I’ve written about betrayals in this series, but I haven’t looked at the opposite behaviors — grand gestures and sacrifices. As any fan of romances knows, a grand gesture is the sure proof of true love. The cliche is of the hero (or heroine) running through city streets (or an airport or a wedding party) to make a public declaration of love and commitment. Often, there is an element of humiliation or sacrifice.
A great example of this is Bridget Jones (in the film), who finds her diary open and her true love Mark missing. She runs through the streets in the snow to apologize for her diary entries. Note: As much as I like that example, please no more running lovers. Provide another task at the ending. Do something fresh. At least have the hero or heroine parachute in as a Flying Elvis (Honeymoon in Vegas).
Sacrifices may appear even when romance isn’t the main point. War movies often include sacrifice sometimes with a soldier giving his life, but often including the loss of almost everyone (Saving Private Ryan) or the whole team (Glory). Saints give up their lives for a greater good in films like A Man for All Seasons. In It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey gives up his dreams to tend to the needs of the community and face down a greedy villain on their behalf. And, of course, in a sort of reverse grand gesture, Rick sacrifices his love in Casablanca, watching Ilsa leave with her husband.
To bring power to a sacrifice or grand gesture, consider these:
Make it big - Though the smaller sacrifices, such as those in It’s a Wonderful Life and I Remember Mama can add up for emotional impact, coming up with something that really matters and shows how a character has grown (like Rick in Casablanca) can be more dramatic.
Articulate the human needs - All sacrifices involve a level of privation. Life itself is lost in many stories, but Bridget suffers cold and humiliation. George Bailey gives up his honeymoon and the experience both a special time with the woman he loves and a taste of life beyond Bedford Falls. The exact loss may be stated directly in the story (and often is since this shows it’s meaningful to the character). But, even if it isn’t made explicit to readers or audiences, the writer should be able to articulate it. Maslow’s pyramid can be useful in clarifying the unfulfilled need.
Choose between public and private - Witnesses may be valuable, especially when a declaration is involved. But some sacrifices are more noble if no one (except the reader) knows about them. Test to see which might have the greater impact.
Motivate - If it isn’t clear to a reader why a hero is making a sacrifice, it can be confusing or even appear to be done out of weakness or masochism. Don’t be shy about showing the motivation on no uncertain terms.
Set it up - Big moments in stories need good foundations. The factual information must be provided so they can be understood. They need the time, steps, and reasons. They also need to be presented in emotional depth, which may demand pacing, setting, and even devices like comic relief.
Explore a revelation - If Bridget Jones wrote her diary entries as a blog posts, the ending wouldn’t work. Instead, it’s secret. And it comes to bite her at the last second, forcing her to reveal her heart without reservation. That doesn’t always work in a story, but it’s worth exploring as a possibility.
Make it consequential - Yes, a sacrifice can fail to achieve anything (which might be used for ironic effect). Or it can be unrecognized. Or partially successful. But it has to matter to the character. It has to reflect something real and important in terms of self-understanding and connect with readers emotionally. It’s easier if there are big consequences (like winning a war) beyond the character, but a sacrifice means nothing if it doesn’t impact the character’s identity.
Tie it to the main plot - Most of the examples above do more than cause a shift in the character. They move the plot forward, provide turns, or even create the story’s climax. If you can do this AND tie in the emotional arc in the same scene, you’ll create something unforgettable.
Make it surprising but inevitable - Make a list of why the character could not possibly make the sacrifice in question. Make another list of why the sacrifice is unavoidable. Play with your lists to make the sacrifice come as a shock but be completely believable.
Lots of stories (usually in novels) attempt to transform or deepen relationships between characters through decisions or insights or realizations. That approach tends to fall flat. Sacrifice in a story is usually compelling and convincing. It makes it clear that the new relationship is earned.
I mentioned that sacrifices and grand gestures are the flip side of betrayals. The list above? You may find it useful to consider if you’re including a betrayal in your story.