One of the most fun kinds of stories to write is a two-hander. Not only do you get to balance two distinct characters, but you also get to draw out similar arcs that clash and give each scene an electric quality. Movies with dual protagonists are very castable and a lot of fun to make.
I mean, what are dual protagonists?
Today, I want to look at how to write a great script with dual protagonists. We’ll look at examples within the storytelling technique and talk about some of the best practices, tools, and tips you can use to make your own work better.
Sound good? Then let’s get started.
Credit: Focus Features
What’s a Two-Hander, or Dual Protagonist Movie?
Dual Protagonist Definition
This kind of story puts two different people at its center. The characters are usually opposites or come from different backgrounds, creeds, or social standings. They have different points of view and experiences that inform their arcs as the story unfolds.
The most important distinction is that these are parallel protagonists. Both want the same thing (or similar things) and are both struggling toward a common goal.
If you want to get a little complicated with it, there is a difference between the protagonist and the main character, but that’s another post.
What’s the Function of Dual Protagonists?
The reason I love writing with dual protagonists is that you can bring their arcs forward by pitting both of them against each other.
A lot of times you have to add drama to scenes to show your characters under pressure, but when you have a two-hander, you always have drama next to the other person. These characters are going to disagree on the process and that gives you an immediate way to bring forward your genre.
‘Love and Basketball’
Credit: New Line Cinema
How Do Dual Protagonists Work?
It seems cliche, but from the dawn of cinema, having two protagonists has always just worked.
So what’s behind that chemistry? I think the main idea is that they can fit into any genre. Using dual protagonists breeds comedy, drama, horror, and more. You can disguise exposition by showing two people talking to one another, and you have another brain for your character to extract clues from or pull apart plot points with.
Also, when it comes to character arcs, having two that run against each other allows you to constantly measure them. When they have a common goal, you can show them growing toward it by the way they view each other and their relationships.
This helps the audience always stay dialed into every aspect of the storytelling.
How Writers Use Dual Protagonists
Writers use two-handers in a variety of ways. From pitting these people against each other to doing a team-up to revamping old cliches, you can insert these tactics any way you want to manipulate a story.
It all comes down to character development.
We often see them used to talk a bit about the world. Are these people from different races or sexualities? Do they have different qualities that usually brush up against each other in conflict, but through the story learn mutual respect? Or are they similar people pitted against each other, where only the strongest survives?
We’ll get into specific examples later, but the important thing here is to know that adding a protagonist can help deepen your theme and brings out the best in your writing.
‘The End of the Tour’
Cops and Rom-Coms with Dual Protagonists
Two of the most common ways to use two-handers are in romantic comedies and in cop stories.
These literal partner stories are perfect breeding grounds for two-handers because they give both parties room to arc against and with one another. Whether it’s Lethal Weapon or When Harry Met Sally, both movies hinge on the growths of the people in the center.
They each have meet-cutes as well—these genres have a lot in common.
Police investigative movies across genres thrive when we see two people from different walks of life and with different methods or styles solving a case. Think about The Heat and 48 Hours. Both movies have similar cores, but actually are focused on cops becoming friends and solving a case despite their differences. And we see the central characters grow.
Romantic comedies are eerily similar. We often see mismatched people finding their way.
I love a movie like The Five-Year Engagement, where we see two people who love each other but have a lot of growing up to do. Or even something like Love and Basketball, which covers the journey of two people who are trying to figure out their place in a sport and in one another’s lives.
These two subgenres really accentuate the two-hander’s capabilities as a storytelling technique.
How to Differentiate Your Two-Hander Characters
The easiest way to differentiate the protagonists is to make them from different walks of life, or different races, creeds, or sexualities. Or even different genders.
You want the audience to see the same story twice, once through each character’s eyes. Their point of view has to completely change our perspective on what’s happening.
A two-hander gets to be one of the only times in storytelling where the audience is ahead of the characters.
You can change the way these people speak, you can build each one into the other’s mortal enemy, just make sure they are different.
Are There Times When Characters in a Two-hander Are the Same?
Another great question. In old procedurals, sometimes you’d have two people who were a lot alike. But they still had different backstories and different ways of looking at the world. This is as old as the expression “good cop/bad cop.”
I think The Godfather: Part II has a journey where the protagonists are similar. Young Vito Corleone is establishing his crime syndicate, while in the future, his son Michael is doing the same. Each is making similar choices based on the family and based on money. But they are still very different at their cores.
Another instance would be something like Bridesmaids, where the two women are already very similar friends, who learn they are different over the course of the movie.
There is another option here. We could look at a story where people grow apart, like in a Superbad or even Mary and Max, the animated movie about pen pals.
Credit: Columbia Pictures
Great Examples of Dual Protagonist Movies
We’ve covered a lot of different versions of how we look at two-handers across the cinema. For this section, I wanted to focus on a few we haven’t talked about and ones that cross different genres, and maybe others you never thought about, but that are dual protagonists regardless.
Movies like Rush Hour are obvious. There are even stylistic iterations like The Departed, or twists, like Midnight Run.
So avoiding cops and romcoms, what other examples can we glean?
What about a horror movie like Antichrist? It’s the story of a couple dealing with the death of their child. They each are going through something dark and mysterious within the woods. It’s a study of grief and angst and the absence of God.
In a little lighter terms, how about a movie like The End of the Tour? It covers a reporter and writer going on a book tour together, each working through their individual hurdles to come toward an understanding about writing and life. Even if it doesn’t pan out the way they thought it might.
Lastly, I wanted to take a peek at the quadrilogy of The Trip. We go to England, Greece, Spain, and Italy, following two comedians eating their way through the countryside and growing older together.
Or what about the romantic trilogy of the Before movies, where we see two young people grow older, fall in love, and deal with what married life looks like together?
These two-handers use different characters to draw out life experiences and arcs to give us a profound look at what it means to be alive.
Credit: New Line Cinema
Summing Up the Two-Hander or Dual Protagonist Movie
What I hope you’ve come to learn, along with me, is that there are so many practical applications for adding a protagonist to your work. Having two is not a crowd, but an opportunity to extrapolate what you want the audience to learn and how you want them to feel when the film is finished.
Having characters who can interplay keeps the audience involved and allows for better casting opportunities down the line.
Do you love these kinds of movies and want to chat more about them? Put your ideas and thoughts in the comments. I’m excited to break this down further and see what we can come up with together.
Otherwise, go get writing.
I can’t wait to see where your ideas take you.