How Do You Write a Cinematic Two Hander? The ESSENTIAL Steps

A movie that not only follows one protagonist but two always feels like one with an added layer of depth and substance. In the screenwriting world, this kind of movie, with dual protagonists, is often called a two hander.

Many movies and genres follow the arc of dual protagonists. It’s a popular form because you get to see two distinct characters on a journey together. The audience watches their conflicts push the story forward and how they develop as characters both together and individually. It brings an extra layer of intrigue to the characterisation at large and can provide a film with a distinct selling point as a result.

So what does a two hander look like in screenwriting terms? In this article, we’ll talk about the definition of the two hander and how to write one that is not only engaging but cinematic.

What is a Two Hander?

A two hander describes a story following two main characters in films, TV shows, and plays.

In theater, a two hander typically applies to a play in which there are only two characters and no one else. In film though, it’s more broadly used to mean a film in which the story contains two main characters, who drive the story. It’s rare to have a film with just two people in it, such is the scope of cinema in general. Although it does happen, such as in Malcolm and Marie and The Lighthouse, for example.

In a two hander:

  • The two protagonists are equal in the progress of the story and have their own desires, wants, and goals.
  • These three things may be different or coincide with one another.
  • Furthermore, these desires, wants, and goals play a big part in how the characters interact with one another.

The two characters typically have characteristics that make them different on another level as well. These differences can cause the two characters to clash against one another.

These differences might be economic, social or ideological.

  • For example, in many romantic comedies, you will have one person of the pair who is a hopeless romantic. Then the other person will be completely cynical about love.
  • Or you have the buddy cop movie where you have an old, jaded cop paired with a young hot shot. In these films, the pair must work together to solve whatever crime or mystery has unfolded.

In the two hander, these character differences are purposefully explored and used to drive the narrative forward. The differences may hinder or help the characters in their shared and separate journeys. This may lead the characters to a shared goal or to a conflict and eventual individual goal for only one.

Malcolm & Marie | Official Trailer | Netflix

What is Special About the Two Hander?

Point of View

Two handers are special because you get to see the same story from different points of view. And through this, you get to see how both characters see the world. Seeing dual perspectives like this can change your perspective on what is happening in the film and give a more nuanced and complicated experience overall.

In films with just one protagonist, we are exposed to just their version of events. This can be completely immersive but it can also be unreliable or straightforward.

Yet, when you have dual protagonists you have two sides. This gives the story more potential reach as well as giving it a totally different texture to a story with just one perspective.

Dramatic Irony

In two hander scripts, there is often great dramatic irony.

  • For example, many romantic comedy films come to a point where the characters are in love but are afraid to tell one another. They are afraid because they do not think the other feels the same.
  • Yet, we as the audience know their true feelings and can more or less tell they will wind up together in the end.
  • As the audience, we knew of the love they share because they both express it to us but not to each other.

So two handers can be a satisfying way for the audience to feel like they are truly involved with a film. They feel involved because of this extra knowledge they have that the characters within the film do not.

This creates a level of engagement and investment that is priceless. It’s an immersion in the story that will mean the audience are engaged throughout the script and afterwards. We’re watching the journey of the characters coming together or drifting apart as we know their individual internal conflict, something they don’t know about each other.

The One I Love Two Hander

How Do You Write a Two Hander?

Writing a two hander, like writing many other types of films, can be hard without a properly structured approach. So we’ve compiled some essentials to follow in writing a two hander that is cinematic and engaging:

1. Character Development

A big part in making a worthwhile two hander is of course the dual protagonists but more specifically their development. Character development in writing is when you build a character that is multi-dimensional. They are unique and have depth, personality, and clear motivations.

In any film, making sure your characters are not just flat talking heads that seem to serve no purpose is of utmost importance. This is especially true when writing a two hander. Having multi-dimensional characters helps us understand the two protagonists, their problems and how they interact with each other.

  • Two handers thrive on the conflict and differences that lie between the protagonists.
  • A film becomes unrewarding to watch if the two protagonists feel like they are there for an indistinct reason, either individually or as a unit.
  • Similarly, it’s hard to get full engagement if we can not really engage in what the characters’ intentions are.

Understanding the protagonists is essential to understanding the differences and similarities between them. And so proper context and backstory are essential to framing each character. Where have they come from and what brings them to this point? Differences or similarities here between the two protagonists will also further heighten the conflict or bond between them.

2. Showing Change Effectively

Additionally, character development also refers to the changes that the character faces and undergoes throughout the film. These changes always come about because of their actions or the things that they’ve experienced. Using this definition of character development you get an even greater idea of how to write a solid two hander.

