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the price of victory
The Price of Victory
by Wulf Moon
“Victory is reserved for those who are willing to pay its price.”--Sun Tzu, The Art of War
The gold mine in prizewinning stories is the climax. Readers invest their time and usually their money in a story, so when they get to the end, they expect a payoff. When a climax delivers, they cheer. Or laugh, if it's the payoff on a successful humorous story. But in writing, the biggest payoff of all comes from making a judge, editor, or reader … cry.
Why is that? Wouldn't we rather laugh than cry? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Like all things, it depends. Like the Pete Seeger song “Turn!, Turn!, Turn!” made famous by the Byrds, there’s a time to laugh and a time to cry. Of course, they were paraphrasing King Solomon’s words from the biblical book of Ecclesiastes. Solomon also wrote: “It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of everyone; the living should take this to heart.” (Ecclesiastes 7:2, New International Version) Death is weighty, and the wise king advised us not to ignore the fact that it’s an eventuality of life. As the chapters proceeded, Solomon reminded us that we have the responsibility to do something good with our lives while we have the power to do so.
Sound advice that has stood the test of time for three millennia.
Since fiction mirrors life, we also expect our story heroes to do something worthy of the read by the end of their story. And the weightier the sacrifice made to achieve their heart’s desire at the climax, the weightier the story will appear. Surprise! Weight determines worth. Cost determines value. Even in fiction.
Does this mean everything we write must contemplate the meaning of life, the tragedy of death? That, as in The Princess Bride, “Life is pain, highness, and anyone that says differently is selling something?” No, that would be the Man in Black’s viewpoint. Life has joy and pain and everything in between.
Laughter is associated with lightheartedness and cheer, and we all need more of that. A good laugh is good for the soul, it can even heal the soul, and humor is fun and entertaining to read. Ask me who my favorite comedic writer is, and I’d say hands down, Terry Pratchett. But when do I read his Discworld tales? When I’m in the mood for something light and witty. (However, his Tiffany Aching series will tug your heartstrings and that’s because the price of sacrifice is involved. It is of interest that Pratchett himself said those are the books he hopes he’ll be remembered for.*)
Ask me my favorite cinematic comedy, and I’d tell you it’s a toss up between The Princess Bride and Shanghai Noon. You’d be hard pressed to find another movie with more lines people love to quote than The Princess Bride. And in Shanghai Noon, pairing Jackie Chan with Owen Wilson in a movie with all the Western stereotypes is hilarious, especially the shootout at the climax. Are these deep movies that will make us mull over their symbolic meanings for years to come? No. They’re feel-good shows that make us laugh for the night when we’d rather escape a tiring day, the trials of the world, or simply crave some fun entertainment. Nothing wrong with that.
But a cry, even a good cry, is associated with something weighty and important. When you’re handing out a weighty award, you want to make sure the work receiving it is weighty to match. This is why at the Academy Awards ceremony, serious epic movies with heart-wrenching climaxes dominate receiving Oscars. Humorous movies? Rarely do they even make the nominations. Yes, Barbie was an exception this year, but despite its brilliant social commentary, the story about an iconic plastic doll did not win the Oscar. It was the true story about the man behind the creation of the atomic bomb, Oppenheimer, which took the gold for Best Picture and more. A movie about someone that can truthfully say, “Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds”? Weighty.
Why is that? Why does death get the gold and comedy gets the shaft when we all love to laugh? Any comedian will tell you it is challenging and takes great skill to make an audience laugh during a skit. Fewer yet can earn their livelihood from getting crowds to laugh throughout an evening’s show, a requisite for successful stand-up routines. Popular comedians that do are extremely talented, often becoming talk show hosts and actors. Yet, the actor that grabs your heart instead of your funny bone is the one that walks away with awards every time. The reason?
The price of victory.
Would you like to be published in professional publications? To win prestigious awards that can launch your career? Or more importantly, to write the kind of stories people talk about long after they close the book or turn off their tablets? That’s the stuff of bestselling careers. Understanding the concept of The Price of Victory and embedding it in your stories cannot help but enhance your chance of success. Weighty stories matter. They stand the test of time. That’s even the case, I will argue, if you choose to write comedy.
Want to learn how to wield this weighty tool? Then read on!
What is the Price of Victory?
One of the definitions of the term “victory” is success in a struggle against difficulties or an obstacle. Interesting. That could just as easily be the definition of a plot with a positive ending. When the price of victory is high, it requires great struggles and even great sacrifice to achieve it. How about the term “sacrifice”? An American Heritage Dictionary definition serves us well: “The act of giving up something highly valued for the sake of something else considered to have a greater value or claim.” So, to qualify as a sacrifice, something of high value must be surrendered or exchanged to receive the thing or outcome desired.
