The Fallacy of the Two Hander
No such thing as a two-hander, just a misunderstanding of story.
When it comes to the reception of a story, the receiver, or Audience member, can often mistake the elements of story for something else. In the same way one finds difficulty estimating the ingredients of their favorite dish when they only have the meal, looking at story from the outside leads to misinterpretations of the meaning, or meat, of the story. The problem deepens when accompanied by confidence.
As misleading as the MacGuffin, the concept of the "two-hander" spawns many errors in the construction of a story. Led to believe that these are two "main" characters rather than characters who share a unique relationship, Authors create narratives that breakdown under the weight of their own schizophrenia. In the same way that mixing and swapping the terms Protagonist and Main Character results in a confusion between personal goals and objective goals, the term "two-hander" leaves the impression that the story might contain two stories.
In a Scriptnotes podcast last year entitled Making Things Better by Making Things Worse, professional screenwriters John August and Craig Mazin dished out something they usually rally against--namely, rules and education:
"A two-hander is a story with two important characters, where basically both characters are roughly equally important in the progress of the story … generally each of the characters have something that he or she wants. And sometimes they have a shared goal, but they each have their own individual goals."
So each of these characters has something they want? Insightful. More illuminating would be the understanding that what these characters want are connected in a very deep and meaningful way, far beyond simple wants and needs. Comprehending this connection allows writers to develop strong and powerful stories.
John August's screenwriting.io site gives an even simpler definition of this concept:
"A two-hander is a movie where there are two main characters of roughly equal importance to the story, and whose arcs are given roughly equal screen-time."
Sweet and simple. Elsewhere he elaborates:
"Romantic comedies and buddy cop movies are often two-handers, but almost all genres have their examples. The Sixth Sense is a thriller two-hander, for instance."
So The Sixth Sense, 48 Hours, and presumably The Shawshank Reemption all function as two-handers. The list could go on and on and on.
Only it doesn't explain what is really going on.
The films listed above do not feature two "main" characters with the their own "arcs" who roughly share "equal screen-time." Well, the last might be accurate, but how is that a measurement of the meaning of a story?
Structure is the machine that communicates the Author's meaning, a framework for what the story is about, rather than what happens. In the Dramatica theory of story this structure is called the storyform. Determining the ingredients or elements of this structure makes it easier for Authors to construct a machine that works.
The Real Difference Between the Two
Consider the Dreamworks animated film Over the Hedge. Under the definition above, this tale of animals vs. suburbia claims the name two-hander. Both Verne the turtle (Gary Shandling) and RJ the raccoon (Bruce Willis) vy for "equal screen-time", both come off similarly important.
Unfortunately both find their resolves changed by the end of the film.
For a story to make sense and to convincingly make a case for its message, one of these "main" characters will steadfastly hold on to their resolve while the other will find their resolve changed. In Dramatica, this observable reality of story falls under the concept of the Main Character Resolve: Changed or Steadfast?[^changed] The Resolve of the Influence Character (what two-handlers call the other "main" character) will share an inverse relationship with the Main Character's Resolve. One is changed, one is steadfast.
If you have one character arguing position A and he or she comes into conflict with another character arguing position B, you can't then write both characters changing their positions. Doing so undermines everything that came before, tossing out any thematic arguments made along the way. If you argue for neither A nor B, but rather some form of you are in essence undermining the foundation of story you built.[^argue]
Show character A adopting character B's approach or character B assuming character A's position and then inform the Audience of the results. That is how an Author uses story to make an argument. That is how the machine of story works.
Screenwriter Jim Barker explains it well In his article Demystifying the Two-Hander:
"the story’s theme – what the author has to say about about the value of hope (and not just “hope” itself) – is explored by means of an argument. In other words, story is a form of persuasion, and the best means of being persuasive is to explore multiple sides of the argument. Having two characters with their own perspectives is part of the means in which the theme and argument is explored, one character ultimately forcing the other to see their differing point of view and forcing them to either remain steadfast in their approach or change."
Referencing August's definition of a two-hander, the relationship between the two "main" characters runs deeper than simply one based on relative "importance." The reason these two characters even find themselves faced off against each other is because they share a bond of conflict. They see this conflict from two different points-of-view, but there is enough shared material between them that they find it almost impossible not to butt heads.
This is where that clichéd line "You and I are both alike" comes from. The two principal characters recognize a commonality of conflict, but see it differently. One comes at it externally, the other internally.
The Well Considered Story
Giving credence to vague terminology leads to disappointing drafts and broken stories. The process might begin with little complication, but will eventually bog down as the Author finds their structure undermined by superficial notions of story.
The Dramatica theory of story seeks to make conversations like this a thing of the past. For years I have endeavored to communicate the strength of this perspective through [carefully considered and thoughtful articles]. Unfortunately the culture seems determined to ignore the measured approach, preferring tweet-sized understandings of story like "two-hander" to get them through their day. Rarely does anyone spend more than a minute and a half reading a 2000 word article that took dives deep into the reason why an element of story exists.
The purpose of this site has always been to improve the quality of storytelling to the point where filmmakers don't spend the last few months of a production trying to salvage a badly structured story. I've been there before several times, and it isn't pretty. And it can be avoided. We don't have to blindly trust the process. But if no one is listening, does this site even exist?
Understanding the relationship between the Main and Influence Character is only one of the many ways Authors and filmmakers can improve their craft. Dramatica offers so much more. If there is a better, quicker, perhaps more culturally acceptable way of communicating this knowledge then perhaps the time has come to try something new.
The promise of a fully functioning story endures. Time to tell the world.
[^changed]: This is not a typo. A Changed resolve indicates the state of things for the MC. A "Change" resolve does not.
[^argue]: What you're really dealing with is A+B vs. C--which would require an entirely different story.
: /articles"Archives | Narrative First"