Consequences.

All of us grew up with them.

And we learned that adulthood is full of them, too.

But so often when we read a book or watch a movie, the rules of life and consequences don’t seem to apply.

And this is a sure-fire way to repel readers forever.

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The Most Difficult Element of Story

Without a doubt, this is the most challenging storytelling element to get right.

To students of Joseph Campbell, Christopher Vogler, and the Hero’s Journey, it’s known as the Resurrection.

Getting your story’s consequences and recovery, or “Resurrection,” right, is incredibly difficult because you have to do two very challenging things:

  1. Get your characters into trouble, and make them suffer for it
  2. Get your characters to get themselves out of trouble

More than any other part of your story, this requires the most dreaming, planning, drafting, revising, rewriting, scrapping, and starting over again.

This step is hard. 

But it’s a deal-breaker if you get it wrong.

Readers expect their authors to be cleverer by half. They pick up your book because they trust that you are wise enough, and crafty enough, to take them on a wicked good journey.

And every wicked good journey needs a Resurrection step.

Your characters, or their dreams, must die (or face death in a crushing, absolute way), and then they must re-birth themselves.

Notice that I didn’t say, “they must be reborn.”

“Reborn” is a passive term – an external force gives resurrecting life to the dead.

In a great story, the hero must cleverly, or honestly, or courageously, or humbly, or empathetically, or wisely, or sacrificially, fashion his or her own re-birth through an incredibly difficult choice.

And pulling that off is hard.

Get Them Into Trouble

Thankfully, getting your characters into trouble isn’t the hard part.

The fun thing about it is that you can employ a blend of Bad Luck, Bad Choices, and Antagonism to get them there.

Where many stories fail, though, is that they refuse to let their characters suffer for their choices.

Every heroic journey is flawed (see Reason #4). And those flaws cause others, or the hero him/herself, to suffer.

The story needs to take a moment and let the character (and therefore the reader) soak in that suffering.

Think of Ratatouille, when Chef Linguini confesses to the other cooks that there has been a rat (Remy) under his toque the whole time, doing all the cooking.

Breaking this down, consider: Linguini lied. He deceived. And he also brought vermin into a gourmet kitchen.

So when he tells the truth, naturally all the other cooks abandon him. At this point Linguini gives up hope, leaving Remy on the floor to consider all that he’s lost because they were brave and told the truth. 

This begins the Resurrection step in Ratatouille. It is beautifully executed (gotta love Brad Bird) and plucks each emotional string at exactly the right time. Our characters seem hopeless. Their dreams have been crushed.

They’re essentially dead.

Just as Brad Bird does in Ratatouille, let your characters suffer. Let them hurt. Drag them through Hell for pursuing such ambitious goals.

Because that’s what Life does to your readers. It drags them through Hell for their own dreams, and readers want stories that tell the truth about it.

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Get Them(selves) Out of Trouble

Now comes the damned-near-impossible part: Getting those characters out of trouble.

Sadly, most of the movies we see, and many of the books we read, cheat their way through this step. And sadly also, we are so conditioned to accept it that many of us don’t seem to notice the lazy storytelling when it happens.

Yet when it does happen, a feeling of disappointment lingers in our subconscious. We know that something wasn’t right about a story, but we can’t quite put our finger on it.

Well, it’s simple logic.

If the character didn’t resurrect him or herself, then the story cheated.

How many movies have you seen where the characters are triumphant, mostly due to luck?

Pixar usually handles this difficult step well (as with Ratatouille), but there is one glaring blemish on its storytelling record: Toy Story 3.

There is much to adore about Toy Story 3 – primarily the final good-bye when Andy teaches Bonnie how to play with his toys. Fetch me some Kleenex.

But before this dramatic moment, there is the heart-wrenching scene in the trash incinerator where the toys – friends for a lifetime – fight for survival. Looking below, they see the fiery belly about to consume them.

They try to climb up the trash.

It doesn’t work.

They look at each other and realize that this, undoubtedly, is the end.

They grasp hands.

Close their eyes.

The music swells.

And then a crane from on high magically saves them. 

I remember watching this in the theater, silently begging Pixar: “Do it! Kill them! Let them die!” 

Now don’t get me wrong! I love Woody and Buzz and the rest. I did not want them to die as I watched most of the movie!

