Friday, September 16, 2011


Some of the best stories that resonate with us years later are of personal triumph, where a character must overcome an internal struggle to be successful, even if they lose a physical challenge at the end of the journey.

In order for a story to pull this off successfully, it should have four important elements and one essential element to ensure audience satisfaction.

The Four Key Elements:

Emotional investment in the character.

If we don’t care about the character, then the story doesn’t matter and in the end we feel as though we’ve wasted our time.

A powerful internal struggle that people can relate to.

There are many books and movies where the main character’s (MC) internal struggle was powerful for the character and relatable enough to hold one’s interest. However, more is needed if the MC doesn’t win the external struggle in the traditional sense that we’ve come to expect. In those cases, the internal struggle must be powerful for the audience, something on a fundamental, primal level we can all relate to.

Difficult odds.

Terrible odds that are not in the MC’s favor will create more tension, build anticipation, and deepen our emotional investment.

A difficult antagonist.

Throw in an antagonist that is a bully, egotistical, stronger than our MC, cutthroat or downright mean and not only does the audience want the MC to kick their butt, the audience wishes they could do the butt-kicking.

The Essential Element has two parts:

1. The internal struggle must be greater than the external struggle. 2. By conquering it, the MC must accomplish something no one else has been able to do.

If the MC can defeat their personal demons, rise above whatever they have desperately been grappling with mentally, then in the end they have won, and the audience will derive a sense of satisfaction.

If the accomplishment is tied to the external struggle in such a way that the MC’s special quality makes them shine brighter than anyone else, then audience satisfaction becomes so profound nothing else matters.

Two movies that are excellent examples: Rocky and Soul Surfer.

At the start of the movie, Rocky is a small-time boxer who hasn’t done anything with his life. He works as a collector for a loan shark, is ridiculed and seen by most as a two-bit bum that will amount to nothing. When he’s given the chance of a lifetime to compete against the undefeated heavyweight champion, Apollo Creed, he seizes it. Apollo is stronger, has access to the best trainers/facilities, and has chosen him because he believes Rocky is a joke who can only last a few rounds making it a good show and making the champ look even better.

So why does Rocky agree to do it? It’s his chance, his last chance, to prove to himself and everyone else that he’s more than a bum, that he has dignity and is a person of worth.

In the exhibition match, as Rocky fights in the ring with Apollo, he’s fighting for his self-respect. His endurance and stamina during each round is a sheer act of willpower not to give up on himself. Even though, he loses the fight, in our hearts, we feel that Rocky is a winner because he met his personal challenge to rise above the naysayers and did something no one else could do, last all fifteen rounds with Apollo Creed.

Another example is Soul Surfer. It’s based on the true story of Bethany Hamilton, a teenage surfer who lost her arm in a horrible shark attack. Bethany struggles with redefining her personal identity and how to continue doing something she loves when it feels virtually impossible. I don’t want to say much more about it and ruin the film for those who haven’t seen it. However, if you’ve seen the movie, then you know how it applies here.

Are there any movies or books that you enjoyed, which didn’t have the traditional ending you expected, but still came away feeling satisfied?


  1. Great stories! I haven't seen the Soul Surfer movie, yet, but I'm dying to. I've been moved by a lot of stories where personal growth shined. I admire those that never give up, no matter the circumstances in which they may face obstacles. Have a great weekend!

  2. Hmm? No, can't think of one, but I LOve how you pointed out the four elements. I just pray that I did this well in my novel. And I agree, inner struggle is sometimes harder to overcome. Great post.

  3. Inner struggle is powerful. I'll tell you one I've seen recently and I was satisfied with the ending. 127 Hours...the one based on a real story where the guy was stuck inside a crack of a mountain for that long. He went over a large portion of his life in his head, then wound up cutting off his own arm to get out. I would have died...that is some nerve cutting off your own arm. They show him in future years. The experience changed his life around. And it was intense. :)

  4. Nice post!

    I'm always more interested in the internal struggle. How a character deals with the external struggle is more important to me than the external struggle itself.

  5. All the classic books have a universal internal struggle that the character is dealing with. If we can identify with the character's dilemma and see how it relates to ourselves I think we're much more likely to cheer the MC on and see them in a positive light.

  6. Some great info, Isis and I love how you show those points with Rocky. I'm going to copy this article for my personal file. You made me think, too, In the real world we can't always win the external but the external can serve to define our internal strength. We may not win the war but we can win the battle. We're still a winner.

    Sia McKye's Thoughts...OVER COFFEE

  7. Losers have a way of winning our hearts don't they? I love books and movies that end other than how I would expect them too. A fantastic book with a shocking ending is POSSESSION by Elana Johnson. I loved it!

  8. I usually tend to focus on inner struggle, for some reason. Hm... I'm struggling to think of an example for a book or a movie. I'll let you know!

  9. Loser protags hold a special place in my heart. :) Great tips to keep in mind, and fantastic examples... Thanks, Isis!

  10. Oh, the "losers" are the ones that totally win my heart. I just end up wanting so badly for them to win, to prove to themselves if no one else that they're actually not a loser. Great examples, and I have got to see Soul Surfer!

