Each major character in a story has his own fate. Therefore, each character has a premise of his own. If you are proving in your story that "the big lie brings ruin," one character may be a liar; that does not mean all the characters must be liars. It simply means that one lie brings ruin.
Michael Corleone's ruling passion in The Godfather is love of his family. His love leads him to become the Don—the ruler of the family's illegal business—despite the fact that he is morally opposed to the business at the beginning of the story. His personal premise is "love of family leads to a life of crime." Michael has a brother, Sonny. Sonny also loves the family, but his personal premise is very different from Michael's. Sonny is animalistic. He is a hot-blooded warrior. When Sonny's sister is attacked by her husband, he rushes to her aid, even though he knows his enemies are looking for him and it might be a trap. He's gunned down. His premise: "hot-bloodedness leads to death."
In One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest the climax comes when McMurphy is lobotomized. His premise is "challenging absolute authority leads to death." But there is more to the story. The Chief, because of the lessons taught him by McMurphy, is now able to regain his sanity and escape by smashing his way out. His premise is "acceptance (of McMurphy's code of manhood) leads to freedom." In his struggle to escape he is aided by the rest of the patients, proving that "the human spirit is uncrushable," which is the premise of the novel. Big Nurse, the tyrant, ends up with a rebellion on her hands. Her premise: "tyranny begets rebellion."
Madame Bovary's husband, Charles, loves his wife. She drives him to despair. "Love leads to despair" is his premise.
What is Bob Cratchit's premise? He sticks by Scrooge despite his vile ways. Things work out for him. His premise is "loyalty leads to happiness."
Characters are dynamic, not static. They are changeable. They develop: they find love where they had only loneliness; they build hope from hopelessness; they fall into disillusionment or despair from peaks of joy; and so on. Do not think of your characters as fixed. To have a vibrant, vigorous, gripping novel, the characters must change as a result of conflict. The character premise is a description of that change.
WHAT MAKES A GREAT CLIMAX?—THE SECRET OF SATISFYING A READER
The point of a joke is the punch line. The point of a novel is the climax-resolution. A joke, no matter how elaborate, how well told, how intriguing, is nothing without a great punch line. A dramatic novel, no matter how elaborate, how well told, how intriguing, is nothing without a good climax-resolution. To bring off a truly great climax-resolution, there are other elements to consider besides simply proving the premise.
First: Look for surprises.
As the reader nears the end of a book he senses that things are coming to a head. The reader knows there are not many pages left. The protagonist is into the sucking bog all the way up to his neck and it looks as if only a miracle can save him. The reader is certain he's doomed. Surprise: the protagonist uses his belt to reach a tree branch and gets himself out with a burst of strength and determination he didn't know he had.
The Corleone family is on the ropes; the old Godfather is dead; the family is being squeezed by the other Mafia families. Surprise: Michael Corleone, the new Don, savagely wipes out his enemies in a single day of retribution.
Scrooge is shown his gravestone. He's seen his own death. He appears finished. Surprise: he's not been shown what will happen, but only what could happen. He awakens and it's Christmas morning—he's saved!
When McMurphy is lobotomized it looks like the rebellion in the cuckoo's nest is over. Surprise: the Chief blasts his way out.
Leamas is home free. It's over. All he has to do is jump over the wall. Surprise: he chooses death.
Second: Exploit powerful emotions.
The reading of novels is primarily an emotional experience. In English 102A, The American Novel, 1800-1865, your professor taught you to hunt for hidden symbols and historical references, to look for vague literary allusions, to cull the philosophical nuances, to divine the sociological implications, to fathom the existential ramifications. This kind of nonsense has ruined a lot of writers as well as a lot of readers. The primary purpose in reading a novel is to experience at the emotional level the lives of the characters—to laugh with them, cry with them, suffer with them. Your primary object as a novelist is to move the reader emotionally.
A dramatic story builds to an apex of emotional concentration in the climax, at which point the skillful novelist will knock the reader over. When McMurphy is lobotomized the reader is shocked. When the old man catches the fish the reader stands up and cheers. When Leamas chooses death the reader is stunned. When Scrooge becomes giddy with delight at finding he hasn't missed Christmas, the reader becomes giddy right along with him. The reader pulls for Michael Corleone when he carries out his revenge. Who doesn't weep for Emma Bovary when she takes the poison, or for Humbert Humbert when he dies of despair?
Third: Issue a verdict in the Court of Poetic Justice.
What is justice? Justice is vindicating the innocent, punishing the guilty, and rewarding the virtuous. Poetic justice is punishment that fits the crime, or vindication that fits the virtue. To be "poetic," the agency dispensing the justice must be hidden. If the police do it, it isn't poetic. A man drowns his old spinster aunt in a bathtub. With the insurance money he buys a boat, which then sinks. He drowns. This is poetic justice because the agency (fate? accident? the Lord of the Universe?) that meted out the justice is not apparent, and the punishment (drowning) fits the crime (murder by drowning).
Suppose an ambitious man craves wealth, power, and glory. He dreams of the day when he and his wife can sit back on top of the heap and bask in their wealth. But his ambition hardens his heart and by the time he has made it to the top, crushing all his competitors, his wife has left him for a gentler, kinder man. He has achieved his goals, but the achievement is empty. That, too, is poetic justice.
If you can't give full vindication to the innocent or full rewards to the virtuous, let them at least have a slice of the pie. Readers crave to see justice done. Say you're writing a story of oppression. Your hero, a textile worker in a sweatshop, is trying to organize a union. The union is smashed; your hero has failed. In the court of poetic justice your villains have won. But if your hero has found courage, self-respect, and the love of a good woman, he has won something even more valuable—and there can be victories at other textile factories, other wars to fight and win. Even in death, a character can win something. Hamlet had his vengeance. McMurphy inspired the Chief.
Fourth: Find new facets of character.
If there are new aspects of character revealed at the climax, so much the better. Ah, so Joe Gocarefully finally found his guts, the reader says. Good for him! Your heroine finally wakes up to the fact that her lover is a cad. The good guys finally escape the prison camp. If the reader ends up cheering, you may have brought off a truly magnificent climax.
Fifth: The climax-resolution should make the novel whole.
In writing your novel you created story questions in the reader's mind. Some of these story questions, say, revolved around the main problem of the protagonist, an alcoholic. In the climax we find him joining Alcoholic Anonymous, or committing suicide. Either way, the core conflict is resolved. But there may be other, secondary questions that the reader is also worried about. Will the daughter continue to hate her father, will the wife be reconciled, will the ex-drunk get his job back? Only in melodrama, of course, will all these questions be answered fully, but even in a good drama, some of them should be answered fully and the rest should be answered at least in part. A good climax leaves the reader feeling that the story is finished.
• Scrooge has been transformed and will never be a miser again.
• The Corleones have regained their power.
• McMurphy is dead, but the Chief has found his soul and will never lose it.
• The old man has regained his respect.
• Humbert Humbert is dead.
And this chapter is finished.
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