But I thought these horrible things because, I had reasoned, the story had exhausted every option for the heroes to honestly re-birth themselves, and would find a way to “make it right” after the fact. Pixar stories, I thought at the time, do not cheat.

I was wrong.

I wanted Pixar to have the balls to own the consequences the story had reaped. There was no way for the heroes to effectively resurrect themselves, and they didn’t: Luck did.

Toy Story 3 cheated.

Convoluted arguments can be made for how, exactly, the heroes “earned” this rescue at the hands of the three-eyed aliens. But as I said – they’re convoluted.

And escaping consequences by luck is a textbook example of deus ex machina, which is the cardinal sin of storytelling.

Why is this so important?

As I said in the previous section, your readers get dragged through Hell for pursing their own dreams. They face awful consequences every single day.

While luck makes a cheap “feel-good” story and gets lottery winners’ faces on the news, luck isn’t responsible for most of what happens to us. It doesn’t save us when we need it most, and it doesn’t hurt us when we are most vulnerable. It’s too random in real life.

Sure, car accidents and rare diseases strike and cause horrible pain.

But these unlucky events aren’t dramatic, because they involve no drama. No one chooses anything.

“Shit,” in essence, just happens.

So when a story uses luck to save its hero or kill its villain, readers wrinkle their noses and think (even subconsciously), Whatever. 

Luck isn’t what saves heroes.

Determination, however, is. So is courage. So is hard work. So is loyalty, kindness, empathy, and love.

These virtues are common to readers, and readers love characters who embody such virtues.

What a reader wants – perhaps more than anything – is to see a character use his or her virtues to get out of certain death.

I told you that this was the most challenging step.

But it is essential if you want to tell good stories and thrill a tribe of loyal readers.

 

Readers Quit When the Choices Don’t Matter

So, put it simply again, you have to do 2 things:

  1. Get your characters into trouble, and make them suffer for it
  2. Get your characters to get themselves out of trouble

The main ingredient in all of this is Choice

Choices matter more than anything else a character says, looks like, or passively does.

In fact, it’s arguable that your character is nothing more than his/her choices.

And when your character’s choices cease to matter because Luck, God, a gust of wind, a mechanical crane, or anything else swoops in and saves the day, your reader is going to be dissatisfied, if even at a subconscious level.

And what dissatisfied readers do best is disappear.

They don’t leave 1-star reviews, because they’re not angry enough to.

They don’t buy your next book to “be nice.”

They disappear.

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Story Secret #8: Make Your Characters Suffer, and Then Resurrect Themselves

As I said: This is hard.

It takes a ton of planning, drafting, and rewriting. You will almost never get this right in your head or in your first drafts.

When I finished the first draft of my novel, The Bean of LifeI had nothing close to a Resurrection step. What I had written, instead, was a self-indulgent final chapter that attempted to wax philosophical.

Worse, though, I had opted for too much suffering and too little self-resurrection. Luck was a major factor. And the ending left my beta readers feeling empty.

But thanks to the kindness and honesty of those readers, I learned that my ending needed an overhaul. It took over a year to finally get it right.

That’s right: a year.

In Pixar time, one year is nothing. Pixar spends half a decade hammering out the story for each feature film, often re-casting voice talent and re-recording dialogue for a multitude of reasons.

If story is everything, then the Resurrection is THE thing.

It is the culmination of every other element.

The goal leads to it. The change’s climax occurs during it. The setting resists the hero’s ability to re-birth himself.

This step is hard, but it’s worth it for a very good reason: Readers want hope.

They want heroes to follow and inspiration to cling to.

They want stories where a good guy pursued a goal and got it though his/her hard work, empathy, loyalty, and everything other virtue that heroes espouse.

This one’s truly for your readers.

Do it right, and your characters won’t be the only ones enjoying a re-birth. You, and your career, might be too!

10-reasons-3d-imageRemember, you can discover all 10 Reasons readers quit your book, and the Story Secrets that will win them back, in my FREE new book, The 10 Reasons Readers Quit Your Book (and How to Win Them Back)

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Thanks for reading!

What do you think? Do character choices really matter when they’re in the deepest pit of trouble? Leave your thoughts in the Comments below!

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Image Credit:  *sax, Creative Commons

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