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Testing Character

As I mentioned in my previous post a few days ago, I’m working now on the ending to my current manuscript. I’m not rushing it because a) my life is filled with distractions/interruptions and I want to get this portion of the story right; and b) I want to make sure I’m testing my protagonist sufficiently and appropriately in these last few pages.

“Test” seems to be an unwelcome word to many of us. It kicks our memories back to schooldays, when teachers put us through the wringer of pop quizzes and frightful exams.

At the time, we suffered through hours of study or wished–too late–that we had cracked our books more than we did. If we were sufficiently prepared, then we felt confident. Otherwise, test days transformed us into bundles of nerves.

But what are tests for?

To enable cruel teachers to torture us? To determine whether we’ve memorized the names of all the county seats in our home state? To make us sweat?

Answer:  They’re a gauge of whether and how much we’ve grown or altered.

To be tested academically means we’re forced or enticed to study and prepare. Doing so  broadens our knowledge, insight, and perception on the selected topic. That preparation forces us to change from having little or no knowledge to possessing increased knowledge.

To be tested physically means we train our bodies to learn tasks and/or skills or to become stronger and more fit. We practice. We stress our muscles. We perform cardio workouts. We gradually improve our body’s state of fitness or we learn to perform certain movements easily, gracefully, and efficiently.

There are other tests, of course, but I needn’t define them all. The point is that tests of any kind are designed to force us to change.

Late Thursday afternoons are when my university’s ROTC units practice marching. This week, I saw cadets in casual student attire standing at attention. By next week, as I leave work, I suppose I’ll see them marching in unison. At some point, they’ll be wearing uniforms while they practice their drills. Every week, I’ll see a more visible change in these young men and women.

So we get it. We don’t like tests, but we recognize their purpose and usefulness. In fiction, a story’s real point is to test your protagonist.

How? And why?

Let’s examine how first:

1. The test for your focal character begins with a problem for him or her to solve. Something has changed in this individual’s life or world. It’s something that directly impinges on your protagonist, something that is immediate and impossible to ignore.

2. As soon as your protagonist attempts to solve this problem or deal with this situation, an antagonist must step in to oppose those efforts. It’s up to you the writer to figure out a plausible motivation for that opposition. Just keep in mind that opposition needs to be strong and direct, and it should grow stronger and more direct as the story progresses.

3. The story problem or situation can be purely a physical one, or it can be a complex one involving emotional or psychological issues within the protagonist.

–If physical, such as wildfires are raging toward the protagonist’s home and community, and she must try to save her family, pets, livestock, and possessions before everything she owns is lost forever, then the plot is purely an external, surface one. There is no deep soul-searching required. How much will she risk? How important is her property to her? How long will she fight to save her house or barn? Etc.

–If internal, such as the protagonist feeling consumed with guilt over having betrayed a friend by sleeping with his wife, then the external plot conflict should move the protagonist toward confronting that guilt, getting the issue out into the open, and solving it once and for all through confession, apology, atonement, or a fight.

As for why we need to test our protagonist:

1. A story about a character that remains static, is never tested, never grows, never changes is not a classically designed story at all, but merely a vignette. A few authors possess the talent and insight to present such a protagonist in an interesting way, but it’s merely a frozen depiction. Is that enough to enthrall today’s jaded and impatient readers the way it did in the mid-twentieth century, the early twentieth century, or even the nineteenth century?

2. We test our protagonist because classic story design is about creating an arc of change within this focal character. We are showing readers an example that change in behavior, or attitude, or knowledge, or situation is possible. Therefore, we are offering hope and optimism to readers held in the webs of an increasingly stressful and complicated world.

In the controversial (for its day) 1950s film, THE YOUNG LIONS, Marlon Brando portrays a young German who believes that Hitler offers him the hope of change and possibility. He feels that with Hitler in charge of his country, he will no longer be forced to work in the same career as his father, or live his life in the same small village where he grew up. He is eager to break the bonds of an almost feudal system, to reach for all the potential he feels he has. The film follows him as he enlists in the army and then becomes gradually disillusioned, horrified, and rebellious through witnessing the atrocities of a Nazi regime. This character is tested again and again by plot events, conflict, and stress into changing his ideas until he is willing not only to disagree with his orders but to defy them.

