My A-Z Blogging theme is to cover 26 touch-me-not categories of fiction writing. These are frequently the trouble spots which can be useful components of the story if handled properly, but when rushed through, can cause all kinds of trouble. While the genre is fantasy, the tips can apply to anything, from romance to literary fiction.
While exploring the ruins of an old castle, Mordekai and his sister Monique accidentally destroy an old tower only to find themselves in a different place, or time, entirely. Then a giant goat crashes through the wall and carries Mordekai off, leaving Monique with the unpredictable Princess Mural. After a variety of adventures, they’re reunited in the courtyard of the villains castle. They take refuge in a stable along one wall and hold off the goat forces…until Mordekai gets knocked in the head and finds himself back in his own world.
For a long moment, nothing happened. The park remained as stable and sensible as any reality. He closed his eyes, clicked his heels together, and did the usual things one does when trying to return to another place, but nothing changed.
Then a gust of air blew at him from behind, and the sun became so bright he had to squint. When the glare diminished, he found himself back in the stable with Mural and Monique at his side. Mural was speaking, though he couldn’t quite make out the words, and across from her was her uncle.
He tilted his head towards her. “Very nice. I see all your royal lessons were not lost.”
“Now, Uncle, you will pay fealty to me.”
He shook his head. “I can hardly do that. The realm and my supporters would never forgive me. Besides,” he added, a smile growing. “I have the upper hand. You cannot send me elsewhere, even if you managed to drag your valiant knight back. And I have the services of this creature,” he added as he gave the giant goat a pat on its shoulder.
Mordekai looked up at his nemesis with a frown. If it wanted to, he was sure it could do quite a bit of damage, and Mural’s uncle’s next words confirmed it.
“Hear my proclamation, dear niece. If you do not pay fealty to me and give up all claim to the throne of Stelvia, I’ll have this fine fellow ram the building down atop you, turning it into your grave.”
“You dare not.”
“I wouldn’t trust to that. And these witnesses shall attest that I tried to work with you. That even after you sent your knight to assassinate me, I gave you a chance.”
Mordekai glanced at the princess. Mural’s expression was defiant, and he wondered if she was the least bit worried. He cautiously peered up at the beams that supported the thatched roof over their heads. Suffocation…or death by a blow to the head. It didn’t look good, and yet she was challenging her enemy to the last. She certainly has spunk.
“I did not send him,” she said at last. “And you know the truth, though none may bear it witness.”
“The truth? The truth is he clearly was up to no good. Escaping from a dungeon that has no doors save the one past my guards…and the door bolted? No court in the land would support you.”
“Not after it feasted on your bribes.”
He held up his hands, palms towards them as though to shield him from any further insult. Or argument. “Until nuncheon is served. I give you that long to consider.” Then he turned to the captain of his goats and said, “Guard them carefully, but waste no more on attacks. If they try to escape, let the giant do his worst.”
Villains love ultimatums, where they get to make the heroes squirm. Will they choose one dishonor or another? This death or that? They’re a common trope in fantasy especially, which means they’re close to being cliche, but can still work if handled properly. Still, you should ask yourself a few questions before rushing to use this plot device.
- What does your villain have to gain by it? More times than not, ultimatums give the heroes time to rally their defenses, come up with Plan B, and counter the villain’s blow–and a well-educated villain would know this. Think about it this way. If you’d been working to destroy the heroes for some time, and the chance arrives, what would stay your hand? In this case, giving Mural a chance to peaceably give up her claim casts her uncle in a generous light–which he might need to silence dissenters after she’s dead.
- Would the villain actually abide by it? Even if you determine that, yes, the villain will want to give them one last chance, he or she might not stick to the agreement. It could be a bit of torture, smuggled in as an honorable chance to end the fight, to save someone, etc., but unless your villain actually has a code of conduct, he might do the worst anyways, no matter what the heroes decide.
- Will the heroes believe it? If the villain is indeed of the treacherous sort, your heroes will likely know this, so there won’t really be much of a mental or emotional struggle, even if an ultimatum is given. In this example, unless Mural thinks her uncle would abide by the agreement and let them live, she has no reason to give in to her uncle’s claims or to contemplate them for very long at all. Her best chance is to make him think she’s contemplating her “great decision” while making plans to get out…which is what most heroes do in these sorts of pickles.
- How often have you used it in your stories? If every villain delivers an ultimatum, and every time, the heroes find a way out, the readers won’t be tense because they’ll know that they’ll find a way. So mix it up. Have some villains who don’t give second chances, and have some “sticky wickets” the heroes just can’t get out, despite being given time to think and consider and plan. If you try for a realistic balance where the readers can’t guarantee that the plot will go a certain way, it will go a long way towards avoiding the cliche of ultimatums.
Until the next letter,
Copyright 2017 Andrea Lundgren
Photo courtesy of gratisography