How to Make Your Character’s Lowest Moment Truly Nerve Wracking
Every story should have a tragedy. Even stories with happy endings need at least one.
Disney’s animated classic Cinderella has three. The first two tragedies happen during the opening narration. Cinderella’s mother dies. Her father marries the wicked step mother and dies shortly after. Cinderella is forced into a life of servitude. The third tragedy happens when Cinderella’s step-sisters tear her dress apart. That tragedy seems inconsequential compared to everything Cinderella has been through, but we’ll see why of all these events the destruction of the dress is the most important one.
The death of Cinderella’s parents make us sympathetic to her plight. Its a life altering event sure to rock anyone’s foundation. So why is it so much more tragic when the wicked stepsisters tear up her dress? After all it’s a garment, meant to be worn once, while Cinderella’s parents were her entire support system.
We don’t spend much time with Cinderella’s parents in the opening scene. Her mother has no screen time and her father has no dialogue. We’re told he was a good man, but we’re not given much to mourn. It’s Cinderella’s newfound circumstances that are given weight.
The shredding of Cinderella’s gown breaks our hearts because we see all the hope that goes into it.
Cinderella struggles to sew her dress between chores. Then her mice friends decide she deserves something nice for a change. They run through the walls on covert missions to gather materials. They cut the fabric, even though the scissors are a two mouse operation. Why even the birds help measure the hemline.
When Cinderella sees the dress her dream finally comes true. She’s awash with gratitude. It’s her starry eyed anticipation of the night’s events that makes her stepsister’s assault so gut wrenching.
This isn’t the worst thing that’s ever happened to Cinderella, but it’s the worst thing we’ve witnessed. It’s this low moment that makes the eventual ‘Happily Ever After’ feel earned.
I’ve written a lot about the virtues of introducing characters in humbling situations, but I want to talk about the importance of those tragedies that happen later on.
Why Every Hero Needs to Be Tossed into A Pit of Snakes
It’s when our backs are up against the wall that we’re forced to get clever. It’s when the chips are down that we realize how good of gambler we really are. It’s when the going gets tough that the tough put on a mech suit and blow the alien queen out the airlock.
Every story needs one of these moments at the end of the second act. When the only thing the hero has left is the lesson their journey has taught them. When they realize the goal that set their quest into motion isn’t what they really want. When they reach the tipping point of a major life change.
The greater the hero’s fall the more meaningful their rise will be.
Ra’s al Ghul needs to burn down Wayne Manor, Bruce Wayne’s last connection to his parents, for Bruce to find the resolve he needs for their final confrontation. Kirk needs to be marooned on an ice planet before he can earn the respect of the crew of the Starship Enterprise. 99.9% of the cast of Game of Thrones needs to die brutal agonizing deaths before Daenerys Targaryen can fry the white walkers with her dragons (that’s not a spoiler, it’s an educated guess).
Do an inventory of every film you’ve ever seen and you’ll find the greater the second act tragedy the more rewarding the victory. This is why Joss Whedon is so notorious for killing beloved characters. The second act demands sacrifices.
Why Raiders of the Lost Ark is a Master Class in Plot Structure
(SPOILERS for the Indiana Jones series)
Indiana Jones spends most of Raiders of the Lost Ark trying to find the Ark of the Covenant. When he finally does it’s taken by the Nazis. To make matters worse they leave him in a pit of snakes. Indy hates snakes.
The Nazis dump Marion Ravenwood into the same pit before sealing it shut. This is Indy’s lowest possible moment, but it’s also where he realizes that the thing he’s wanted all along was a human connection. His goal changes and he evolves in time for the climactic confrontation.
In Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom Indy finds three of the Sankara stones that promise fortune and glory to whoever possesses them. When Indy’s in a pinch he utters an incantation that superheats the rocks. Two of them fall into the river while one burns Indy’s pursuer. Indy reacquires this stone, but returns it to its rightful owners.
In Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade Indy has to choose between staying to acquire the cup of Christ or leaving the temple with his father. In the end Indy always chooses his human connections over material MacGuffins.
One of the problems with Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is that the titular hero suffers so few losses. He’s never pushed to his breaking point, he rebounds too fast, and he’s never forced to make a choice. His goal stays the same the entire time. Sure, reconnecting with Marion Ravenwood and learning Mutt is his son distracts him, but he’s never forced to choose between his family and the adventure he’s on. They’re along for the ride. In the end the film feels like it has no stakes.
Hit Your Audience in the Feels Before Going for the Smiles
I’m a fan of hard won happy endings: those stories with all of the foreshadowing of tragedies that somehow end in victory. I’m also a fan of the reverse: those stories where the heroes victory seems like a forgone conclusion until everything ends in ruin.
I like twists that take risks, but they’re not always palatable for general audiences. Audiences tend to be more forgiving of tonal shifts when they happen before the third act.
(SPOILERS for The Dark Knight below)
Batman catches the Joker two thirds of the way into The Dark Knight. It’s a hard won victory that took last minute heroics on the part of Batman and scheming on behalf of Harvey Dent, and Commissioner Gordon. Their victory is short lived when the mob kills the love of Bruce Wayne’s life and gravely injures his greatest ally. Meanwhile the Joker reduces Gotham Central to ruins, eliminates Batman’s leverage over the mob, and escapes.
It’s this series of terrible losses that makes Batman’s plight so compelling.
Writers should ask themselves what’s the worst possible thing that can happen to my hero? Now how close can I get to that without emotionally exhausting my audience? There is such a thing as too much dread, just remember to balance it out will a little hope. Cinderella didn’t have to sulk too long before her Fairy Godmother showed up.
Hit your characters as hard as you can without betraying the tone of your story. Have some awareness of genre expectations. If you’re writing a children’s book your hero can get swallowed up by a wolf provided we know they’re alive the entire time. If you’re writing a horror story the wolf can devour your hero’s limbs one at a time. If you’re writing a romantic comedy your character can suffer a forgivable betrayal. Perhaps they discover they’ve been dating a wolf the entire time.
Where I Use Plot Structure to Predict How Game of Thrones Ends
I believe Game of Thrones is so consistently shocking because George R.R. Martin has no intention of ending his saga on a note of futility and pain. He’s going for a bittersweet ending, that will be heavy on the casualties, but will ultimately leave the kingdom of Westeros in better shape then he’d conceived it.
If I had to guess, each of the players vying for the iron throne will realize the kingdom needs generals to protect it from the white walkers more than it needs a ceremonial monarch. Either the victor of this war ends up as the ruler of Westeros or the title goes to their second in command. What matters is that Daenerys owns everyone with her dragons.