Triumph of the Will

December 20th, 2009 by |

Storytellers have a difficult burden.  For every movie, book, episode or comic, they have to tell at least two stories.  The first is the simple mechanics of the story.  How does that band of theives steal that priceless artifact?  How does the detective solve the case?  How does Luke blow up the Deathstar?

The second story is the character’s emotional arc while going through the mechanics of the story.  The best writers will be able to intertwine the two, allowing the story to drive the character, and the character to advance the story.  Sometimes, however, the two get a little too intertwined.  That leads to ‘The Triumph of the Will.’

I think we’ve all seen this.  It can last for the length of a fight sequence, an act, or the entire story.  The hero goes up against the antagonist.  It’s an entirely one-sided battle.  The antagonist beats the hero down and down and down.

Then things turn around.  Sometimes, at the lowest point of the story, the antagonist says something that fills the hero with new resolve.  Sometimes the hero comes to a realization about his or her inner self.  And sometimes things just turn around.

Why?  Because the hero has to win, and there is no other way for the storyteller to let them do it.  There are, very occasionally, times when this is effective, but for the most part, all that tells me is that everything up to that point was filler.  If you don’t have the skills to fight someone, suddenly being determined doesn’t change a thing.  If you’re not smart enough to figure something out, being put in a high-pressure situation won’t make you smarter.  Thinking of lovers or children hasn’t saved a hell of a lot of people, and I don’t believe it will save the hero. 

The challenge of a story, and again, I acknowledge that it’s a huge challenge, is working a protagonist into an impossible situation and then finding an unexpected way out.  If all it takes is newfound grit, you might as well say ‘a wizard did it.’

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5 comments to “Triumph of the Will”

  1. Esther, if you ever started watching wrestling, you’d hate John Cena with every fiber of your being.

  2. Fair point, but only in the very simplistic overview you’ve taken of the matter. You’ve picked on items like thinking about lovers or children, or being in high pressure situations inducing newfound grit, but these are very clumsy storytelling tools that writers often use for the benefit of audiences who seem to need that kind of low common denominator because something like using the force or getting stronger the madder the hero gets aren’t easily accessible concepts or situations that they can relate to.

  3. Notable exceptions where it actually does work: Spider-Man having to lift all that machinery off him to be able to deliver that radioactive isotope to the hospital to save Aunt May’s life, and Luke losing it when Vader threatens “…sister!” But the Spider-Man example is all about the execution, while the bit in Return of the Jedi works because there’s other stuff going on as well, and the “losing control of your emotions” thing works in the larger context of the story.

    But yes, I think in comics and movies we get lazy sometimes and fall back on this device. Call it goofy if you will, but I prefer Spider-Man tricking the Sandman into turning completely into sand and then hoovering him up in an industrial vacuum cleaner four times out of five.

  4. For some reason, I wanna say that this is basically a recurring trope in Shonen Manga. The fact that I thought of several cases from several different manga while I read this post probably informed that thought.

  5. Most shonen manga, or the ones I’m familiar with anyway, give the hero an explicit power-up whenever he gets angry/desperate/determined enough. The same is true of the Hulk, and Jedi Knights, and Green Lanterns. And everyone else gets an implied power boost when their emotions are high. You wouldn’t think The Flash could run any faster than he already does, but if Linda’s in danger he’ll do exactly that. Must be the adrenaline, I guess.

    Of course, even with an excuse, the villain can still get jobbed too hard. It’s easily one of the most commonly used and least commonly noticed logical gaps in storytelling.