3. We test our protagonist because without stress or pressure or opposition or intense trouble, it is human nature generally to resist change. We might desire a certain status or item, but if achieving it takes too much effort we aren’t likely to bother. For example, I desire to be slimmer, but that means changing what I eat and sustaining a regular exercise program. Am I willing to give up chocolate milkshakes and cheeseburgers? I am not. Therefore, my weight remains where it is.

People have good intentions all the time, but they are like rivers that follow the path of least resistance. Therefore, we test and pressure our protagonists because a) they aren’t real people and we can force them to undergo whatever we design; and b) we use how they handle conflict to show readers that change is possible.

4. We also test our protagonists to make heroes of them–at least we do in commercial and genre fiction. We are entertaining readers by showing a transformation, and readers participate vicariously in that experience. Thematically, transformation is extremely popular with audiences of all ages. Fairy tales explore transformation of many kinds. Small children tie bath towels around their necks for superhero capes. Fathers take their children to movies in the STAR WARS franchise to show them the mythology surrounding the Force. Little girls grow up planning their weddings, when–at least for a day–they become a princess like Cinderella, conveyed in a limo, wearing a fabulous gown, and destined to dazzle the eyes of Prince Charming waiting at the altar.

5. Finally, we test our protagonist to prove to readers that he or she can take all the hits the story problem is going to dish out, cope with them, and survive. We show readers that the protagonist deserves to achieve the story goal, deserves to solve the story problem, deserves to win, deserves recognition and reward because the protagonist has taken the test and passed it. Giving a character what he or she deserves is meting out poetic justice.

When so much of real life can seem unfair, reading a story where matters work out as they should and heroes are rewarded while villains are punished is very comforting indeed.

And comforting, rewarding, just, optimistic, transformative, fair, and affirmative stories sell.


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Wrapping Up

As we move through the final days of this year, some of us may be lurching along in post-holiday stupor while others are still riding the endorphins of shopping-rush. Then there are the well-ordered, organized souls who are balancing checking accounts, writing donation checks, purchasing tax-deductible items, or shopping for new cars while pre-inventory prices are rock bottom.

When it comes to creating fiction, do you consider yourself a lurching, euphoric, or organized writer?

Let’s narrow the topic further by examining how stories reach their conclusions. Some, you see, are written with a dramatically definitive ending. Others simply stop. And yet others fade, leaving readers to flip back through the last two or three pages, checking numbers to see if the last page has been torn out.

Lurching to a stop:
The lurchers of fiction tend to open with some sort of very exciting hook and a rapid plunge into story action. When that event plays out, the story’s momentum slows or even stalls until the writer thinks up another exciting event to happen next. The story jolts forward, only to slow once more, then picks up again. Story action tends to be rough and feels tacked together (which it is). The conclusion may not make a lot of sense dramatically, but it will be exciting and packed with action, usually putting the protagonist into dire danger.

Generally, there’s the effect of a rushed, incomplete finale. Questions raised within the plot may or may not be answered to reader satisfaction. Some are often forgotten or overlooked.

Because the writers of lurching stories tend to be pantsers instead of planners, the general effect of this approach is slap-dash. It may work … somehow, despite itself … but it may not. It’s a reckless way to write, and it runs the risk of leaving readers dissatisfied with how the story is finished.

Euphoria, Hysteria, and Froth!
The story that relies on its writer’s emotions alone focuses on characters more than plot. How the characters feel propels their motivations, complexities, and actions–although they may not do very much more than make tea and think a great deal about problems that are never actually dramatized on the page.

And while some lovely introspective stories have been published–THE NUMBER ONE LADIES’ DETECTIVE AGENCY by Alexander McCall Smith, for example–an inept or inexperienced writer can float, mull, and philosophize her way into a muddle.

Muddled stories tend to end up trapped in corners, with the writer unsure of how to back out. Therefore, they may simply stop with the protagonist waving tearfully to her lover as he catches his train and is borne away from her.

But is this the end? readers then wonder. How does it work out? Are they parting forever? Is she just going to stand there and weep? Will he come back? Is my book defective and missing the last chapter? How does this thing end?

As writers, we can ache for our beleaguered characters. We can grieve for them, worry over them, cry because of them, but we shouldn’t leave readers asking any of the above questions. It’s possible to finish stories plausibly and conclusively, tying up the loose ends and resolving the main plotline, without sacrificing one droplet of emotional potential.

