When two equal and opposite forces collide, they crash into each other with the same intensity. It’s in the books, Newton’s third law of motion. Right there, see? This rule applies to car crashes, billiard balls, writer against computer, and it applies to fiction as well. The recipe for a spectacular story climax is simple: you take two opposite and equally powerful forces, and crash ’em to bits in an awesome explosion of either emotion or car parts. Now let’s see how this is best accomplished.
Force no.1 is the protagonist, the mighty hero in his full glory, with all his problems, worries and sub-plots. He’s got a goal, a purpose that drives him to do all the awesome things we love so much, and he’s heading toward that goal with a force as great as his obsession. Okay, fine, his need.
And then there’s force no. 2, the antagonist, the crooked villain with his demonic plan to fuck things up for our niceguy. The villain must be a fully rounded character too, just like the protagonist, in order for him to be the equal but opposite force we need for a mighty crash. It doesn’t matter if the villain is an actual person, part of the environment (terrible storm, haywire computer, a pack of rabid mutant squirrels) or a whole group of people (society, a company, an army of face-painted raging Scots).
The antagonist must oppose the protagonist with a force that’s just as mighty as his. If the forces aren’t equal, we don’t have a mighty crash, we only have a mighty shove, and we don’t want that, right?
While trudging along on his quest, your protagonist must be faced with opposition that is at least equal in strength as his resolve to reach his goal, if not greater. If the antagonistic force colliding with him is less than his own power or drive to succeed, we’re left without much conflict and the story falls flat. It’s like letting a kickboxer loose on the school bully—a bloody disaster. (Ah man, I freakin love that show!)
While that may sound gratifying, to have the hero kick some royal ass from here to Sunday, it doesn’t create enough tension to sustain a full story. A guy who’s got it easy doesn’t generate sympathy. We all secretly hate that guy who’s got it made and doesn’t need to work for his cheese like the rest of us.
On the other hand, if the antagonistic force is insurmountably great we’re not creating tragedy akin to the mighty scribes of old, we’re creating frustration. Tragedy doesn’t come from being faced with overwhelming odds against which you just cannot win. Tragedy comes from learning how to win, or learning a pivotal truth after it’s already too late. At least that’s true tragedy in my humble opinion.
When you set out to invest power in your protagonist and his nemesis, distribute the forces evenly. Make each of them as powerful and as flawed as the other, and make sure they’re going to crash head on. The tension of a story lies in opposite goals, or the same goal craved by opposite forces, not in random violence.
After the mighty crash, the impact must also be distributed adequately. But because characters are “real people” and colliding forces between personalities don’t quite match up with Newton’s scribbles, we have a distribution of impact that is not exactly equal, but must be similar in magnitude or nature.
For example, if the antagonist is butt-kicked so bad his own mother doesn’t recognize him, or he’s blasted to smithereens, the protagonist must at least emerge from the fight deeply transformed. A profound transformation on a personal level equals the annihilation of the protagonist’s old persona, and matches the complete destruction of the antagonist.
Of course this is no hard rule, I’m not even sure it is any sort of rule, but I’ve found that stories that defy this basic principle fail to do something very important: they don’t leave the reader satisfied.
And frustrated readers make scribbly scribbles sad, see?
This blog post is part of the A to Z Blogging Challenge, April 2012