Your script will be effective if you make sure that the changes both your characters go through show a clear effect on themselves and each other. It has to be clear in their actions as well as what they say.

  • So if they become angrier show that. If they have fallen more in love show that and if they have given up show that too.
  • The characters have to be pressured into change by the things they experience within the story, otherwise known as external conflict.
  • With these changes, we can see how the characters grow and how they either move together or grow apart.
  • And it’s often their internal conflict that represents this. So make sure the external becomes internal.

Furthermore, with a two hander the characters’ actions are inevitably going to affect one another. As a writer, you want to realistically and properly portray how these actions take their toll on both protagonists.

3. Conflict

Conflict arises from the differences that are between the characters. So, you want to make sure that the conflict is proportionate and makes sense with the protagonists’ differences.

Malcom and Marie Conflict

Now, the protagonists do not have to be worlds apart or from opposite ends of the spectrum. However, you want to make sure whatever the difference between them is, that it spells out clear and rich conflict. In a good script, their differences could foreshadow their conflicts between with one another.

Conflict in your story also has to seem like it really stands in the way of both characters’ journeys. The conflict has to drive the story forward and push the protagonists to the end of the film where they either get what they want or don’t.

The great thing about the two hander is that the conflict does not need to come from an external force. In lots of stories, we see conflicts such as character vs. nature or character vs. technology.

With the two hander, we watch as the characters usually conflict with one another and with themselves. This is especially true with films in which there are literally only two characters. There may still be external conflict but it’s not the true barrier for the characters, which is the conflict between them.

4. Story

Another thing that makes for an effective and engaging two hander is the story itself. Two handers work with so many different genres and themes but not all stories work best this way. Some movies based on their subject matter just work best with one protagonist instead of two and vice versa.

There are plenty of romantic comedies that are not two handers and probably would not work as so. For example, the film 500 Days of Summer is a romantic comedy but it explicitly focuses on Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character. The movie is seen through his eyes and that is how we see his love interest (Zooey Deschanel) as well.

But with a movie like Friends with Benefits, you see the story from each of the characters’ perspectives and consequently, how they see one another.

Friends With Benefits

Whatever the genre or themes of your two hander may be they have to make the audience invested and want to keep watching what happens. Your characters have to be well developed and the purpose of your two hander has to be clear.

There’s no point writing a two hander if it’s not integral to the story you are trying to tell or the themes you are seeking to get across. It has to be the only way you can truly tell your story for it to be a convincing and effective structural approach.

5. Just the Two of Us

If writing a two hander that is just literally two characters and no others, then there are some key elements to remember in order to make it work.

Firstly, the context is vital.

  • The nature of there being no other characters means it’s likely the situation will be extreme.
  • And this needs to manifest as external pressure on the two characters.
  • The pressure of isolation is typical for example or the pressure of survival. Or, as in Malcolm and Marie for example, the pressure could be that of a strained relationship.

In addition, the characters need to already be at some kind of breaking point at the start of the film.

  • This isn’t a strict necessity. But it will help in raising the stakes convincingly when you need to.
  • A complete downward spiral from complete contentment will be a more overwrought story in its pacing (at least in feature form).
  • But to start from a place where the characters are teetering on the edge means that the situation’s extremity will quickly plunge them into conflict and the story into high stakes.

Examples of Two Handers

To give an even better idea of how to write a two hander here are some examples of two handers in a variety of different forms. These are two handers in which there are only two characters and no one else, or two main protagonists within an otherwise bustling story or two characters bound together by the structure and tenets of a two hander.

The Lighthouse

The Lighthouse | Official Trailer HD | A24

A psychological thriller example that rings out is The Lighthouse. In this film, we watch as two lighthouse attendants, played by Robert Pattinson and Willem Defoe, try to maintain their sanity while living on a remote and mysterious New England island in the 1890s.

In the film, you see as the two slowly descend into madness and how the conflict between them gets them there. It’s a great example of how two flawed and troubled characters are quickly thrown into conflict by their situation’s extremity. Their isolation and the power of the sea sends them mad and throws them into conflict with each other.

The film also demonstrates how great acting is essential to a two hander. These actors carry the film in many ways and so its effectiveness relies on their range and talent. Whilst you can’t control this within your screenwriting, two meaty roles for actors can work brilliantly in your favour in terms of potential marketability.

Rush Hour

For a buddy cop movie example take the Rush Hour trilogy. The first movie is arguably the best example of an effective two hander.

In the film, you have a young hot shot cop, Chris Tucker who thinks he can take on the world alone versus Jackie Chan who is a more seasoned cop who just wants to get the job done.

