Overwhelming Odds

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I believe that you can tell a good story if you are an author or a screenwriter with the odds stacked against your protagonist, even absurdly so. Overwhelming Odds: A blog on how to tell a story with odds against the protagonist is my attempt to figure out how exactly this works.

There are many books, movies, and tv shows where the odds are stacked against the protagonist. Some of these stories succeed while others fail. I’m trying to figure out what makes the successful ones work and why the failures don’t.

These posts will look at a variety of different situations where the odds are stacked against the protagonist, and examine why some succeed in spite of this and others fail. I’ll be focusing mainly on books and movies for now, but I may also talk about games or other media from time to time.

I am not a writer, but I’ve always been interested in storytelling and have been an avid reader since a very young age. I’m also a big fan of lots of different kinds of movies. I don’t know much about writing (I took one creative writing class in college as an elective) but I spend a lot of time thinking about it and reading about it (books like Save The Cat!, The Art of Dramatic

Overwhelming Odds: a blog about how to tell a story when the odds are stacked against the protagonist.

I’m an author, and I think about this a lot. I write novels and short stories, and my characters often face situations that would be considered hopeless by conventional wisdom: no food, no shelter, no weapons, no allies. How do they survive? How do they win?

I’ll post my thoughts here, along with links to other interesting articles on the subject. Enjoy!

It’s an odd thing, but I’ve found that a lot of people aren’t sure how to tell a story when the odds are against the protagonist. The usual way is something like this:

Bob walked into the room. A rabid dog leapt out of the shadows and bit him in half. It was all over in seconds.

There’s nothing wrong with that sort of setup, so long as you’re not expecting your readers to sympathize with Bob in any way, shape or form. The reason it works is simple: Bob has no chance of winning this fight.

This isn’t universally true. Sometimes you want your hero to overcome overwhelming odds, and if that’s what you’re going for then you’re going to have to work a little harder to make your readers believe that it’s possible for them to win.

For example, this passage from Terry Pratchett’s Night Watch shows someone doing just that:

“You can’t win,” said Sergeant Colon hopelessly.

The Librarian gave him a brief look of surprise, which was quickly replaced by one of his usual looks of mild concern over the state of human stupidity, and rumbled: “No?”

“We are heavily outnumbered,” said Colon. “And they’ve got us out

There are endless ways to tell a story. One of the most popular is to pit your protagonist against overwhelming odds.

It’s a common theme in fiction, from Homer onwards. In fact, it’s probably the most common theme in fiction. Although to be fair, it’s also the most overused theme in fiction.

(Note: I’m talking specifically about fiction here, not movies or games.)

There are some good reasons for using this trope. It can be dramatic, and it can give your story a sense of urgency and danger (if it fails). It can provide an opportunity for your character to rise above their fears and limitations (if they win). It can be used as shorthand to explain the nature of your character’s strengths and weaknesses (if they fail).

And yet, despite all those potential benefits, overwhelmingly-defied odds just seem to be used too often in fiction. And when they are used it often feels forced or cliche or cheap. Which is why I think we need more discussion on how to use this trope effectively.

This is why the odds are so important. If there are 10 of them and you are fighting against 1,000,000 of them, it’s still a fair fight. A million to one is not necessarily a problem.

1,000,000 to one is a problem.

When there is that much difference between your side and the other side, you have to be very careful how you tell the story. This is why we use euphemisms like “a small force” or “a ragtag bunch” when we talk about David and Goliath. Or why history books talk about “the overwhelming odds” in the same paragraph where they talk about the battle.

If you want to tell that kind of story, it’s not as simple as saying “A small force turned back an overwhelming enemy”. You need to think about how you’re going to say it first. You can’t just have your heroes walk into battle without any preparation for the worst case scenario—otherwise the audience will think that their victory was inevitable instead of skillful.

Most stories we tell involve some kind of struggle, or overcoming the odds. The odds against the protagonist are what make the story interesting. If the protagonist is going to succeed with such overwhelming odds, they need to have some sort of significant advantage.

Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings stories are a good example of this. The quest was only interesting because of the overwhelming odds against it. Frodo had an advantage in his possession of the ring, which allowed him to sneak past “the Eye” Sauron and his minions, but he still had to make decisions on how to use that advantage effectively.

The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are also good examples because they show how a story can be told, even when there is a high degree of danger for the protagonist. Each decision point in a story is an opportunity for failure or death for the protagonist, so there needs to be clear justification for continuing through each decision point.

Tolkien’s novels do this well by establishing their own set of rules that govern their world. The most important rule is that “luck” is not random; rather it follows rules based on the beliefs and intentions of people in Middle Earth. —->this essay analysis ended up being at least three times longer than i thought it would

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