  11. That's a great way to look at it. I tend to think of it in a way that even if the character doesn't win in the conventional sense, he/she still gains something. Even if it's a sense of self.


  12. I don't think they're losers if they win the internal struggle. That's the most difficult one, in my opinion. I remember a book (can't think of the title at the moment) where the protagonist loses the tournament she's in, but she defeats all her personal demons even though she was nearly killed. It was a great book. I'm horrible with titles!

    Have a good weekend!

  13. Miranda ~ Those types of stories never fail to capture me.

    Em ~ You may not have them in all novels, but they are essential for certain types of stories.

    Laila ~ I saw that. Powerful stuff. I don't think I cut off my own arm.

    Linda ~ Sometimes the external struggle is just plain fun to read or watch happen, but how it's handled is vital.

    L.G. ~ I think the classics definitely handle this in a different way than most modern stories.

    Alex ~ Can't wait to read CassaStar.

    Sia ~ Glad it helped in some way.

    Heather ~ It is on my TBR pile. I love the cover.

    Talli ~ WWW looks like so much fun. Can't wait to start reading it.

    Katy ~ Happy you were able to get something out of it.

    Crystal ~ Soul Surfer didn't have the punch of Rocky, but it is still an awesome story.

    Misha ~ Thinking outside the box often helps us to see a situation in a different light. There is often something to be gained.

    Christine ~ Sounds like a great book. One that would be a perfect title. Darn our slippery memories.

  14. Love this post--there has to be some victory (or growth) but it doesn't necessarily have to be the one which was expected. Great food for thought. Oh, and I love Rocky. I grew up outside of Philly, and we always ran up the art museum steps just like Rocky. :) We named our cat Rocky. LOL

  15. I love a great internal and external conflict. That's why I love HP so much. :)

  16. I've always loved A Fish Called Wanda. Archie Leach (John Cleese) is a loveable loser, pushed around by the expectations of his life (career as lawyer, uptight wife, etc). By the end of the story, he's taken control of his life with hilarious results.

  17. Excellent post Isis. I just wanted to say I saw the movie of Soul Surfer while on a plane recently. It was just so inspirational. You're right about the personal conflict/external forces.


  18. Oh gosh that's a hard one - I'm going to have to ponder this one more awhile....

  19. Although I'm not a fan of boxing, I loved Rocky. Something about his struggle rings true for everyone, and those are the type of characters that really resonate with me.

  20. Oh heck, I can't think of any examples right now. Probably too late in the day. But, yes, when the protag wins that internal struggle, that's all the victory the story needs.

  21. My mind is a blank. I love characters who grow within themselves, even if that doesn't always translate to success :-)

  22. Looking forward to your picks for the blogfest on Monday!

  23. I really, really loved this. Not only because you quoth Rocky as an example (YAY ROCK-AY), but because it touches upon a question that I have been grappling with for years.
    What makes a person a winner and what makes them a loser? Society has given us these two lables with a very strict definition of each; we all know that Apollo won the fight and Rocky clearly lost but, like you said, he is the winner of the movie.
    But how does that apply to our everyday lives? And it's why I started my blog; all these rejection letters us writers receive feel like society's definition of being a loser - we need to win the prize, but we don't, we get rejected. But we really are winners as long as we keep moving forward and stacking up losses, because that's what make us real winners.
    It's so interesting how words can both set us free and hold us back if we don't peel back their layers.

  24. I really, really liked Jodi Picoult's My Sister's Keeper precisely because she took a route I didn't expect at the end and it contained a really hard truth that made me think deeply. Then they changed it into a cliche ending when they made the movie. Grrr.

  25. I definitely enjoy heroic stories featuring an anti-hero. Overcoming the internal struggle really is the most important thing. You could say that winning and losing is all a state of mind.

    Some stories have left me unsatisfied even when the protagonist wins because the victory came at too high a price. Sure, the antagonist was defeated, but none of the "good guys" are left to celebrate! I call these "everybody dies" stories, and they drive me crazy.

  26. Heather ~ How cool to have a cat named Rocky.

    Ciara ~ Gotta love HP.

    Casey ~ That movie was so good.

    Denise ~ What a wonderful film to raise one's spirits.

    Pabkins ~ Take your time.

    Julie ~ That kind of connection is priceless.

    LD ~ So true.

    Sarah ~ I think we're all interested in personal success/overcoming our demons.

    Alex ~ Hope you don't hate my picks.

    AG ~ You are my inspiration.

    Jennifer ~ That's why the book is usually better.

    Daniel ~ Those drive me nuts too!

  27. I was thinking of Rocky the entire time I was reading this, so I was really glad when I got down further in the post and saw you listed Rocky as an example. I haven't seen Soul Surfer.

  28. Doralynn, I think you would enjoy Soul Surfer, so give it a shot.

  29. I really like it when the ending is unexpected, yet satisfying. I hate it when a movie chickens out and delivers a happy ending because that's what the test audiences preferred. That's not story-telling, that's just selling popcorn.

    One very dark movie that delivered an unexpected ending was Eastern Promises, made by David Cronenberg and starring Viggo Mortensen and Naomi Watts. Viggo's character is not a loser, but he's also not the guy you thought he was all the way through.