The Torch Song Principle
by Jason Black
“Let’s hang on,” Frankie sings, “to what we’ve got.” Percy Sledge observes that, “When a man loves a woman, he’ll trade the world for the good thing he’s found.” About a million other torch song crooners have their own take on it. So many songwriters explore this idea, there must be something to it. Indeed there is, and it is simply this: gain is not the same as loss.
As a rule, people will put much more effort into keeping what they have than in obtaining something they don’t have. Intuitively, we understand this. I think it stems from emotional attachment. We become attached to the particular things we have. If you break the “World’s Greatest Dad” mug my kids gave me, you can’t just buy me an identical mug. You can’t replace the emotional attachment I had to the original. A new one is simply less valuable to me than the old one I already had.
This applies to anything: Possessions we have earned. Things we have been given by loved ones. Even just stuff, junk we’ve had for so long it has become part of our lives. Abstract possessions, like one’s sense of identity, civil rights, our physical abilities. And, of course, the relationships we have with other people.
Avoiding a loss is a stronger motivator than the lure of an equal gain. That’s the Torch Song Principle, and it is a powerful lever you can use to get your characters to do what you need them to do in your novels.
Create an emotional motivation for action
You ever get stuck in your novel, knowing that a character needs to do something but you can’t figure out a plausible reason why she’d do it? Link the action you want her to take to the defense of something she holds dear, and you’ve got it. Nobody cares what city planners get up to, until they decide to use eminent domain to run a thoroughfare through your house.
Create a dramatic bluff
If someone is threatening your character with some kind of loss, you can jack the tension right through the roof by having the character proclaim that he doesn’t actually care about the thing being threatened. Viewers of Lost will remember when Benjamin Linus claims not to care about the girl some commandos are holding at gunpoint. They make the standard offer: do what we want, or we’ll shoot her. He bluffs: “Go ahead. She means nothing to me.” The girl, of course, is his daughter and in fact means a great deal to him. Instant drama, regardless of the outcome.
Convey the importance of something else
We hate to lose anything, but we are willing to lose something in order not to lose something else that’s even more important to us. Think about a character sacrificing a closely guarded secret in order to help someone else: “You know, I’ve never told anybody this, but my dad was an alcoholic too.” In real life, it’s King Edward abdicating the British throne so he could marry Wallis Simpson. Or especially, people who volunteer for suicide missions for the good of others, such as the workers at the Fukushima nuclear facility who willingly entered the plant in an attempt to prevent a meltdown despite the staggering levels of radiation. if one person is trying to take something belonging to someone else, the attacker’s motivation is inherently weaker than the defender’s.
Create a believable victory over a stronger opponent
All else being equal, if one person is trying to take something belonging to someone else, the attacker’s motivation is inherently weaker than the defender’s. The fox, as it were, is only running for its dinner while the rabbit is running for its life. In a classic cinematic moment from the end of Stand By Me, young Gordie Lachance stands up to the much stronger town bully Ace Merrill. They are both vying for the glory of reporting the location of a missing boy’s body to the authorities. That’s all Ace is fighting for. But Gordie is not only fighting for the glory, but also for his own self-esteem and the memory of his brother. Gordie’s emotional attachments in that moment are so much stronger than those pulling on Ace, that not only do we fully believe Gordie pulling a gun on Ace, but also that Ace backs down.
Stay in a bad situation
Think of how many times we have seen characters stay in a bad job, a bad relationship, or any other situation because losing it—no matter how miserable it makes them—is still perceived as less preferable to abandoning it. Or how many of us have lived that situation ourselves? This behavior makes no rational sense; losing something that’s a huge negative in our lives, even in exchange for nothing in return, would still have to be a net positive, wouldn’t it? Logically, yes. But our aversion to suffering loss, any kind of loss, is so strong we often stay well past when we should have gotten out.
The basis of stakes
Whatever the reason, people will fight hard to hold on to what they have and what they value. I would argue that the Torch Song Principle is the basis underlying the entire concept of stakes in our novels. Whatever a novel’s stakes are, they represent something that is had by the characters, by society, or whoever. The central conflict creates a situation where the characters might lose that thing. Thus, they are motivated to defend it, sometimes even at the cost of their lives.