A Word About Betrayal

By Sean Platt

people watching a movie

Today I would love to talk about betrayal.

(If you prefer audio, you can listen to this episode on the Smarter Artist Podcast)

Not because betrayal is super, super fun to talk about, but just because it’s great for telling stories.

Man with glasses and dark demeanor. I’m not going to get into too many specifics here.

I want to do something different and talk about a specific movie with betrayal.

Normally I will say oh, you should see this movie and I’ll give you all the reasons why, or I’ll talk about something like betrayal and give you a bunch of examples.

This time I think I have an example that is so good at betrayal, it’s the best one I could think of and then I thought I want to devote this entire episode to talking about this.

So, if you have not seen The Godfather series, I’m sorry, you really need to correct that.

You can skip the third one, but the first one and the second one are amazing, and they both deal very, very heavily in betrayal.

But I’m going to stick with Godfather II because I think it has the best most classic betrayal of any movie ever.

Now, if you have not seen The Godfather II, I want you to stop reading this and revisit this episode later. You need to see it and how it unfolds. And there are going to be great spoilers here.

In The Godfather II Michael’s brother, Fredo betrays him. They’re brothers but he hands him over.

He’s going to have him assassinated in Cuba.

It’s devastating when it happens.

Michael takes care of it.

It’s such a painful, deeply affecting family saga that we get to watch in The Godfather.

It’s set against this backdrop of violence and corruption and power.

It’s the perfect environment for betrayal because who can you trust, if not your family?

The Corleones, they don’t know who to trust. They’ve bought off Senators, they’ve bought off police. They have the Corleone family and the lieutenants and all of this, but they don’t know who to trust because everyone is betraying them.

hands reach out of book to grab woman's throatAnd there’s a lot of betrayal in the first movie and book. But when it comes to the sequel, the betrayal is as close to home as it possibly can be.

Mario Puzo basically asked what could be the most devastating betrayal that I could possibly level upon Michael? Oh, of course, it would be his brother because what’s the worst betrayal? Blood.

So, when you’re doing that, creating your stories and you think you don’t want the reader to feel betrayed, which means that the betrayal that you construct has to be elegant.

It has to be a gut punch.

When she gets to that point in your story, she needs to feel devastated. She needs to feel betrayed herself, not by you as the author but by the circumstance.

You want her upset.

So, does it have to be the main character who’s betrayed?

No, not at all.

In fact, if you make the main character the one who betrays someone else, and then has to live through those consequences or somehow alter her behavior to change the outcome of the story, that could be really powerful.

If the normal paradigm is your character is betrayed and then has to pivot and react to that, but you instead make your main character the person who is betraying someone else, that’s a reversal that most readers will not see coming, especially if you craft it well.

Then you can spend that final third act of the book making that make sense and making her come to terms with it, and that can be really powerful.

But you don’t have to do it that way.

The main point is that betrayal is an extremely powerful emotion.

The main point is that betrayal is an extremely powerful emotion.… Click To Tweet

We’ve all been betrayed at some point in our past, and being able to tap into that is very primal.

You just need to find a way to do it that’s not cheap and that is devastating in just the right way for the reader.

So, really think about what is the worst thing that can happen to this character, if she was going to be betrayed how terrible would it be? Like Michael being betrayed by his brother.

Then find a way to not only put that into your story, but then to let the reader know ahead of time, long before it happens that it will be the worst thing to ever happen, if it ever does, and build a case that it never would because that kind of betrayal just would never happen. And then make it happen anyway.

Ouch, ouch, ouch for your reader.

Total gut punch.

Best of luck getting betrayal into your next story.

Sean Platt is the founder of Sterling & Stone and loves that he not only gets paid to make up stories and come up with crazy ideas, but that he gets to do so with his best friends. Together, they've also co-authored the bestselling non-fiction titles Write. Publish. Repeat., Fiction Unboxed, and Iterate & Optimize to help Smarter Artists get smarter, faster.

Sean lives in Austin, Texas with his wife Cindy and their two children, Ethan and Haley.

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