Today Charles Yallowitz is stopping by with a post on the idea of sacrifice in story-telling, and how to make it effective. As a story element, sacrifice needs to be handled carefully, and Charles makes some excellent points on how to do so while keeping the reader engaged. Take it away, Charles!
Cover Art by Jason Pedersen
A big thank you to Helen for having me for a guest post to help promote my newest release, Legends of Windemere: Tribe of the Snow Tiger. This is the 10th installment of this fantasy series and the stakes are going to be pretty high for several characters. A core aspect of the story involves the concept of sacrifice and how far a person is willing to go for either a person or a belief. Turns out that this is a very debatable topic among authors and people in general because everyone has different views on sacrificing. In fact, I’ve seen some pretty big arguments on if it’s even a sensible decision.
One of the biggest hurdles with a sacrifice is to convey to others that it is worth doing. Most times this is a crucial part of a story too, which means a lot is depending on the scene. This is an act that you cannot take back and the character might not even live to see the associated positive/negative outcomes. As an author, you really need to think about writing a sacrifice scene and make sure it is the best decision for the story and character. Most importantly, you need to have it be believable. If a reader feels that the character dying to save the others is a fool and the sacrifice was pointless then you could lose them for the rest of the story.
That risk is a big part of why I’ve heard some authors try to steer clear of them. Personally, I like writing those scenes, but I’m careful to make sure they have impact. I’ve also learned that what hits me hard could miss the mark on someone else. The reason for this is because a reader and author may be working off different interpretations of the character motives, personalities, and the concept of sacrifice in general. This is human nature since you have some people who would jump in the way of a moving car to save a child and others who would simply upload the accident on YouTube. Yes, it does come down to morality and how much weight a person puts
on sacrificial gestures.
One thing I’ve noticed is that you can put this spectrum into your characters as well, which can help connect to a variety of readers. For example, say a supporting hero sacrifices himself to allow the others to escape a dungeon with the weapon needed to defeat the main villain. If you have every survivor act the same toward the sacrifice then you can alienate a reader who thinks differently. So have some be angry, others be sad, and even one or two that thinks the deceased was a fool. Try to run even a small gamut of emotions because that is what can bring the scene home. An act of sacrifice is really defined by the impact it has on the rest of the story instead of how amazing it was in the moment.
So, what can you do to make a sacrifice scene work?
1. Relax and let it flow naturally. You don’t’ want to force something like this to happen. It might even reveal itself to be unnecessary.
2. Foreshadowing isn’t necessary, but it shouldn’t be ignored. Some readers don’t like the unexpected shock scene, so putting in even a single clue can help soften the blow. This is especially true if the sacrifice is being done by a favored hero.
3. Think ahead to make sure the sacrifice has an impact on the story. In the previous
scenario, the ultimate weapon not working means that hero died in vain. Might be funny or exciting, but you weaken that earlier scene. So consider the pros and cons of
minimizing something that is typical an emotional moment.
4. Focus more on the aftermath than the actual death. If a character dies then it should
change the mental and emotional dynamic of those they were connected to. For example, the Fellowship showed sadness and crumbled after Gandalf died. It became a driving force in a way. On the other end of the spectrum, you have Chiaotzu self-destructing against Nappa in Dragonball Z. The attack didn’t work and then his friend did a similar sacrifice with the same result and let’s just say DBZ is rather infamous for the failed sacrifice maneuver.
5. Finally, you really do need for there to be consequences both good and bad. I know I
keeping pointing at the death sacrifice, but that is the most common. Still, giving up a
belief system, a loved one, a future, or anything has two sides. One is that it should help
the heroes (or villains if they’re on that side) continue on their path, which is the good
part. The other is that it causes pain. Reader and author have to remember that this is the giving up of something precious. A feeling of loss is probably more important than any other result.
Now, I’ve said all this from my own opinion, which means some may disagree. That’s the
challenge with this topic because it works off what we may do or how we would judge those who sacrifice. So, it’s really a concept that I find better to discuss than dictate because it’s just so different for every person. In other words, feel free to voice your opinion on sacrifices in the comments and let’s see how many angles we can look at this from.
Thank you, Charles, for an excellent and thought-provoking article. So what do you think? Have you ever read a story where a character’s sacrifice has put you off reading the rest? Or where it’s resonated so strongly you can’t stop reading? Or have you written a sacrifice scene of your own? Looking forward to the comments 🙂
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Charles Yallowitz was born and raised on Long Island, NY, but he has spent most of his life wandering his own imagination in a blissful haze. Occasionally, he would return from this world for the necessities such as food, showers, and Saturday morning cartoons. One day he returned from his imagination and decided he would share his stories with the world. After his wife decided that she was tired of hearing the same stories repeatedly, she convinced him that it would make more sense to follow his dream of being a fantasy author. So, locked within the house under orders to shut up and get to work, Charles brings you Legends of Windemere. He looks forward to sharing all of his stories with you, and his wife is happy he finally has someone else to play with.