Not too many people know this about me, probably because I don’t really have all that many friends to begin with, but I like to watch religious movies like ‘God is Not Dead’. The most amusing thing to me about them is that the people involved think that, by watching the films, non-believers will have no rational choice other than to convert by the closing credits. Well, that and the stunt-casting. Forgive me if I’m wrong here, but I don’t think the guys from Duck Dynasty have a lot of appeal in the atheist community. Just a guess though.
I’ve never liked disconnects. It bothers me when people can’t understand how others arrive at a different conclusion from the same facts. When you prioritize values differently than someone else, you value facts differently. People who value self-reliance higher than community act differently than people who do the opposite even though they think both values are important.
Now combine this idea with something I realized when I was mowing my half-acre of lawn for the last time this season. Writers are sadistic to their characters. If you’re a writer who hasn’t thought “things are going too well for my characters, someone needs some pain,” you need to step up your game.
It wasn’t until I was taking out the mower’s battery to store it for the winter that I put everything together and came to the opposite conclusion. Writers are only sadistic to their characters when you read the book. But that’s usually not how they write it. With notable exceptions, most of the writers I know figure out the end and then have to figure out how to get the characters there. Genre fiction almost requires it.
The ending is what determines the paths a writer can use to get the characters to it.
Mount Marcy is the highest peak in the Adirondacks. The view is spectacular from the peak. Right now even more so because of the season. If I recall right, there are multiple trails up to the top. None of them are easy. It is also technically possible to blaze your own trail. It would be much harder, and substantially more dangerous. A small fraction of people would say the view is still worth it.
There is no road up Marcy like there is up Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park. If there was, the hordes would have destroyed the fragile mountaintop ecosystem even more than they already have. It would also cheapen the view. When I reached the summit of Cadillac with my family after scrambling up the more difficult but shorter option the view seemed more like a prize. We had earned the vista far more than someone who could have slept up the hill in the back seat of a car.
The same is true for whatever story you’re writing, reading, seeing, or listening to. The payoff has to match the price. Value for value. Torturing a protagonist without an equitable vindication at the end leaves the reader unsatisfied.
Take, for example, the original Star Wars film. Imagine the film ended just after they rescued Leia from the Death Star. Luke’s miserable. The battle station is still operational. Many Bothans and Kenobi are dead. Fade to black. You would scratch your head and wonder who lost the last reel of the film.
On the other hand, let’s tweak the ending. The rebels jump out of hyperspace and find the Death Star has all of its systems down because they’re changing the fuses. They can’t launch tie fighters and the AA lasers are offline. They’ve even been doing maintenance on the exhaust port, taking off the external cover and quintupling the size of the target. Luke and all the other pilots cruise on in and forty of them hit the spot. Han shows up just after all the action ends.
In that scenario you wouldn’t even think they deserve the medals at the end. You would probably think they should have ended the movie after rescuing Leia.
In thrillers the protagonist has to lose/risk everything in order to save everything or the person that means everything. In romances the lead has to shed every part of themselves that makes them unworthy of the greatest love they could ever experience. In mysteries the sleuth has to doggedly persevere in their efforts, diligently collecting evidence, breaking through lies, and risking their health and career to arrive at the well-hidden truth. The value has to match the price.
Here’s where it gets tricky. If your reader doesn’t prioritize values the same way you do, they may not see the transaction between value and price as equally as you do, and that brings back around to the Christian films I talked about at the beginning. A devout watcher sees eternal salvation as a reward for absolute surrender to a belief. That seems like a pretty good trade at face value. On the other hand, an atheist watcher may see the same story and doubt both the payoff and the cost to the individual. Just change your mind and believe without evidence? How can anyone even do that?
I’m not saying you should keep a running tally of slights and advances for your characters. That’ll generally take care of itself. But it does have to be a consideration when you start with the end in mind. Know the peak you’re trying to get to, take some time to consider the view from there, and then decide on the path you’re going to set your protagonist on. The crags, fissures, wild beasts, and overgrown trail will reveal themselves as you go.