Monday, December 21, 2009

Meaty Mondays: The Need For Justice In Story Climaxes

In Jim Butcher's sadly-defunct-but-still-useful Livejournal, he has this post on story climaxes.

One of the things he notes is that a satisfying story climax includes poetic justice. The villain gets their comeuppance; the hero gets their reward.

This is interesting to me because I decided a while ago that one thing that typifies human beings is the concept of justice.

Think about the knee-jerk rage you feel when you see injustice. Almost nothing propels people to action faster than seeing someone hurt an innocent or destroy a public resource for their own selfish profit. This instinct is hard-wired into our brains, and human society would fall apart if it weren't. We're all programmed to fight for what's fair.

And because we humans are so sensitive to the idea of fairness, readers aren't satisfied with a book's climax unless all the main characters get justice, whether it be a punishment or a reward. Nothing nettles us worse than to see someone worthy overlooked or someone vile getting away with their crime. In the end, we want balanced scales.

In fact, arguably that's the reason why people get sucked into stories. The inciting incident is so often an injustice being perpetrated, and a great deal of the tension that keeps the reader hooked comes from their inner yearning to see that injustice made right.

When I saw the movie Sweeney Todd, the story delighted me. It was all so neat--as in tidy. Everyone who did evil got the perfect punishment for their crime; they didn't just die, they also lost whatever they had craved most.

If the title character's fate had been handled any less skillfully, however, it could have ruined the story. Sweeney Todd was driven to evil by his need for revenge--in other words, by his need for justice. If the climax had simply killed him off, I would have been dissatisfied, but I would have been even more unhappy if he had gotten away with murder unscathed.

In the end, Sweeney Todd gets both his comeuppance and his revenge. He is both punished and rewarded, and the story felt exactly right, because it was exactly fair--bloodthirsty and horrifying, but fair.

Sweeney Todd thus provides a warning to writers. If your hero does evil--even a small act--they should be punished for it. If your villain has goodness in them, they should be rewarded. Your audience is human, and that means they crave fairness. They aren't blindly cheering for your hero and hating your villain--they're looking for you to give them a solution that feels like justice.

If you don't give them that, you risk provoking a very primal and genuine anger in the reader that will poison their opinion of your book's strengths.


What do you think? Should serving poetic justice to your characters be a rule of fiction, or are there stories that work better when justice is not served? Real life isn't always fair, and there's a strong argument to be made that fiction should mirror life. At the same time, if you want your story to resonate with your audience, you need to care about what they will and will not stomach.

I'd love to hear your thoughts!

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

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