Thursday, May 15, 2014

Everyone Likes A Showdown

I was raised on the humming, spark-scattering clashes between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, could almost smell the dry, electrified tension when Doc Holliday stepped out from the shadows to finish off Johnny Ringo, and felt my stomach tighten and soar beside the Riders of Rohan when they charged down to save Helm's Deep. Needless to say, I'm a fan of storytelling that rears compelling contenders to be pitted against one another, and found it brought an enriching excitement to my own work.

There's a visceral satisfaction in the old Gene Pitney lyric about the Western villain Liberty Valance, "When two men go out to face each other, only one returns." Commonly echoed as an effective "final reckoning" between all opposing forces in many stories, this climactic head-to-head generously rewards us with a clear-cut victor to show whether our investment of hope into him/her has ultimately paid off. And when the smoke settles enough to reveal which of the scales is soundly weighed down, and which, despite all its occupant's formidable attributes, is left abashedly teetering, the nail-biting audience has nothing left but to cheer or cry.

The silver-white gleam of gunmetal expertly whipped from holsters on either end of a shrinking divide might as well be a banner that reads, "All right, remember every insult, snide jeer, and maimed/killed family member? Well that's all gonna be settled right now, and it's gonna be loud, and sexy." Just as every screeching clang of swords in a medieval/fantasy duel could be accompanied by subtitles like, "All pain and dishonor put upon me will be rectified by this single, swift strike. Okay, right now I'm just trying to intimidate him while assessing how hard he's gonna come at me. Oh shit, he's coming at me pretty hard. Phew, guess he didn't know I had that trick up my sleeve. Jesus Christ, he's way trickier than I am... maybe all the growth I've achieved over the course of this narrative will be for nothing."

The showdown's only as thrilling as its buildup allows, and the best ones for me are those in which the weaponry and choreography take a backseat to each character's internal strife, and the weight of what they have to gain or lose. Vader isn't fighting Luke as much as he's fighting his conscience, a conflict that gives rise to a powerful inner triumph leaving both on the winning side, and the real enemy beaten. Boromir isn't just trying to kill orcs, but to redeem his corruption and betrayal of the Fellowship. John McClane... well, after awhile, he's just in a wifebeater killing nameless henchmen, looking damn masculine doing it.

Like a lot of epic fantasies, mine culminates in a sprawling battle from which the hero and villain diverge to go one on one, in a cinematic chapter ranging from open skies to a mountaintop, but the action soon becomes secondary to the protagonist's psychological struggle. Whether he'll be flayed open seems inconsequential compared to whether he'll collapse under his own confusion, till he realizes the primary showdown at hand is with none other than himself.

My expectation for readers is that, no matter how the action finishes, a clear winner will emerge. And all I can really say is this: Yippee ki-yay Motha Fu****


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