The Organized Climax:

When one’s artistic soul is pulsating in the raw throes of creation, “organized” is an unpleasant, off-putting word. There’s no glamour to the term organized. It possesses no zing, no zip, no bling, and certainly no appeal. It’s mundane and boring–positively nauseatingly dull. It carries the connotations of hard work, discipline, labor, planning, and drudgery. Rest assured, there is no fun to be had from organized anything.

Or so says the imagination.

Yet the imagination is a lazy trickster that is not always truthful.

Bringing your story to a dramatically satisfying, exciting, intense, enthralling, cathartic conclusion takes planning, thought, and hard work. It should never be drudgery, but it’s seldom easy. If we writers do our jobs well, our stories take readers through the agony of near defeat and the relief of a logical, but unexpected reversal. Loose ends are tied up. The questions are answered. Characters get what they deserve–either good or bad. The story is finished. Readers aren’t left hanging. They’re satisfied because the story has taken them on an emotional journey and delivered the full, entertaining experience it promised.

When you sit down to write your next story, know where you want it to end before you write the beginning. Don’t lurch, leap, and contrive your way there. Think the plot events through so that your protagonist takes logical steps from start to finish. Or if your protagonist’s emotions carry her away from the story goal in pursuit of some tangent, take the time to delete that version and put her back on the path you intend her to follow.

Remember, it’s always the writer’s responsibility to wrap up a story dramatically to the reader’s satisfaction.


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Sparkle with a Rousing Good Finish

The ending of a story makes reading it worthwhile.

Ideally, you want the story to sparkle from start to finish, to offer a total entertainment package.

Writers can’t always deliver such perfection, however, especially when working on a long plot such as a novel. Sometimes, the book sags a bit or the storyline gets vague and has holes here and there. Writers are humans. They make mistakes or they forget details or they become so wound up in characters, viewpoints, and motivations that they simply don’t see that Chapter 11 is illogical.

My point is not to excuse such errors, but to acknowledge that they can happen despite the writer’s and editor’s combined best efforts.

I recommend that if your story’s going to wobble a bit, let it happen in the first half but never, never, never in the second.

If you can only achieve sparkle in one place, make it the finale. Because do you really want to open your story with a stunning hook and end it with a lame whimper?

I think not.

Granted, several of you are already thinking, but if the beginning of the story is lame, who will want to read it?

Agreed. A very good point.

My reply is this: if the story is lame at its conclusion, who will bother to read your next one?

So we always strive to achieve consistent sparkle in order to entice new readers, to keep them happy throughout, and to make them close the story with a smile or a sigh of satisfaction.

It’s common for a writer to tire in the final section of a book manuscript. You get so weary that you’re slogging from one chapter to the next. You just want it to end. Your stamina is exhausted. Your brain is on fire. Your eyeballs feel strained from hours and days and weeks of peering into a computer screen. And so, from sheer fatigue, you let the story climax slide. You tell yourself it’s okay, that it’s only a small lessening of standards, that the reader won’t notice if the ending comes a bit too easily or is contrived just a little so that everything can be tied up.

And I tell you that it’s not okay. Never lie to yourself as an artist.

Never let the ending be less than it should be. It is, after all, the culmination of the story. If you’ve entranced a reader into stepping into your story world and skipping along the yellow brick road and worrying about your characters, then you owe the reader a good finish.

That’s part of your job.

The climax of a story has a structure that writers have developed, honed, and refined across the centuries to deliver a catharsis of anticipation, confrontation, devastation, and elation.

But last of all and best of all, you should deliver poetic justice to each of your principal characters.

Poetic justice is simply whatever the character deserves, good or bad, based on what that individual has done in the story.

Poetic justice is about what’s fair and what ought to be. It isn’t connected to social or legal justice. Instead, it’s what we want as five-year-olds when our mean cousin Ginny has pinched us until we lose our temper and hit back—just as Granny comes to the window and sees the blow we struck … but not what provoked it.

And we take the punishment while our evil cousin gloats. We learn then, as we cry in rage and frustration, that life is not fair.

But in books, in stories, in the wondrous realm of make believe—at the end, life IS fair.

The murderer is caught, arrested, and arraigned for trial.

The rugged bachelor who’s evaded every female lure thrown at him for years meets THE ONE, the woman who’s his perfect mate and perfect match.

The evil time traveler out to destroy history is caught in a time loop he can never escape, so that he’s forced to live the same day over and over throughout infinity.

