The Power of One
Humanity is fascinated with the power of one–stories of individuals who stand up for what is right, the underdog who takes on impossible odds, the person of courage who dashes in while everyone else watches.
Yet when it comes to crafting gripping stories writers shy away, as if such stories are unbelievable or implausible.
If we look at the classics (some from years past and some more recent), we see the best stories center around a single individual or group of individuals who make a difference: the Scarlet Pimpernel, Frodo, Luke Skywalker.
I touched on this a couple of weeks back under the topic of reality–how realistic should novels be. Yet the subject deserves its own blog, for at the heart of each one of us lurks the desire to make a difference. We want to change our worlds if only in a small way. Too often we don’t see any results, so we begin to believe such stories aren’t true and reject novels that remind us of what we fail to achieve.
Unfortunately, sales results tell us we still long for the power of one. We crave stories that make a difference. Which is why writers who want to tell not just a good story, but one that seizes the human heart and lingers in the imagination, need to craft a story whose kernel revolves around the power of one.
If a reader strips away all the action and adventure, strips away all the mystery or romance, strips away all the “bells and whistles,” what is left of a story? A farm boy takes on the empire to save the girl he loves. A simple hobbit risks everything to destroy a great evil. Those are the tales that remain long after we’ve forgotten the details of the story, or maybe even the author or title.
Not seeing results can even enhance the tale. What kind of hero keeps going when all hope is lost? History is filled with examples and even Tolkien notes its power in a conversation between Frodo and Sam near the end when all their hope is lost. A true hero keeps going because it’s the right thing to do. When hope is stripped away, when all is lost, the power of one becomes even more poignant, more powerful to grip the reader and keep us turning pages. Will the hero break? We hope not, we pray not. We want to see him succeed.
I believe it’s easy to write a story with bells and whistles, with lots of “grit,” but much more difficult to take a straight arrow, steel true hero and demonstrate the pathos of struggling against the inevitable without losing hope. Can we make such stories believable? It depends. It depends on our own life story and how deeply ingrained the power of one is in our personal lives. Do we struggle against the inevitable without giving up?
Maybe the power of one is simply rooted in a spiritual faith, an example set by the One who came into the world to save it. If so, it has been encoded into our very DNA and we as readers will keep demanding such stories and praying that we as writers can live up to the task.