  • The great differences used to aid in the conflict here are cultural (Jackie Chan’s character being from Hong Kong and Chris Tucker’s being from LA).
  • At the start of the film, we watch as the men’s cultural differences act as a barrier to their relationship and also add to the comedy as well.
  • Their different working methods get in the way of the effectiveness of their mission.

And these problems make reaching their desired goal of saving a Chinese diplomat’s young daughter that much more difficult. They want to do things differently but eventually, they realize as they get to know one another that they can work together and use their differences as an advantage.

It is a good example of two characters overcoming their differences and reaching their desired shared goal. It also demonstrates how choice of tone can be key in writing a two hander, with the differences between them used to generate comedy.

The Departed

Where Rush Hour is a comedic buddy cop movie, The Departed is a crime thriller that focuses on the journey of Leonardo DiCaprio’s character and Matt Damon’s. The Departed is successful as a two hander because it gives us two protagonists that have separate goals and desires but are still a part of the same story.

  • In the film, Matt Damon’s character is placed as a mole in the Massachusetts State Police by an Irish mob boss.
  • This is taking place just as the state police assign Leonardo DiCaprio’s character to infiltrate the mob boss’ crew.

The two protagonists have differing backgrounds and ideologies and this is crucial in creating their conflict.

  • Matt Damon is a criminal who breaks the law.
  • While Leonardo DiCaprio’s character is an officer that seeks to uphold the law.

These two protagonists are clearly at odds and this creates the best kind of conflict. We watch the obstacles they have to overcome while also watching them get closer to figuring out who the other is.

Furthermore, as the audience, we know what each character does. And this makes the movie that much more engaging as we watch on the edge of our seats waiting for when the two men will learn what we already know.

On top of that, both protagonists feel developed. And their clear motivations and loyalties leave no doubt about what their goals are. It is clear that both men will do what they have to to get what they want. Seeing this is what keeps our attention, watching as the inevitable meeting of the two approaches ever closer.

The Godfather: Part II

The Godfather Part 2 Two Hander

As a final, slightly alternative example we have The Godfather: Part II. This film differs from the other examples listed because while those take place at the same time, The Godfather: Part II tells the same story but at different time periods.

In the film, the two protagonists are Vito Corleone from the past and Michael Corleone in the present. We watch as both men develop and change throughout the film.

  • With Vito, we watch as he becomes the Don we were introduced to in the first film.
  • Then with Michael. we watch as he changes into a more ruthless Don, something his father did not want for him.

Through these two characters, we are watching the past and present of the Corleone family. We see their beginning and also watch where their future is heading.

The film is a great template for a two hander because both men’s goals and motivations are clear. And despite them being filtered through different time frames, both men’s desires still match up. They both just want what’s best for their families. And wanting the same things makes their differences striking.

  • Vito starts as a poor immigrant with nothing to his name, struggling to support his family.
  • Then we have Michael who has, because of his father’s sacrifices and criminal activities, lived a life of luxury.
  • At first, Vito’s motivations for getting into crime seem more understandable and even sympathetic because of his tough situation.
  • Yet with Michael, there’s a tragedy as he becomes more isolated, cold and ruthless.

Michael cannot manage to go legit no matter how hard he tries and how much power he has. As a two hander, we see how Vito’s actions have affected Michael and brought him to where he is. They’re in constant conversation.

In Summary

What is a Two Hander in Movies?

A two hander is a term that describes a story driven by two protagonists. In theater, a two hander typically applies to a play in which there are only two main characters and no one else. In movies though, it’s more broadly used to mean a movie in which the story contains two main characters.

How Do You Write a Two Hander?

The essentials in writing a two hander include making sure both of your two main characters have clearly defined goals and that they undergo significant change throughout the film because of each other. The two characters’ existence must be entwined and the thematic purpose of using the two hander narrative structure must be clear. Otherwise, the protagonists’ journeys aren’t necessarily enhanced but instead, taken away from.

The Best Two Hander Movies

The best two hander movies thrive off the context in which the two protagonists find themselves. They push their characters to the limit and utilize the differences and similarities between them to extract conflict, narrative progression and a conclusion that either allows both protagonists to reach their goals or leaves one a winner and one a loser.

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This article was written by Cherrish Warnick and edited by IS staff.

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2 thoughts on “How Do You Write a Cinematic Two Hander? The ESSENTIAL Steps”

  1. A few examples come to mind: Midnight Cowboy, Romeo and Juliet, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. And then we move on to The Magnificent Seven and The Wild Bunch? It goes without saying that two handers require a lot of work compared with stories having just one protagonist, but ultimately should be much more satisfying.

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