Tuesday, October 16

The Devil, Three Golden Hairs, and Some Just Desserts

The great question, when writing one of these, is how much do I assume you've read of the story in question? If I assume none, then I have to rehash the plot. Which bores some people (like me). If I assume all, then I completely skip the plot and trust you to zip ahead with me. Which frustrates some people (who need the structure of the plot). Here's to hoping for a happy medium...

As I mentioned in the last post, the ending of this story is astonishingly satisfying. To get there, however, we do have to trudge the path of the plot's build-up and resolution. Why? Because we, the readers, are in on the dramatic irony of the story. (This means that the reader has more information than the characters.) Often used in omniscient storytelling, dramatic irony gives the reader insight or feelings that the characters themselves lack. In this case, we build up a particular set of feelings towards the king. 

As the antagonist of the story, it is hardly surprising that the king inserts himself early in the story. And tried to kill a helpless baby. Honestly, who's going to love the king after that? In an astonishing show of grace (or fate), the babe survives and grows up to be an admirable young man. Fun, hard-working, lovable, and outgoing, our hero is destined for great things. (Thanks to dramatic irony, we knows of the midwife's prophecy about the child, which only one other character knows about.) 

When the king returns and sets up the hero to be executed, we're already primed to hate the king for this. It is no hardship to cheer the boy and his unexpected friends and helpers along the way, but the king's long shadow hovers over the story. Whatever will become of a good boy who is hunted by such a ruthless jerk? 

The boy then goes on his adventure through the forest, once again propelled by the king who wants to kill him. On the one hand, shouldn't the king get the message that this boy cannot be murdered by indirect means? On the other, however, is our hero going to have to arrange for his own father-in-law's death? Let's hope not...

In the end, however, it is the surprising twist of how the hero handles the king that we find so satisfying. We like that he doesn't stoop to killing the king. We like that he is never faced with the truth of how many times the king tried to do away with him. We like that the king, instead, is punished by his own actions. The boy has only to make good use of the king's greed. 

Parts of this story are found in a lot of modern stories. Especially ones written with boys in mind for an audience. The appeal of outsmarting a devious opponent is universal. Jeffery Archer does it in books like A Matter of Honor or Honor Among Thieves, surprising his readers continually with good, loyal characters who beat the bad buys at their own games. Some modern authors beat the bad guys by destroying the game. Break the rules so badly that the game can never be played again, or kill the one character who makes the game work. (Hunger Games, Matrix trilogy, need I go on?) But as a good writer, how can you get your character out of this bad situation with some good character still intact? Killing a wicked character can feel good, but it's fleeting when compared to a story where good didn't just survive. Good triumphed. 

But that's a story for another day...

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