How story structure primed me for power fantasy

Sometimes it's not about the journey

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Good storytelling is usually about the process of achieving something. That's the story part of a story. A character wants something, but can't have it. The character goes through some transformative trials until the thing is "earned", at which point the character gets the thing and the story is over. However, there's another storytelling tradition that grants the character the thing right away, and the "story" is all about the character using the thing to the fullest extent it can be used. That's the power fantasy story.

You see power fantasies in comic books and cheap genre fiction. It's arguably not very interesting, because the hero's struggle tends to be minimized. Whatever payoff exists is pretty much inevitable all along. And yet it can be really satisfying. In fact, it's sometimes downright necessary.

Unfulfilled promises

Brandon Sanderson describes a story as "a promise, progress, and payoff." That means that first, the storyteller makes an implicit or explicit promise (or threat!) to the audience at the start of the story. Then the audience endures the middle part where the hero makes progress toward a goal. And at some point, there's the payoff when the promised eventuality happens.

The most famous example of this is Chekhov's Gun: you arbitrarily show the audience a gun, then the audience forgets about the gun while the story happens, and then the gun gets brought out again and somebody gets shot. Promise, progress, payoff.

The thing is, a "promise" is open to interpretation. What happens when a storyteller promises that the farm boy is going to become a space wizard and take down an entire Empire with a laser sword, and then the movie ends before the farm boy has even used the laser sword? Well, that's what sequels are for, and it's why Jabba's palace in Return of the Jedi is so satisfying. It's the payoff for not one but two movies.

The end of Return of the Jedi, on the other hand, is intellectually satisfying for an adult, but pretty frustrating for a kid (and for an adult, who am I kidding?) Luke throws aside his sword and refuses to fight. It's an amazing moment of integrity and compassion, it's the moment of truth that most films can never have for fear of robbing the audience of the payoff. Return of the Jedi was able to pull it off because there are parallel battles happening in space and on the moon below, and we'd technically already gotten the payoff at the start of the movie.

But some of us wanted more anyway.

For two decades, nerds who'd seen Return of the Jedi, and had heard (usually conflicting) rumours that there would be sequels, waited for the next installment of the story. The one where Luke is a space wizard with a laser sword, and uses his powers to slay all the bullies who make fun of kids wearing Star Wars t-shirts and NASA patches on their jackets (was that maybe oddly specific?)

Of course that movie never came, and while it's one of my personal favourite grievances, Star Wars isn't the only franchise that disappoints fans that way. Movies, I think, are particularly bad at this, even when the source material isn't. Every Batman reboot starts with the origin story, and shows Batman slowly working his way up to greatness. Just when he reaches peak Batman, it's time to either claim he's getting too old for this work, or else to stop the series (usually mercifully, to be fair) and reboot so the cycle can start over. The same goes for Spiderman.

Power fantasy

I think the disconnect is that some fans just want to see their hero do cool stuff and teach those baddies a lesson, while other fans and the general audience prefer to see the traditional struggle. Some people are comfortable with the traditional promise and progress, while some of us just want the payoff. I'm not saying every movie should be about a cool hero doing cool overpowered things, but I am saying that sometimes that's exactly what you want. In the payoff movie, the story isn't progress but process. I like seeing the decisions my hero has to make under duress. I like to see the strategies, the clever solutions to surprise complications. And I don't want to see that as a 1970s Superman montage, I want to see it as a full movie, from start to finish. I want to witness the hero being heroic.

For me, a great example of power fantasy done well (possibly the best?) is the Dredd movie from 2012. Dredd (and Anderson, although she's inexperienced as a Judge) are powerful from the start, and they're pretty well matched against Ma-Ma's gangers. The story shows Ma-Ma's process of cornering the Judges, and Dredd and Anderson's process of staying alive and fighting back. The movie doesn't leave you feeling like you never got to see Dredd be Dredd. You get lots of Dredd. You're not even left feeling like you need more psionic wizardry. There's a whole sequence in which Anderson outwits the sick mind of one of the gangers...from within the ganger's own mind!

Promises and payoffs are fun-sized, in the Dredd movie. They happen throughout the story, and you leave feeling like the heroes were heroes through the whole film. There was never a moment where they had to moralize about how being a hero is actually being the villain from another perspective, they didn't have to acquire their powers, or lose their powers to some kryptonite that got hamfisted into the story. They start out powerful, they use their powers, and after they've well and truly cleaned all the villains out of the movie, the credits roll.

Power fantasy doesn't mean characters can't change. Judge Dredd has a change of heart toward the Psi Division because of Anderson. Anderson develops new skills and gets a whole heap of on-the-job training. They become friends.


There are lots of great examples of shameless power fantasies that work really well.

Doctor Who has faltered once or twice over the course of the show's 50+ year history, but generally the Doctor is the Doctor from start to finish.

Warhammer plays fast and lose with just how invincible space marines are, but overall there are lots of Adeptus Astartes who bulldoze (to say nothing of their Primarchs) their ways through 600 page books.

Conan the Barbarian is usually pretty straight-forward (the original Robert E Howard version, at least, because I haven't read the books after his death).

There are more, especially in comics. Most comics have been going for so many decades that you get a pretty good mix of story types. That illustrates my point, I think. The promise of greatness, and the long road to greatness, is appropriate for some stories. But often times, the payoff deserves to be more than just a third act. "Traditional" stories have set us up with some exciting promises, and sometimes it's really nice and really satisfying to settle into a whole story about just the payoff.

Header image from Kingdoms of Amalur, now owned by EA.

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