Week Eleven. We’re getting close now. Can you taste it?
This week, your hero surrenders. Why? Because she has no choice. It’s only through surrendering that your hero redefines her relationship to her goal. Notice how all of your characters have a specific relationship to the goal—no matter whether the goal is love, money, prestige, or angled parking spaces at the mall—and that what separates your hero from your antagonist is the hero’s willingness to surrender and redefine her goal in order to get what she needs.
Write a quick, point-form outline to the end of Act Two: The Hero Feels the Effects/The Second Turning Point.
Write to the moment when your hero gives up, surrenders, and loses all hope.
Keep in Mind
Suffering is the final gasp that leads your hero to her moment of surrender.
We only surrender when we recognize how impossible it is that we will ever get what we want.
When your hero surrenders, she reframes her idea of what she wants.
Until the hero surrenders and reframes that relationship to her goal, there can never be an evolution, her character arc can never feel complete.
Our stories ask everything from us for a reason. If it didn’t, we would never surrender our fixed ideas about ourselves and our world.
There’s a difference between your hero’s surrender at the end of Act Two and the battle scene at the end of Act Three. Your hero surrenders because she has no choice. The battle scene involves your hero making a new choice. Your hero makes this new choice at the end, proving to God(s), Fate(s), and men that she has earned her shift in perception and the rewards of the story goal.
Suffering and Surrender
Suffering is a double-edged sword. The character who suffers and the character who inflicts suffering are both made more memorable and more important. Suffering can be both/either physical and/or emotional. Grief and agony, well presented, can increase the reader’s emotional involvement. Keep in mind, however, that you aren’t using grief and agony to make the reader grieve and bleed. Readers don’t necessarily feel what the characters are feeling. They may be cheering at the moment of the villain’s “agony of defeat,” or hissing at the irony of the duplicitous sidekick’s so-called loyalty to the hero. But the intensity of the character’s feelings—so long as they are believable and bearable—will greatly intensify the reader’s feelings, no matter what they are.
But suffering loses its potency with repetition. The first time a character barks his shins on the furniture, that character’s importance rises with the amount of pain he experiences. By the third and fourth time, the character becomes comic, and his pain is a joke. Just the same, the first mention of a character’s grief raises the stature of the character and makes the reader more emotionally involved. But keep harping on it and the reader begins to think the character is whinging, and their emotional involvement with him diminishes.
This doesn’t mean suffering is a sharply limited character device; on the contrary, it has almost unlimited potential. But you have to remember that you increase the power of suffering by showing more of its causes and effects, not by describing the injury and loss in greater and greater detail.
“You don’t write about the horrors of war. No. You write about a kid’s burnt socks lying in the road.” ― Richard Price, author of The Wanderers, Clockers and Lush Life
Make us understand how intensely the character loved before losing the object of their desire, or how they trusted before being betrayed, and his grief will have far more power, even if you show it with great economy. Show a character coping with pain and grief, refusing to succumb, and the reader will wince and weep for him.
But pain and grief only increase a reader’s intensity in proportion to the character’s degree of choice. When we see a doctor setting the character’s broken leg, it hurts. When the character has to set his own broken leg, it agonizes. When we see a character give up her lover in order to preserve her integrity, our emotions are far more intense than they would be if the lover hopped the next flight to the Bahamas with his mistress and abandoned her. Self-chosen suffering—sacrifice—is far more intense than pain alone.
The other side of that coin, when a character willingly inflicts pain and grief on another, raises the stature of the torturer in our fear and loathing just as the victim rises in our sympathy. A character driving a car and accidentally hitting a child is powerful. But how about a character deliberately hitting a child with a car, steering straight for her, revving the throttle to really make it hurt? The effect is even stronger, isn’t it? This is the power of choice.
And what happens when your hero runs out of choices? When there is absolutely no chance of achieving her goal?
Your hero is going to surrender. Your hero is going to die. Maybe not physically, but in another sense that is every bit as real: your hero is going to experience the death of their old identity. She is close to recognizing that what she’s been in search of is impossible to achieve. Your hero set out on her journey, and things got pretty rough. She suffered, but damn it, she persevered… only to come to this?
In your own life, have you ever thought, “If I don’t get this thing that I want, my life won’t be worth a plugged nickel?”
And then you didn’t get that thing.
You stared into the void that day, didn’t you?
But then a week—or a month, or twenty years—later, you looked back and what did you think? “Wow. I survived. I’m made of sterner stuff than I thought.”
That’s what your character has to experience in her moment of surrender. She has to stare into the void. “Who am I? How did I get here? How will I ever go on?”
Knowing that this happened, being aware that it happened, it isn’t enough. You can’t just hop over it and write about it from some remote, safe, undisclosed location. Not if you’re going to write about it with any honesty. Understanding what happened and why isn’t enough. As a writer, you have to experience it again on some level.
As a writer, you have to put your skin in the game. If you’re not invested—lock, stock, and barrel—in your hero’s surrender, the moment will lack gravity.
But as much as you may dread staring into that void and plunging into the unknown, take comfort: on the other side of your hero’s surrender, there’s a gift.