Your story, be it fantasy, action, or romantic comedy, is about a character going in pursuit of what they want. They want something, they go out to get it, and things get in their way. The story resolves when they either have it, or have accept they won’t get to. But to make your story really powerful, you need to think about what they have to give up during that journey.
Your character’s journey needs to be a struggle. If things are too easy then your story will lack conflict, and conflict is what keeps your story moving forwards, and interesting.
The ultimate conflict should be their own internal conflict. You force your character to choose between two things they want, recognise they can’t have both, and then sacrifice one of them.
The sacrifice doesn’t have to be a literal killing, but an act of abandoning something they want, for something they want more.
The film Juno follows teenage girl Juno through an unexpected pregnancy.
The things Juno wants through the course of the story start out not in conflict with one another. She wants to have a relationship with the boy she loves, Bleeker, who is also the father of her child. She wants to finish school like a normal teenager. She wants to find a loving family to adopt her baby.
When Juno decides to give the baby up for adoption, she finds a couple in the newspaper, Vanessa and Mark. When she gets to know them, she decides to give them her child. Everything seems like it should be perfect.
However, when Juno gets what she wants in the relationship with Bleeker, Vanessa and Mark separate because Mark can’t take the pressure of a family.
Juno is then faced with a problem. She doesn’t know if she wants to give her baby to a single mother, she doesn’t know if she wants to actually keep the baby herself. She still wants her relationship with Bleeker and to finish high school. Those wants are in conflict with one another. She doesn’t know if she can have those and her baby, and she doesn’t know if she can cope with giving the baby up.
When Juno chooses to sacrifice keeping the baby so she can have her normal life, it makes the sequence even more emotionally powerful. After giving birth, Juno cries in bed with Bleeker, accepting the life she has chosen over the one she has given up, as the baby is taken and given to Vanessa.
The Impact Of Sacrifice
One of the most important things you can do for your characters is to motivate them. If all your characters are motivated, your story will move forward naturally. If your character is motivated by things in conflict with what other characters are motivated by, your story will be interesting. If your character is motivated by multiple things in conflict with one another, your story will be powerful.
In Juno, the sacrifice Juno makes at the end puts increased emotion and power into an already emotional situation. Giving birth and handing your child over to a mother who wants a child is always going to be an emotional experience, but putting that additional pressure on Juno ramps up that impact.
The internal struggle of having to choose what matters more to you between two things you want ramps up the pressure and the tension in the story. It forces your character to address the reality of who they are, give up any pretences of lives they feel they should live, and go after the truth.
Sacrifice forces your character to recognise who they are, and give up any lies that they’ve been masquerading under. They are now exposed, and have to choose, and that raw nerve can be incredibly painful to cope with, but it’s honest.
Internal And External Conflict
A personal internal conflict can be very emotional and moving, the sacrifice impacting your character and their small circle, as they handle their choices. Juno has to choose between choices that are just hers, her wants and needs, in her own mind.
An external conflict where your character is forced to choose between two things that Imagine the Superhero who has to either save his love, or the entire city. Something has to be sacrificed, and neither option is good. The conflict is external, he’s been forced into this position by the choices of the villain. That external conflict becomes internal as he wrestles between the choices, but the damage that falls from that decision is far wider reaching.
The more personal the sacrifice is, the more internal it is, the more moving and emotional that choice will be. For emotional pain, for tears, make that pressure as personal and internal as you can. An external conflict can be dramatic, and choosing what or who to sacrifice for a superhero, is more likely to be dramatic and powerful.
Keeping The Conflict Alive
If you can, add this layer of conflict to your story. Force your character to handle the choice of what to sacrifice between two things, make them weigh up their decision, work out what will hurt less. It could be something big like a superhero, or something small like going to a party with their friends or staying home with their partner. But that internal battle will keep the conflict alive.
Conflict is one of the most important things in your story, and forcing additional conflict onto your character by internalising it is a brilliant technique for keeping the story interesting. The struggle to get to the end, to resolve their conflict, is what makes your story exciting.
The longer the conflict is running, the longer that pressure is building up on them, the more meaningful the sacrifice will be. A momentary conflict that they have to resolve internally is interesting, a long running pressure on them they’ve been having to try and come to terms with resolving is intense.
Even if things outside your character’s life seem to be falling into place and working, your character is still forced to deal with the pressure of choosing what they have to sacrifice. Stories with this element are always more interesting.
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