The town sheriff forced to confront the bad guys who are coming into town to kill him in a last showdown manages to face his fears, stand alone and outnumbered, and prevail through sheer courage and better shooting.


It doesn’t have to be presented in some contrived and hokey way, but what’s wrong with getting to cheer the hero and boo the villain? Are you too sophisticated and jaded for that simple concept? I hope not, because it cuts you off from the affirmations that fiction can provide. Affirmations that readers still love and respond to.


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Sparkle: Characters to Cheer For

Do you think it’s just chance if readers like your characters?

Not at all!

Do you think your material is more compelling if you write bleak, depressed, passive, unhappy, apathetic characters?

Not at all!

Do you think your material is cheesy and unsophisticated if you create active, upbeat, heroic characters?

It probably is!

Is that a problem?

Only if you’re opposed to creating saleable fiction.

Let’s keep this piece of advice simple:

Readers want a protagonist they can identify with, sympathize with, like a lot, and cheer for.

That protagonist may be as snarky in attitude as Harry Dresden in Jim Butcher’s bestselling series about a wizard PI in Chicago. But underneath his jaded exterior, Dresden really cares about people and he really wants to be helpful as he fights Evil.

Robert Crais’s popular tough guy, Joe Pike, is stoic, taciturn, and hard to know. He’s also brave, loyal, extremely competent, cool in a crisis, and a person that’s going to save your backside if bad guys come after you.

The late Betty Neels wrote Harlequin romance novels in a career that reached from the late 1960s into the 21st century. Her heroes are arrogant, rich, autocratic, and less than likely to give a plain, perhaps plump, heroine a second glance. yet the Neels hero is a supremely competent surgeon/doctor, generous, intensely protective of those he loves, willing to rescue and adopt the most pathetic mixed-breed stray dog or cat on the planet, and someone rich, handsome, and successful who will give the plain nobody of a heroine both the moon and the stars.

Ms. Neels remains in print constantly, unlike the majority of her colleagues.

One of the most popular novels in thriller author Dean Koontz’s impressive oeuvre is a book called WATCHERS. The human characters Travis and Nora are likeable, but it’s the dog Einstein who steals the show. Einstein is a genetically modified, highly intelligent golden retriever who loves Mickey Mouse cartoons, is able to read, and communicates with humans by spelling sentences with Scrabble tiles. If you can’t adore this character by the time you finish reading his story, then I worry about you.

What is that special quality that makes a star?

Different people have differing definitions of it. Figure out how you identify it and give it to your protagonist.

Don’t be afraid of sophisticated literati out there jeering at your hero/heroine. (They only read each other’s stream-of-consciousness passages anyway.)

Don’t be afraid of exposing your heart a little to readers. (It’s the only way to truly touch their hearts.)

Don’t be afraid to let your protagonist care about others. (The empathy within your character creates sympathy within readers.)

So go ahead and let your good guys take a stance, stand up for the little guy, defy the odds, dare to try, speak up when others won’t, express their values, shoulder responsiblities, and help little old ladies cross the road.

In Tom Clancy’s novel, PATRIOT GAMES, ex-Marine Jack Ryan is just a tourist in London’s Hyde Park when Irish terrorists attack members of the royal family. It’s a moment to duck and take cover, keeping your head low until the shooting’s over.

Instead, Ryan makes sure his wife and child are safe before he sprints across the park and single-handedly fights off the terrorists, killing one, assisting in the capture of another, and being seriously wounded himself. All to help people he doesn’t know.

Later, a friend asks Ryan why he took such a wild risk. Ryan shrugs and then opens up: “I saw what was happening. It made me mad.”


John Wayne was a savvy actor who played heroic roles. He didn’t try to be sophisticated and nuanced. His characters stood for what was right, regardless of what the law or authority might say. John Wayne delivered poetic justice in film after film.

Result? Other than Marilyn Monroe, are there many other actors besides Wayne with their pictures hanging in American living rooms?

People of the 21st century may wear ennui like a jacket, but if they were suddenly standing on the TITANIC they would want 1) access to a lifeboat; and 2) a leader who could help them get it.

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After Despair: Writing Diagnostics X(b)

Wesley in the "Pit of Despair." (Image from THE PRINCESS BRIDE 1987 courtesy of 20th Century Fox)

In the previous entry, I covered climax structure, steps 1 through 4, and left off in the Dark Moment, which I said should never be rushed.  Have you waited long enough for what comes next?

