Sunday, October 13

Techniques of the Selling Writer: How To Create A Story With An Interesting Hero & A Satisfying Ending

Techniques of the Selling Writer: How To Create A Story With An Interesting Hero & A Satisfying Ending

Today I'm going to talk about how to craft a story so that not only will the average reader find the ending satisfying but you'll also have created, in the process, a well-rounded, sympathetic, likeable hero.

What follows, the ideas, come from one of the best books on the craft of writing ever written: Techniques of the Selling Writer, by Dwight V. Swain. Though the ideas are Mr. Swain's I've put them in my own words. And, by the way, this is all from just one chapter of Mr. Swain's book, chapter 5: Fiction Strategy.

The Hero's Motivation

What do heroes seek? They seek what we all, on some level, seek: security, safety.

For example, take Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark. He doesn't seek his own safety, true, he seeks the safety of the world because if the Nazi's capture the ark they'll win the war and that would be, to put it mildly, bad.

What does a hero (what does anyone) need to feel safe and secure? Mr. Swain argued that the hero needs to feel he controls his destiny. That is, he needs to feel that his choices and actions are related to what happens in the (story) world in such a way that what he does matters.

To put this same idea another way: in a story world there needs to be a connection between what the character does (his DEEDS) and what happens (his REWARDS).

The question: Just how do we build this connection between deeds and rewards?

Let's go back a bit.

At the beginning of the story your hero isn't going to feel safe and secure. She isn't going to feel that there's a satisfying connection between her deeds and her rewards. The hero is going to have to fight for this, it's part of her quest.

For example, at the start of Star Wars IV: A New Hope Luke lives with his aunt and uncle on their farm on Tatooine. Does Luke feel he controls his destiny? No

If Luke had a choice, he'd be off to the Academy but his aunt and uncle won't let him go. By the end of the movie, as a direct result of the choices Luke has made, he is in charge of his own destiny. Case in point: he made the choice to ignore the targeting computer and, as Obi-Wan Kenobi instructed, use the force. The outcome of the entire movie (not to mention the known universe!) hangs on this choice and he is rewarded. Luke achieves his goal, the destruction of the Death Star.

Or take another terrific Harrison Ford movie, Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark. What does Dr. Belloq keep saying to Indy? At the end of the opening sequence he says: "Dr. Jones, again we see that there is nothing you possess which I cannot take away." Then, again, at the midpoint, just before he seals Jones inside the Well of Souls, he taunts him by saying, "So, once again, Jones, what was briefly yours is now mine."

What Belloq is saying here is: You don't control your destiny, I do

That's what the hero has to wrench control of by the end, that's his great task, to control his destiny through the choices he makes.

The Hero's Deeds Need To Be The Cause of His/Her Rewards

I've already mentioned that there has to be a certain kind of cause and effect relationship between DEEDS and REWARDS for a story's ending to be truly satisfying. (Remember, I'm talking about the kind of stories where the hero wins the day, stories like those behind all the Indiana Jones movies). Rewards must be meted out on the basis of deeds. Your hero's behavior--her choices--must determine her fate.

Specifically, Good Deeds Must Be Rewarded

As DVS says, having a causal relationship between a character's deeds and their rewards isn't enough. Good deeds must be rewarded.

The Hero Must Deserve To Win

Let's say we've built a story, a world, in which deeds are the cause of rewards and in which good deeds are rewarded and bad deeds are (eventually) punished. It follows that your hero must demonstrate he's a good guy if we want him to achieve his goal in a plausible manner. (Which isn't to say that he can't make the occasional mistake in the beginning.)

How does the hero demonstrate what end of the moral/ethical compass he's on?

In this post I'm going over this material using broad strokes, but I'd like to slow down at this point and go over some specific examples DVS gives (this is all from chapter 5 of Techniques of the Selling Writer). These examples are designed to show ways, small ways, in which your hero can demonstrate to readers what kind of guy he is.

Also, although DVS couches this in terms of morality I think it could just as well be put in terms of that holy grail of character creation: likability.

Example 1: A clerk gives your hero too much change. It would be easy to keep the change and walk away. But that's not what a hero does. He gives the change back.

I'm going to get to this in a later post, but memorable characters--and memorability is a very good thing; after all, it's hard to like a character you can't remember!--are (in general) extreme characters. Giving back 25 cents because it would be wrong to take it is extreme, and in your story world that's a good thing.

Example 2: Your hero dings someone's fender in the parking lot but no one noticed. Does he leave a note taking responsibility or just drive away? 

I think many people would drive away, which gives you an opportunity to show that your hero isn't like other people.

The Hero Must Demonstrate, Through His Choices And Actions, That He Deserves To Win

Let's focus on the end of the story. At the end of the story the hero is presented with a choice. The specifics of this choice should come as a surprise to the reader ("Marion, don't look at the light!" "Trust the force, Luke") but the general dimensions of the choice--good against evil--are not new themes. You've been foreshadowing this climactic confrontation, this decision, since the opening lines.

