Narrative Writing


Getting What You Really Wanted

Sometimes the hero fails, yet in failing, still succeeds.

This apparent contradiction disappears when you realize that what you think you want and what you really want may be two different things.

Here is an example from one of my favorite short stories by Robert E. Howard:

Conan, the hero, has just spent the last 40 pages stealing a chest full of valuable jewels from a villainous king. Now he is trying to escape the city by following a trail that winds through a steep canyon. Behind him, he can hear the king's soldiers in hot pursuit. Beside him is a beautiful woman—Muriela—a slave girl whom he rescued from the king's palace.

At the climax of the story, Conan and the girl are crossing a narrow span that bridges the canyon walls. A hundred feet below them, a roaring river rushes. And blocking their path, at the top of the span, is a terrible monster who has been brainwashed by the king.

Heroically, Conan steps forward and wounds the monster with his sword. The monster turns to flee, but as its leaving, it snatches up the chest of jewels in one hand, while grabbing Muriela with the other.

Conan gives chase, and the monster appears to be getting away.

But the monster was slowing, like clock-work running down. Blood gushed in torrents from that terrible gash in his breast, and he lurched drunkenly from side to side. Suddenly he stumbled, reeled and toppled sidewise—pitched headlong from the arch and hurtled downward. Girl and jewel chest fell from his nerveless hand and Muriela's scream rang terribly above the snarl of the water below.

Conan was almost under the spot from which the creature had fallen. The monster struck the lower arch glancingly and shot off, but the writhing figure of the girl struck and clung, and the chest hit the edge of a span near her. One falling object struck on one side of Conan and one on the other. Either was within arm's length; for the fraction of a split second the chest teetered on the edge of the bridge, and Muriela clung by one arm, her face turned desperately toward Conan, her eyes dilated with the fear of death and her lips parted in a haunting cry of despair.

This is Conan's moment of truth—the test of his true character. He can save the jewels, or he can save the girl, but he cannot save them both. What is he going to do?

Conan did not hesitate, nor did he even glance toward the chest that held the wealth of an epoch. With a quickness that would have shamed the spring of a hungry jaguar, he swooped, grasped the girl's arm just as her fingers slipped from the smooth stone, and snatched her up on the span with one explosive heave. The chest toppled on over and struck the water ninety fee below . . . a splash, a jetting flash of foam marked where the jewels disappeared forever from the sight of man.

After a bit more action, Conan and Muriela finally reach a place of safety. And that's when Muriela starts crying.

She covered her tear-stained face with her hands, and her slim shoulders shook with sobs.

"I lost the jewels for you," she wailed miserably. "It was my fault. If I'd obeyed you and stayed out on the ledge, that brute would never have seen me. You should have caught the gems and let me drown!"

"Yes, I suppose I should," Conan agreed. "But forget it. Never worry about what's past. And stop crying, will you? That's better. Come on."

"You mean you're going to keep me? Take me with you?" she asked hopefully.

"What else do you suppose I'd do with you?"

And the story ends as the two of them embark on another adventure.

Technically, I suppose you could argue that this story is a tragedy. Conan's goal was to steal the jewels, and he failed. And yet, it's still a happy ending.

To understand why, you must understand Conan's character. What he thinks he wants is a chest full of jewels; what he really wants is a life of adventure and maybe the love of a woman. At the crucial moment, Conan made the "right" choice, and he's rewarded for it in the end. That's what makes a happy ending.

Many satisfying endings follow this pattern. The main character doesn't get what she thinks she wants, but she does get what she truly wants, whether it's love, security, respect, or whatever.

Instructions for the Quiz

Answer the questions.