STEP 5:  The Reversal.  Now despite steps 1-4 making it appear as though the protagonist is going to lose, we don’t really want that to happen.  Most commercial fiction is, after all, about positive endings.  So in this next-to-last step of the climax, there’s going to be a reversal of some kind that flips the situation.


Image FORT APACHE 1948, directed by John Ford, courtesy of RKO.

In older yarns, the cavalry (or whatever version of deus ex machina) showed up just in the nick of time.  However, in today’s fiction it’s considered a cheat if someone else rescues the protagonist from a tough spot.  So the protagonist has to have a trick up her sleeve, or be tougher or more determined than the antagonist, or have sent for help, or have the cell phone on and transmitting the villain’s threats to the FBI agents that are standing by, etc.

It is usually necessary for a writer to plant the seeds of the reversal much earlier in the story, so that when it happens the reversal is unforeseen by the reader but entirely plausible.  Easy enough to do in revisions.

Example:  in Pretty Woman, the reversal comes because Vivian is stronger than Edward.  She holds out longer than he can, and he surrenders, realizing that he’s sufficiently in love with her to go after her.

Image from ROMANCING THE STONE 1987, 20th Century Fox

In Romancing the Stone, Joan Wilder is grappling with the villain at the edge of the crocodile pit.  The reversal comes when she grabs his cigar from his mouth and burns him in the face with it.  He releases her, staggers off balance, and falls into the pit.  She is not physicially strong enough to overpower him in hand-to-hand fighting, but she’s used her wits superbly.

In Star Wars: The Return of the Jedi, Luke’s earlier attempts to reach his father finally come to fruition when Darth Vader turns on the Emperor and saves his son’s life.

Keep in mind, however, that the reversal will seem cheap without a well-done Dark Moment.

STEP 6:  The Reward.  This conclusion of the story is sometimes known as the denouement or the wrap-up.  It’s where poetic justice is handed out, based on what the characters deserve.  This stage of story climax is all about making sure fairness prevails.

So how brave or foolish has the protagonist been?

How ruthless has the antagonist been?

What should happen to each of them as the story concludes?

A writer has several options.  If the protagonist has grown and improved and risked much during the course of the story and has saved the day, then this character will obtain the story goal plus extra rewards.

Often winning the heart of the love interest is presented as one of the rewards.

If the protagonist managed to save the day but made several mistakes and could have done much better, then the character will obtain the story goal but may lose the love interest or see very little additional reward.

If the protagonist has thrown away chances and trampled over others and devolved as a character, he or she will lose the story goal.

Options for the antagonist are equally varied, but instead of “reward,” think in terms of “punishment.”

The antagonist is supposed to lose his or her story goal.

If the antagonist is a charming rogue, or helped incidental minor characters, or showed redeeming qualities in the course of the story, then the antagonist will lose the goal but escape capture.

If the antagonist is a villain, he or she will lose the story goal and be punished additionally, perhaps incarcerated or even killed.

Example:  in Ken Follett’s WWII thriller, The Key to Rebecca, the hero prevents British plans from falling into Rommel’s hands, saves his son’s life, and gets the girl.  The villain fails to steal the plans and is incarcerated in a tiny, windowless cell where his acute claustrophobia drives him mad.

In Gone with the Wind, Scarlett O’Hara finds out too late that she loves Rhett instead of Ashley and she pays for her many mistakes by failing to stop Rhett from leaving her.

In the Sidney Sheldon novel Rage of Angels, the protagonist survives the climax with her life intact, but because of her mistakes she has lost her integrity, lost her lover, lost her career, lost her son, and is left walking down a snowy street at dusk, with nothing.

Some novels cover these six steps in a couple of scenes separated by a sequel.  Others take two, possibly three chapters.  Still others, such as the Dick Francis mystery Whip Hand, spend the second half of the novel spanning the climax.

Certainly in the writing of any story, whatever its length, the climax requires revision and possibly several drafts to get everything exactly right.  But in terms of evaluating a story premise — which is what this diagnostic series has been about — it’s important to look at story climax in terms of being a destination.  Chances are in your working synopsis or outline, some of these steps will be rough or vague.  Go ahead and sketch them out.  They will change and adapt during the actual writing of your rough draft, but thinking ahead through these steps will help you focus on where your story is going.  And you are much more likely to get there.

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