Fighting the Giant
In every story, your characters are fighting the giant.
Remember the story of David and Goliath? The underdog, the under-equipped, outmatched small guy going out to the fight the clearly dominant, stronger, more powerful opponent?
Fiction, at its core, is about this. Fighting the giant. Storming the castle.
The ‘giant’ is the thing we can never win against. The thing that can’t be overcome. We’re outmatched in every way.
Whether it’s a person, an entity, a culture, or a fear, it will always be more powerful than us…
…until it’s not.
This is your story.
In ways, this is the essence of Story: characters facing a villainous force and defeating it. Success almost always requires some sort of personal transformation.
This framework can help you develop character and develop a strong Act III climax.
Let’s dig in.
Finding The Giants
Giants come in all shapes & sizes & types.
The giant can be unconcerned with your characters (e.g. nature)…
maliciously intent on them (e.g. villains)…
or living inside them, eating away at them (e.g. old emotions and belief systems, or possibly alien pods).
There are all sorts of giants, and they work in any genre of story.
This is the social world around your protagonists/romantic leads, the external plot, and/or the adversaries or adversarial forces they’re going to have to face down.
This is the REAL battle.
The worst giant we’ll ever face, the most imposing castle wall we’ll ever sit outside, is the one inside our hearts.
For our characters, it’s things like:
- Their deepest fear;
- Faulty core beliefs that have propelled them through life;
- Their imagined worse scenarios, harvested from a backstory;
- Fatal flaws, usually derived from the above
These internal giants are the reason they can’t defeat the external giant at the start of the story.
On Page One, they’ve still got some a lot of work to do.
Using Internal & External Giants
External giants are pretty obvious. Villains and robots and evil corporations oh my!
But the internal giants are often where you find the deepest dramatic power. Internal giants provide emotional story fuel. Deep fears…long-lost hopes…secret shames… repressed regrets.
These will fuel your story in a deeply emotional way.
A character facing their deepest vulnerability may not be not the end of the world as we know it, but it could be the end of their world as they know it…and in overcoming it, they give the rest of us hope. In facing their inner giants, they find strength and resiliancy and determination and power to do The Thing That Must Be Done.
Internal giants give us character arcs & transformation.
But internal ‘giants’ are hard to show in a dramatically powerful way. I mean, we could have sixteen chapters of inner narration, but… no. No we can’t.
That’s why we have external giants. i.e. That’s why we have plots & story goals.
It’s how we ‘dramatize’ the internal.
Remember that. Your villains can just be villains…or they can be the manifestation of your character’s worst, deepest, most secret fear.
Or rather…they can force your character to face that deepest, worst-est, secret-est thing in order to succed.
In romance, the internal giant is what they have to finally face & overcome in order to win the other romantic lead.
The final transformation within the romance is always emotional. Old beliefs or experiences that have lead to fears, regret, shame, etc.
These are the reasons the person has not/cannot/will not love on Page One.
It’s only after they face these things that they’re truly able–or willing–to claim the other lead, whatever form that “claiming’ takes in your story.
How to Find Your Giants
Here are some exercises to help nail down your giants.
1) What does your romantic lead/protagonist have to face in their Dark Night of the Soul?
What issue/memory/emotion/truth must they finally look square in the face? What have they’ve been getting wrong throughout the whole story? This is when they finally understand it all.
2) if it helps, have them finish any of these sentences:
“I finally understand _____________.”
“All this time, I’ve been thinking ___________ becuse I was feeling ____________. But now I know _____________.”
This is their internal giant.
3) Who has to take action in the Act III climax of your story, after the Dark Night of the Soul? What is that action?
What public, observable action will your protagonist/romantic leads take in Act III? If you’re writing romance, what action will they take that shows they choose love? If you’re not writing romance, ask what act they’re going to have to take in Act III?
This action should:
a) be done by the character from Q1
If your main protagonist isn’t taking concrete, direct action in Act III, you might have a story problem. In romance, often you’re doing this process for both/all romantic leads, although usually one character has the bigger arc.
b) be something they never would or could have done in Chapter One.
If they do do this Act III action earlier on in the story, consider revising to make the action(s) unimaginable to them at the start, whether or not they actually imagine it on the page for the reader. But show us thoughts/emotions/actions that would obviously indicate, “Jeez, this person’s never going to __________.” [ex: “say I love you,” “give up a chance to make money,” “stand up to their mother,” “win the student council election,” etc etc]
Alternately, leave out some important facet or element of the action in those early scenes, things that you’ll add when they take the same kind of action in Act III.
Some total “for examples”:
They’ve said “I love you” before…but never made eye contact during it.
They’ve signed a thousand business deals…but always insisted their name be first.
4) Could you take a picture of this moment in time?
I want you to be really, really specific & concrete with the action(s) you list in Q3. Like, really specific and concrete.
I want someone to be able to draw or paint or take a picture of that moment. I want you think how it’d be shown on a movie screen.
Don’t be generic or vague here. Really dig down. If this were a film how would you direct this scene?
The more specific you are to make this a detailed & specific sensory experience–visual or auditory or tactile–the more powerful it will be.
Think of it as a showdown, even if it’s not literally one in your story. Two forces facing off…but now, your character has been through their Dark Night of the Soul. They’ve learned something. They’ve experienced transformational insight. It’s changed them.
This is where they prove that change ‘stuck.’
It’s their final test.
For my romance writin’ peeps…
In a romance, Act III is all about the romantic leads getting together, of course.
But ask: what are they going to have to DO, physically and publicly, to claim & earn that love?
In a romance, this isn’t necessarily solely the act of them verbally declaring their love–although it might be only that. But often, Act III involves them doing something ‘plotty,’ something related to their story goal.
And in doing that plot-related action, they’re de facto choosing love.
Pro Tip: It often involves some kind of sacrifice.
I mean, maybe a character has said, “I love you” a hundred times before…but they never acted “I love you.” They never sacrificed something, or did something personally, emotionally risky on behalf of the loved one.
Now they will. They’re able &/or willing to do it…because they’ve vanquished their internal giant.
Act III is where they prove it. It’s their final test.
This act will declare their love in the absence of words. If their mouth were taped shut, we’d know what they just said: I love you. I will do it all, I will lose it all, for you. I choose you.
Pro Tip: Internal vs. External Giants
Here’s a little cheatsheet for you:
- External giants give you your plot
- Internal giants give you your character’s arc
When your character solves their problem by taking some action in Act III, they’re defeating the giant, internal AND external.
That action can be as epic as storming a literal castle, or as seemingly-small as taking hold of someone’s hand.
What’s important is that it’s a thing they never could or would have done in Chapter One, because of their internal giants.
However big or small the action is, the point of Act III is to prove the character has changed.
That’s why the epic (or non-epic) nature of the Act III act itself is irrelevant for dramatic power.
The point of Act III is to prove the character has vanquished their internal giants. To prove they’ve changed. That they’re a better, more complete, more honest, more fully-realized human than they were before.