Every short story should reach this kind of crisis-point. This is where you, the writer, put your protagonist—and the reader!—on the needle-sharp horns of an impossibly painful dilemma. Up to this point, you have carefully convinced the reader that your protagonist is a fine and worthwhile fellow, no matter what his shortcomings and problems may be. If you have done your work well, the reader will be imagining himself as the protagonist. I wanted you to believe that you were Chet Kinsman, struggling out there on the lunar surface.
At this decision-point in the story, the writer forces the reader into an agonizing dilemma. If the protagonist chooses good instead of evil—if Kinsman saves the priest — the protagonist will surely suffer for it. If he chooses evil instead of good—if Kinsman leaves the priest to die—the protagonist will live a long and prosperous life, even though you and I know he has done a terribly wrong thing.
In a happy-ending, upbeat story, the protagonist chooses good rather than evil. He throws to the winds all that he holds dear, for the sake of doing the morally correct thing. And instead of losing all that he held dear, he comes through the fire intact. Not unscathed. The protagonist must pay some price for making the right choice. But because he made the right choice he is spared the destruction that threatened to fall upon him. Cinderella runs away from the prince, as her fairy godmother instructed her to do, yet the prince eventually finds her and they live happily ever after. Pinocchio gives up his life so that his foster father might live and gains not only life but humanity as a reward. Both of them suffered, yet they won in the end.
In a downbeat story, the protagonist deliberately chooses evil instead of good. He may gain everything he wanted, but he loses his soul; he becomes a bad person. In Faust, the protagonist literally sells his soul to the devil. He lives a long and prosperous life, but then is condemned to eternity in hell. In a more recent story, George Orwell's 1984, the protagonist cracks under torture and gives in to the totalitarian government of Big Brother. He is rehabilitated and returned to normal society, but his freedom, his inner self, his soul — all this has been taken away from him.
There are some stories in which the protagonist makes the right choice and accomplishes what he sets out to do, but it costs him his life. This is the classic definition of tragedy. In Robert A. Heinlein's science fiction short story "The Green Hills of Earth," the blind poet Reisling makes the morally correct choice:
He goes into the highly radioactive engine room of the damaged spaceship and saves the ship and its passengers from total destruction. But he dies as a result. In essence, the protagonist has traded his life for the lives of all the others on the ship. He did this knowingly and willingly. There is no nobler act that a human being can perform. This makes tragedy the highest form of storytelling, when it is written well.
"Fifteen Miles" is not a tragedy, nor is it a downbeat story.
Kinsman makes the morally correct choice. He saves the priest. Sure enough, he loses everything that he wanted to keep. This is done by implication in the story, but the implication is clear: Kinsman will be grounded, never to be an astronaut or even a flier again. He will be exposed to the public and pilloried by the media.
He will not die, of course. And in fact, he gains something of inestimable worth, something he had thought he could never find again: peace of mind. In finally letting out his secret, he loses the feelings of guilt that had been haunting him. He has become more of a man. He realizes that he can face up to whatever the world throws at him; he has come to terms with his own conscience. Instead of hiding, he is ready to take his punishment. He knows that the world cannot break his spirit. This is why the priest smiles at him at the very end of the story.
The protagonist of this story has been placed in the crucible of his own emotions and put to the fire. In "Fifteen Miles" he comes out of the fire purified, stronger than he was before he entered it.
This brings up a final point to be made about character in a short story. The protagonist must change. What happens to her in the course of the story, no matter how short the story may be, must change her dramatically. Where she was weak, she must become strong. Where she was evil, she must become good. (Assuming that the story is an upbeat one, of course.)
The crux of every story is the change that overcomes the protagonist. If you write a story in which the protagonist is exactly the same person at the end as at the beginning, you have a dull story on your hands. Find the point where a crucial emotional, moral and physical change happened to the protagonist.
That is what you should be writing about.
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