I came across the story “You’re Not a Cop Till You Taste Them” while reading “On Combat,” by Dave Grossman and Loren W. Christensen. The story stuck in my mind because (a) it is a compelling and emotionally satisfying story, and (b) it is less than 1200 words. A link to the original is below:
More often than not, short stories leave me feeling unsatisfied, even when they’re more than 5000 words in length. I used to think that short stories left me flat because they didn’t have the space to develop 3-act structure or the time for me to invest emotionally in the tale. But “You’re Not a Cop Till You Taste Them” proved to me that a short story could truly satisfy. How did it accomplish its task?
I used to think of three-act structure as the essence of a story, but now I think it’s more a side-effect. My current theory is that a story is two decisions connected by a journey: the first is the “Fateful Decision” and the second is the “Climactic Decision.” The “Fateful Decision” is a decision made by the protagonist which determines whether or not there will be a story. The classic example is the Matrix, when Neo has to choose between the red and the blue pill. The “Climactic Decision” is also a choice between one of two things. One decision gives the protagonist an easy way out. He/she can get what she/he wants, but has to sacrifice his/her principles a little bit. The other choice is fraught with possible danger and/or martyrdom. When the protagonist chooses this option, he/she becomes worthy of achieving her/his goal and the resolution can follow.
The Fateful Decision in “You’re Not a Cop Till You Taste Them” comes in paragraph 5, when the protagonist decides to ask the tall grey-haired officer what it means to say you aren’t a hero till you “taste them.” We now know what the hero wants, and thus the story begins.
The Climactic Decision comes in paragraph 9, when the protagonist decides to stop and see if the little girl is having any trouble. Key details make this moment important: (1) only five minutes remain until the end of the shift, and it’s been a hard day, (2) there’s no good reason for him to think the girl’s in trouble. It would be easy for the hero to justify driving home and having a beer. By choosing to stop, he proves that he’s not just a good police officer, but an exceptionally committed one.
The rest of the story is resolution, the consequence of the hero’s choices. He gets what he wanted, namely to know what “tasting them” meant. It’s a hard price, and so when the grey-haired police officer assures the hero that, “There was nothing you could have done differently.” We feel the bittersweet reward in all its fullness. The hero is no longer a rookie.