Horatio Alger Jr. wrote a poem titled, wait for it, wait for it … “The Price of Victory.” In this work, while praising the freedom won for generations through a victorious battle, he acknowledged with powerful imagery the terrible price mothers pay when they send their sons to war. And then he made this statement about the price of victory:
Yes, victory has a fearful price
Our hearts may shrink to pay,
And tears will mingle with the joy
That greets a glorious day.
Often when citizens of a country speak of their soldiers lost in battle, they will say they made the ultimate sacrifice. Death is weighty. A life cannot be replaced in this world. It’s priceless. And yet someone paid that price. When a person gives their life that others might live? There is no greater sacrifice that person can make. Society calls them heroes.
Interesting. That's the same thing we call our fictional characters.
Heroes make sacrifices, often risking their lives or even giving their lives to save others. We feel joy when they succeed, but we also cry for the price paid. Does this mean your fictional heroes have to die at the end of every tale for your story to have depth and meaning? Must characters give their lives before anyone will take your writing seriously? No. But it does mean your hero should pay a high price to achieve or receive their heart's desire at the end. The price of victory is what gives your story its weight.
Here's why.
If the weight of that price to achieve victory is high, the reader that's been protecting their emotions throughout the story may just give in and shed tears at the price paid at the end. A contest judge or editor that you can accomplish this with is going wipe away their tears and tip their hat to you. They've seen it all. They know you shouldn't have been able to make them choke up or cry. They know better. And yet, you did. That can only be done by a master. And they know that, too.
I call this the Deep Magic of storytelling. It's a fictional character! We know this when we pick up a fiction book or story. These people aren’t real! And yet, the best writers are so good at making their characters seem real, we will cry when the hero pays a heart-rending price at the end of the story to achieve their victory. How can this happen? We know better! But when it happens, it's pure magic.
There are ingredients to this magic. Want to know what they are? Here’s a few elements that will help you cast this spell:
       1. Make the reader fall in love with your protagonist in the opening of your story by creating an interesting character the reader can sympathize with and get their emotions involved. I call this creating the reader/hero bond.
       2. Deepen that reader/hero bond continually throughout the story. I’ve dubbed this technique “Ringing the Bell.” It’s not one act of saving a cat, rescuing a dog. Strong relationships are built upon multiple acts over time that make us respect someone, maybe even fall in love with them. Keep shining the light on the redeeming qualities of your hero throughout your story. Build up a powerful relationship between the reader and your hero so the reader will care about what happens to them when they pay the price of victory.
       3. When it comes time for your hero to pay that price, make sure it's high. If it’s not costly, the final payoff to readers will feel cheap. There should be a wonderful reward at the end of the journey, but your hero should pay a stiff price to receive it. That's what makes the reward weighty, and weight gives the reward worth.
       4. Remember that the price paid should get its value from the point of view of your protagonist. If you’ve built up throughout your tale that something is highly precious to your protagonist or extremely difficult for them to do, when they come face to face with the choice and give up their Precious to achieve victory, your reader is going to feel it from the hero’s perspective. Even a young child putting ten bucks in a contribution box to help the homeless could be considered a huge sacrifice if we’ve watched them give up lunches and go hungry to save up that money, small though the sacrifice may be to us in our own lives.
Create value in the sacrifice. Demand a high price for your hero to achieve victory. Do this, and even deeper magic happens. The weight of the sacrifice made in your fictional world will transfer to the total worth of your story in the real world. Editors will be moved by the story’s weight to pull it from the slush and send you a contract and check. Contest judges will move it to the top of the submissions and honor you with a prestigious award. But most importantly, your tale will get published, and readers that have had their emotional heartstrings plucked will talk about your story in glowing terms long after they’ve finished reading it.
Yes, humor has value, even helping us to cope with sacrifice and loss. But like the wise king said, there’s a time to laugh, and there’s a time to cry. For emotionally charged stories, put your heroes through hell. Don’t protect them. Make them pay the price. And here’s the lesson for writers. The price of victory in publishing is also high, but if your story has weight--especially in the price of victory--so are the rewards.
*boingboing.net November 5, 2013 
Moon teaches the award-winning Super Secrets of Writing Workshops and is the author of The Illustrated Super Secrets of Writing and the runaway bestseller, How To Write a Howling Good Story. He invites you to join his free Wulf Pack Club at www.TheSuperSecrets.com


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