. Much of seasons 2,3 and 4 were devoted to moves by Daniel to take down Kreese. There is a saying that the enemy of my enemy is my friend and the presence of Kreese created a temporary alliance between Daniel and Johnny, something we thought we would never see. It’s as if Superman and Lex Luthor decided to partner together to take down a bigger bad guy.
John Kreese, a bigger villain, kept up the narrative energy for 3 seasons.
But to keep up the narrative energy, you guessed it, the writers needed an even bigger villain. And they brought in a bad guy from one of the Karate Kid sequels.
A dude named Terry Silver.
Terry Silver wears a ponytail.
If John Kreese was a master at chess, Terry was a grandmaster.
He is John Kreese but with more corporate power. Terry does not think in moves, he thinks in sequences. He will not hesitate to betray and destroy even his good friends, just so he can achieve his goal of world domination via Karate. Where John Kreese only wanted Cobra Kai dojo to be the only dojo in the Valley, Terry’s ambition is to have Cobra Kai dominate the world. Terry’s villainy extended to cunning psychological games that he played to not just destroy you but also destroy the people you love. He seeks to crumble not just your physical body, but your soul as well.
It would require the efforts of not just Daniel, but Johnny, and the students of both Daniel and Johnny, to take down what has been the biggest villain so far in Cobra Kai.
And therein lies the lesson.
The Villian Owns the Second Act
I read about this from the writer, Steven Pressfield, who wrote the War of Art, who in turn learned it from Randall Wallace who wrote Braveheart, who in turn learned it from Steve Cannell, the creator of 21 Jump Street, The Rockford Files amongst others.
After you have set up your hero and introduced the inciting incident that has disrupted his ordinary world, the next thing you must do as you venture into the world of the second act is this.
Keep your bad guy front and center.
Turn your spotlight on the villain in the middle of your story.
Keep him in sight all the time.
For the simple reason that the bad guy will always energize your narrative, and keep the story momentum humming along nicely as your hero constantly finds ways to avoid, confront or outwit the bad guy.
When I am stuck in a script, I keep in mind the Villian Spotlight now. The true test of any hero lies in how carefully you design your bad guy. The tougher, the smarter, the more manipulative, the villain, the harder for your hero to prevail, but that only makes the final climatic battle more rewarding to watch and more satisfying for the audience.
As it is in a story, so it is in Life
I firmly believe that good stories are Manuals For How To Live Your Life.
The villains in Cobra Kai did not just create entertaining scenes for the audience, but they presented challenging obstacles for our heroes. They brought our heroes to the very bottom of the well of despair. To the point where we wondered if this was it for our heroes. But when you have scraped the bottom of the well, there is only one direction left to go and that is the road upwards towards the light.
If it were not for the villains, Daniel LaRusso would not have learned how to forgive his enemies. Nor would he have learned that there is no shame in admitting defeat because it is only temporary.
That success is a long patience. That you don’t have to take on the burdens of the world by yourself.
Like the Karate Kid, when you climb out of the well, you begin to acquire new wisdom.
The armor of your character gains strength.
The life lesson from Cobra kai is simple. Embrace adversity in your life. See it as nothing more than a coach who wants you to toughen up. Sometimes your mentor is also your tormentor.
As Wise Miyagi would have said –