Narrative Writing


Moral Choice (2)

At the climax of your story, your hero faces a horrendous choice—a choice between right and wrong, good and evil. To do the "right" thing, he must sacrifice all he holds dear. Nonetheless, the hero does the right thing. For a moment, all appears lost, and then, in an unexpected reversal, the hero is rewarded with what he wanted, and more.

The most crude example of this formula that I can think of is this:

The hero has the bad guy cornered. The bad guy grabs an innocent bystander and puts a gun to her head. "Drop your gun, or I'll shoot her."

The hero is forced to choose. He can kill the villain, save the world, and get everything he's ever dreamed of. But the price will be one dead bystander.

What does he do?

Of course, he drops his own gun. That's why he's a hero. One innocent life is more precious to him than the fate of the entire world.

And then, for a bleak moment, all appears lost, until, in the reversal, the hero defeats the villain, the world is safe, and the bystander is still alive.

Once you learn to recognize this pattern, you'll start noticing it everywhere. You'll see it in the books you read, the movies you watch, and in your favorite TV shows. Recently, I noticed it in a TV version of the Cinderella story:

After all the usual problems, Cinderella and the prince are finally on the verge of a happy ending. Cinderella is deeply in love with the prince, and the prince loves her too. He has asked her to marry him, and Cinderella said yes. Cinderella's goal—a happy marriage to the prince—is finally within her grasp.

But then the Prince's mother, the queen, asks Cinderella to join her for a private chat. She explains to Cinderella that the people of the kingdom will never accept a queen who is not of noble birth. If Cinderella marries the prince, he will lose the love and respect of his own people. Is that what she wants? If Cinderella truly loves the prince, she will ride away tonight, secretly, without even saying goodbye. She will leave the kingdom forever. It's the only way to prevent the prince from throwing away his future.

This is the climax of the story—this awful choice that Cinderella now faces: Will she choose her own happiness, or will she choose the happiness of the prince?

Tears streaming down her cheeks, Cinderella get on a horse and rides away in the middle of the night.

And then, of course, comes the reversal. The prince finds out what his mother has done. He is furious. He chases after Cinderella and brings her back. They get married and live happily ever after.

Entire books have been written to explain why this formula works so well. Suffice to say, it does, and if you can find a way to incorporate this formula into your own ending, I can almost guarantee that your readers will love your story.

Here is another example:

Velma, a middle school student, has been tormented by the school bully. When she tries to stand up for herself and her friends, the bully decides to teach Velma a lesson. Now, in the climactic scene, Velma is face to face with the bully in the school yard. A group of kids gather around to watch the fight.

The bully gives Velma one last chance to back down from this fight. If Velma admits that she's a spineless coward, the bully will let her walk away.

Velma now faces her moment of truth: If she fights, she will surely get her face smashed in. Or Velma can back down, sacrificing her sense of justice and her own self esteem.

What does Velma do? She decides to fight. Yes, it's going to be painful. She might even lose a few teeth. But it's a matter of principle. She has to fight, not just for herself, but for all the kids who have suffered all year because of this awful bully. Someone has to make a point, and fate has chosen Velma. She steps forward, fists raised. "Let's do it."

The bully grins. She's going to give Velma a beating she'll never forget.

But then—just before the fists start to fly—a kid steps forward from the crowd. It's Squeaky, a small student who has also suffered daily taunts and insults. In her small, squeaky voice, she says, "I stand with Velma."

The bully snorts with laughter. "Fine, then I'll knock both of you out."

And then another kid steps forward. "I stand with Velma too."

And then another.

And now, the whole crowd is chanting: "I stand with Velma! I stand with Velma!"

The bully turns red. Humiliated, she turns around and walks away. The crowd cheers. The children raise Velma onto their shoulders and proclaim her their hero.

That ending works because it's not anticipated, and yet it's not illogical. Velma proved that she really is heroic when she stepped forward, ready to fight, even though it meant certain defeat. And now, because of the reversal, Velma achieved her goal without even fighting. Justice has been served and the reader feels fulfilled.

Instructions for the Quiz

Answer the questions.