What is this confrontation? 

The confrontation is, classically, between the hero and the villain, or--using different terminology--between the protagonist and the antagonist. Fundamentally, it's a moral dilemma. Right against wrong, good against evil, love against hate. There should be two paths before the hero, one leads to the dark side, the other to the light. The hero makes his decision and if (when) he decides to do the right thing, the two fight (either actually or metaphorically).

Everything must hang on what the hero chooses to do. And by everything I mean EVERYTHING. If we haven't made it so that the hero's life, his love's life, his travelling companions' lives, his friends lives, his village's existence and, possibly, the fate and happiness of everyone in the known universe, hangs on our hero's choice then we've taken a wrong turn somewhere. (I exaggerate, but only a little.)

The Hero's Choice: The Path of Darkness & The Path of Light

The paths are mutually exclusive. We've established that the hero's choice is going to be between two paths, the path of darkness and the path of light. Each path, each choice, has an outcome that is antithetical to the other. If the hero chooses the path of darkness then whatever the path of light would have brought about, resulted in, is irrevocably, irretrievably, gone. And vice versa.

The Hero's Choice Must Resolve The Dilemma

This seems obvious, but I thought I'd say it anyway. The general dimension of the problem, good against evil, will still be there but this PARTICULAR problem will be finally and absolutely resolved, one way or the other. If the problem isn't resolved then your readers aren't going to feel satisfied by the ending and that's what our goal is.

For instance, in A New Hope Luke must decide between safety and trust. On the one hand, Obi-Wan Kenobi is telling him to turn off his equipment and trust the Force. On the other hand, his inner critic is telling him not to be stupid--there is no such thing as 'the Force' and, even if there was, he couldn't harness it--just be smart and use the equipment. 

The safe course is the selfish course because then, if it fails, it wouldn't be Luke's fault. (Sure, they'd all be dead, but, still, not-his-fault.) He was just doing the sensible thing. 

The path of trust is the true course. And it's risky. It likely won't work. It's not the easy way. Or even the sane way. But there's something about Luke, about who he is: he's strong in the force, like his father. He's special. And when he trusts that, when he believes it enough to act on it, to go 'all in,' then he wins the day.

The Path of Light And The Path of Darkness: Selflessness vs Selfishness

I've been talking about good vs evil, the path of light vs the path of darkness which, really, has been a bunch of handwaving. So let's cash out these terms, how I've been using them. 

In our story universe good is defined by one simple thing, SELFLESSNESS, just as bad is defined by just one thing, it's opposite, SELFISHNESS.

In your story universe the path of light, the good/moral/right thing will always be the unselfish thing. Further, doing the unselfish thing will always bring the hero all kinds of pain and misery. Conversely, the path of darkness, the evil road, will always lead to the selfish choice. Doing what's best for the hero. Making life wonderful for him even though, because of his choice, countless people will suffer and die. 

At this point you might well wonder, "Why would anyone choose to do the selfless thing if the odds of winning are slim to none and you'll lose everything if your plan doesn't succeed?"

Mr. Swain has an answer: Because of EMOTION. Because of who the hero is, intrinsically. So, you see, it all comes back to CHARACTER. Even if it would be more intelligent (certainly more self-preserving) to follow the wrong road, the hero follows his feelings instead. Remember, the test the hero goes through is one of character, not logic or reason or even intelligence.

This has been a long post, but before I end it I'd like to briefly talk about other kinds of cause and effect structures.

Other Kinds of Cause-Effect Story Structures

So far, I've talked about a story universe in which a person's deeds determine how they are rewarded in the end. (It's like that scene from The Mummy where Evelyn 'Evy' Carnahan whispers to Beni, "You know, nasty little fellows such as yourself always get their comeuppance." Great line.)

But it's not always like this. We've all read and enjoyed stories where a person's deeds are completely uncoupled from their rewards. But, here, that's not the kind of world we've set out to build. We set out to build a world that is both just and fair. 

But you don't have to, you can set up any sort of cause-effect relationship you want, and they can all work, they just appeal to different sorts of audiences and require a different sort of structure. That said, in North America at least, you probably won't have as large an audience for those kinds of stories. 

Oh, and one more thing. If you want to see Dwight V. Swain's principles at work, read The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher. It's one of my favorite urban fantasy series and each book is better than the one before--and that's saying something. Highly recommended, not just for what you'll learn from them regarding technique but also for the pure pleasure of it.

This post is itself a kind of foreshadowing. This post, suitably tweaked and transformed, will appear as a chapter in my upcoming, as yet unnamed, book on the craft of writing.

by Kevin Dooley under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.


  1. This is such a helpful post. Definitely putting the Dresden Files on my to-be-read list.

    1. I'm so glad! If you like urban fantasy and kick ass wizards you won't be disappointed.

  2. Great info and reminders!! Thx Karen!


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