Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Ending with Courage -- The reader's reward

Getting endings right is tricky. Just making sure the story question is answered in a logical, satisfactory way is difficult enough. Making the ending memorable pushes a writer further and separates the best from the okay.

I provided some basics in three previous posts. Today, I'll focus on one aspect that, though not required, can really connect with readers -- Courage.

First, it's good to think about what courage means to you. Were you ever courageous? Did you observe or hear about acts of courage that meant something to you?

Here are a few ideas on courage I came up with:
  • Courage can only occur when the person is vulnerable. Physically taking on a bully isn't very courageous if you are bigger, stronger, and a black belt. It may if the challenge is verbal and you are inarticulate and face humiliation. The courageous person must have something big to lose.
  • The courageous act must be difficult and involve sacrifice.
  • A courageous act has an alternative and is freely chosen.
  • There is no hedging. The choice must be complete, absolute, and not a compromise.
  • The intent of a courageous act is benevolent. Though person acting might be doing something objectively harmful, the choice is made to achieve good. In the best of circumstances, it is a generous act providing a benefit or preventing harm to another.
  • In a story, courage needs to be expressed in an act (or a choice not to act) or a communication. In other words, it takes place in a moment of time. This does not mean there can't be a series of related acts in a story. What it means is that some real acts of courage, such as facing deteriorating health with dignity and grace, don't make good endings. The expression of courage in an ending must be a clear and singular event.
Once you have a courageous act in mind that fits your character, the sequence will be most powerful if it includes the following:

  • An explicit expression of stakes, preferably recently raised.
  • A clear and accessible indication of what the world without the courageous act would be like.
  • A chance to get away without personal consequences (and sometimes with a reward).
  • A clear rejection of the chance to escape.
  • Struggle and near failure in the act.
  • Merited and clear success without cheap tricks (such as a surprise weapon or a revelation that was not prepared for earlier).
That's the way I see it, and it points to opportunities to include courage in a powerful and effective way. Check to see how it matches a story you love. Could that ending be improved with courage or adding in missing elements? What about your own work?

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