Punishment and Reward

Ooh, loot! Or, if you want, booty, spoil, prize, haul, plunder, ransackings, bounty, plus, premium, payoff, dough, CHC (cold hard cash), winnings, pot, bundle, meed, bonus, endowment, incentive, consideration, tip, hard-earned pay, lagniappe, perk, perquisite, or (in gamer parlance) “sweet, precious loot”.

There are a million words for a million and one things: “loot” or rewards can mean nothing in particular or a lot of things in general (or, to flip the script, one thing in particular and nothing in general). To the victor goes the spoils, right? Fortune favors the bold?

How does this translate into storytelling? Well, let’s start with the obvious question: what exactly is loot or plunder within the context of a story? Well, simply put, the loot usually represents a goal, something that characters in the story are working towards. Just like you need to kick the final boss’s butt in order to grab the goods, the heroes (and sometimes villains) get the treasure by completing some task or goal.

Of course, there’s also the other side of loot: punishment. While loot is hard-earned booty won by the victor, punishment is conferred upon the opposite side. It’s kind of their “consolation prize”. It’s not really a prize at all, however, since the person getting the punishment pretty much ends up completely screwed.

Usually (we’ll get to “unusually” in a moment) punishment and rewards are doled out to those who deserve it, often in varying places. As a cookie-cutter example (but not necessarily a bad one), the hero gets the reward or loot (the treasure, or, in some cases, the girl *although that doesn’t seem to fit in the “loot” category… but whatever*) and the villain gets the punishment (execution or being locked up in jail, for instance).

But before we get to the sticky job of deciding who gets what, we first need to start the more pleasant job of deciding what said reward or punishment will be. Whatever it is (as with all or at least most of things in storytelling), it needs to be fitting. Poetic. Tailored directly to the characters that are going to receive it.

For example: let’s say you’re an outspoken fan of fancy cars. You have those cute little model thingies (I’ve never been a car nerd, okay?), your bedroom is plastered with images of Corvettes and Lamborghinis, and you know how to talk nerdy car lingo about sports cars. In general, everyone knows you as the local general expert about car history, taste in cars, engines, popular trends in cars, etc.

So now it’s a pretty well-established fact that you like cars. So when your birthday rolls around, all of your birthday presents (if you get any from your *cough cough* kind *cough cough* neighbors) will be car-themed: a new steering wheel, a free-paint-job-ticket, and perhaps even a brand spankin’ new Porche (courtesy of your *cough cough cough* kind neighbors *cough cough cough*).

But then…there’s that weirdo guy that buys you a lunchbox. Or bedsheets. Or a mousepad or something. You probably received it thinking “Really? What was this guy thinking?” (Spoiler alert: he wasn’t) You probably conclude that he doesn’t know very much about you, and summarily decide to call on him one day to explain the finer points of a V-8 engine.

Why do I come off with this weird and lengthy analogy? One, I’m a writer. I write stories like I eat and breathe. Two, it just goes to show that well-chosen gifts (or rewards or punishments) are tailored to exactly what the receiver wants. The best kind of gift is the one that the recipient would want.

And now that I’m done with all the Christmas shopping advice (drama, I mean), how does this apply to storytelling? Well, what does the hero/heroine want? Freedom? Fame? Security for those that they love? The toppling of an oppressive government? Take a look at the main character’s goal. What do they want or need? That would make a fine prize. Of course, vice versa for the villain and the punishment.

I said I would touch on the topic of flipping the punishment and reward between the hero and villain, and so I will (albeit briefly): this can be done, but don’t just do it for the sake of something different. The bad guy should be punished and the good guy rewarded. If anything, make it temporary. The bad guy wins a big battle but not the war (like in The Empire Strikes Back).

Also, when flipping the targets of punishment and reward, try to see how undeserving you can make it. Take what the hero deserves and give him the exact opposite. Take what the villain deserves and give him the exact opposite. This makes the final victory for the hero in the end far sweeter.

Good luck, and happy writing!

Be sure to check out my latest novel, Book 1 in the Praetors of Lost Magic Series, and our Publications page. Until then, writers!


Published by Van Ghalta

A cold, dark, mysterious character who purposefully wrote a story so that he could fit into it...A story where he himself WRITES stories, practices martial arts, blogs, plays airsoft, collects MTG trading cards, plays outdated video games, and writes weird, third-person bios for himself...

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