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The Need to Suffer
by Patrick Storck

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When you develop a story, you need an interesting set of characters that deliver snappy dialogue and move everything forward. These characters will live in your head, and some you will come to love, some you will come to hate. Hopefully you ultimately hate the villains and love the heroes, because that's what you need the audience to do.

That's why you need to remember to do something that generally goes against most of our basic instincts. You need to make the good guys suffer. It's so easy to let a bunch of things happen and move forward plot points and just ease through the narrative, but that gives you no stakes. There is just a string of events.

To identify with the heroes we need to see them lose, suffer, and bleed. We need the bad guys to win a little along the way. We need to be reminded throughout the story that our heroes can lose, they may not make it out unharmed. They shouldn't make it through unharmed, but instead use all of the suffering to come to some sort of understanding about life, their situation, the villain, and whatever else is needed.

If the audience never feels sorry for the good guys, they won't cheer when they win. When one of the crew gets killed off, they won't cry. When there is danger about, you want people to jump, tense up, and sigh when it passes.

Look at Joss Whedon, a master of torturing his characters and fans. Besides regularly citing that no character should ever be safe, he made sure to make good on that claim. He would kill off beloved characters out of nowhere, seemingly for no reason. In one case he even added a long-time supporting character to the opening credits of the show, pretending they were finally secure, only to kill them off in that very episode. He has also stopped naming his shows after the main character, because he found it limiting to not be able to kill off Buffy or Angel if it advanced the story.

That's an important note. The suffering needs to advance the story. I mean, everything in your story needs to advance the overall story, the characters, etc. Still, putting characters through the ringer needs to motivate those characters, those around them, and get some core information across. Cruelty for the sake of cruelty will make your audience distance themselves from any of the characters. Sure, there is some fun to be had with a touch of nihilism, but it typically only works as a conscious decision.

The flip side of the sympathy at the moments of pain is a building of hate for the villains. When the bad guy goes down, you want the viewer to cheer. Too often we see a villain get defeated and just shrug, because of course the good guys won. That's not good enough. That's phoning it in. We need to really hate the bad guy, fear him.

Think of the best villains, in your opinion. Were they wimps? Nah. Did they win? Usually not, at least not entirely. Escape to try again someday, maybe, but not all out win. One of the reasons sequels generally get less and less scary is because we see the villain more and more, spending less and less time with the good guys. The less we see the good guys, the less they matter until you're actively rooting for the villain. At this point they are no longer the antagonist and you have lost any tension. You've just set up a thin narrative to hang some gags on, and those gags will need to get more and more ridiculous until you've become a parody of yourself.

While this is generally seeming to lean towards horror, it's true for all genres. Remember that the rule to romance is "what keeps them apart?" Letting the couple get together sets your "happily ever after" well before they leave the theater, so why will they care as you keep going? Most comedy, and all slapstick, is the process of things going wrong and misguided attempts to fix things. Drama is the introduction of tragedy into the lives of our characters, then exploring the feelings and concepts until some final decision or understanding is reached. If the cops get the upper hand too early in a crime film, the case pretty much is closed.

We all hate to see bad things happen to people we care about, but that's the job of the writer. Just remember, it's tough love.

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Other columns by Patrick Storck:

That Should Be In a Movie

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Patrick Storck
Patrick hails from Baltimore, MD, where playing by the rules is frowned upon. Only average things come from playing it safe.

If you have a comment, question, or suggestion, you can send a message to Patrick Storck by clicking here.

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