“’Tis a far, far better thing I do than I have ever done before.” Dickens understood sacrifice as a plot form, and if you look close, everything in the Tale of Two Cities leads to that point. How many love stories (love triangles) have ended when one of the three realizes their love is hopeless so they sacrifice themselves in order for the couple to escape and live “happily ever after?”
If you really want to understand sacrifice as a plot, though, you really need to read the gospels.
If last time, in the Plot of the temptation and fall we explored all the horror to which the human race can fall, this story explores the opposite. Here, it is love, honor, nobility and goodness that drive the final decision. Consider the father or mother who would willingly sacrifice their life for the sake of their children. And it need not be an actual life that is given. It might be family, a way of life, a long-held dream.
Consider the sports star, growing older, who gives up his dream to train the talented youngster; or the matron who fakes an injury so the young understudy can take center stage. Consider the film Holiday Inn where Bing Crosby swallows his love so that young woman can go off to Hollywood with Fred Astaire and become the star she is destined to be. The fact that she returns to him at the end of the story makes his sacrifice no less endearing.
In the movie High Noon, Gary Cooper has plans to retire and marry and live happily ever after when he finds out the bad guy will be in town on the noon train. He cannot leave the town at the mercy of the villain. He straps on his gun even though it may cost him his life. In Casablanca, which I already used as an example of a love story, consider the sacrifice Rick makes for the sake of the war against the Nazis. And consider how many war stories have been stories of great sacrifice for freedom, love, honor, and all the highest ideals of the human animal.
When a person already has high ideals, sacrifice may be the obvious choice. When a person is mixed, though, as most are, like Rick in Casablanca, there is struggle to do the right thing. All the same, the opening of the story must show both the rock and the hard place that the character gets into.
In the middle, the character struggles with the dilemma. There should be times when it looks like they might not do the right thing after all. Remember that people do things for a reason, so motivation is as important to this plot as it is to a mystery. Don’t let the sacrifice be an unexpected impulse at the end even as you seek to keep your reader guessing. Yes, it is a bit like walking a tightrope. Lean too much toward the end and the story becomes, so what? Give no indication of the possible end and the story becomes Huh? Where did that come from?
Also, if the person’s life is not at stake, make sure the stakes are big enough to interest the reader. When we see a person of questionable backbone make the necessary sacrifice when the trouble comes to a head, the story can be very satisfying. It can restore faith in people and help us hold on in our own lives and know that there is something essentially right in the human race after all.
The end, if the plot has been played right, will be very emotional. In contrast to the sometimes exaggerated emotions in the plot of the fall, here you need to be careful. If anything, the emotions need to be underplayed in order to avoid sentimentality or melodrama. Many these days would consider Dicken’s “far, far better thing” as over the top.
Better not to make a saint out of your character either. Consider the end of National Treasure II: The man who was the bad guy the whole time gave up his life so the hero could live – and it worked because there were just enough suggestions throughout, beginning with his consideration of his own family honor versus just wanting the treasure for greedy reasons.
You can read all of the Plots of Relationships under the tab On Stories above. There, you will also find ideas for plots of competition and journey plots. Happy (productive) reading!