I was beta reading a book for a friend from the NaNo group where I live and during a certain part of the book, I sensed that someone in the story was going to die. I’d never read anything by her, so I wasn’t sure what to expect from the immanent death and it made me a bit nervous. (I even messaged her on Facebook to tell her that I would be disappointed if she “Romeo and Juliette-ed” the story.
After finishing the story, I thought it would be a good idea to write a bit about using death in your stories. What kinds of pitfalls you might encounter and how it can help your story grow.
Fiction vs Reality
Death is a fact of life. I’m sure you’ve heard this quote from Ben Franklin: “in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”
It has become a bit cliche, but that doesn’t change the truth in the quote. If you ignore the revolving door of certain fictional characters, everyone is going to die.
In fiction, death is less permanent. Harry Potter (and Voldemort for that matter) died at some point in the novels. Jean Grey and death are old friends that visit from time to time. (Although Magneto has been dead more times.)
So what does this mean for your story? Here are a few suggestions:
- Death has an impact on your story and the characters in your story. Do not treat a death lightly.
- How will your characters grow because of this death?
- How will it change the message of your story?
- Ask yourself why, in the structure of your story, the character has to die.
Let’s consider a popular fictional death-Gandalf the Grey.
Gandalf is the leader of the company because of his knowledge Middle Earth. He has long wandered the highways and byways of the world and knows many of the secret places. When he leads the company to the mines of Moira, it is because the path is secret and will hide them from prying eyes.
The problem the story encounters is that Gandalf has become a crutch to the story. If he remains, then every problem can and will be solved by him. No one will grow, and the story will stagnate.
Gandalf’s death brings about many changes. Here are a few of them:
- Boromir has a motive to lose faith in the company’s ability to bring the ring to Mordor.
- Aragorn has to take charge of the company.
- Frodo realizes that he is endangering the rest of the company.
Gandalf’s death is the catalyst for all of the action that takes place afterwards.
What purpose does death serve in a story?
Gandalf is just one example of a death in a story, and death can serve many purposes in a narrative.Let’s consider some of the ways that death can have an impact on your narrative:
- Bring change to your living characters-Sometimes your characters need something to motivate them to change their lives. Death can be such a factor. Perhaps your character will decide the death is a reason to change their habits or lifestyle.
- Create an emotional impact-Most of your readers will have experienced death in their lives, and these experiences cause some sort of emotional response.
- Make the story longer by making it harder to accomplish the goal-What if the death is of a key character for the goal your characters are trying to accomplish? That can add to your word count as they strive to overcome this sudden lack.
- Create an atmosphere-Especially if you are working in a genre such as horror, incorporating death in the story can create or enhance an aura of dread to your tale.
- Accelerate the pace of the story-Death can make the elements of your story move more quickly, especially if the characters that are still alive feel a sense of immediacy.
- Cause change for the sake of change- This is seen quite often during National Novel Writing Month in the form of the Traveling Shovel of Death. Killing off a character can bring about a wide variety of new dynamics in your story, but I wouldn’t recommend using it just because you don’t know what else to do.
- Because art reflects life, and sometimes people die in real life- We already mentioned that death is a part of life, and sometimes death just happens, but make sure you understand how it will impact your story before you jump into it.
In order to un-kill them later/have a surprise return-This one is easy to abuse. Sure it can add to your story, but don’t do it too much.
Fulfilling revenge/just desserts- Sometimes your story just needs some payback, so why not let your character just go for it?
Demonstrate the severity of a situation- Think about every ‘bad guy’ scene in a movie. What does the bad guy do to prove just how bad he is? He shoots somebody. It may not always be fatal, but it proves a point.
Make a plan fail- Think back to Gandalf. His death upset the plan for the company to travel to Mount Doom together. This makes the story change direction.
Let’s take a moment to talk about cliches. Cliches are everywhere, and there are more of them every day. So how did cliches get to be so cliche in the first place?
A cliche is kind of like peer pressure-Everybody’s doing it. That’s how it became a cliche. In fact, every cliche was once an original idea, and everybody loved it. Just think, there was once a movie audience that had never seen any of the horror cliches, and they were amazed and shocked by the jump scares, and other overdone tricks that we groan about.
The problem with originality is that after someone sees it and wants to use it for their own project, there’s the danger of everyone wants to try it too. Before long, that unique take on the world has become overdone and boring.
What’s worse is that people are going to forget who had the original idea. If you look at the Lord of the Rings, it’s just like so much of the fantasy stories out there these days, but don’t forget that Tolkein wrote his books when the world of fantasy was young.
So what does that have to do with death in your story anyway?
Common Death Cliches
- Coming back from the dead- This is a huge thing in comic books, but that is a different kind of medium and comic book companies depend on those big name characters to draw in readers, but that isn’t your book. Your story needs a sense of permanence. So when death happens, only take it back if it serves a purpose in the story.
- I’m Not Dead Yet– We see this in every horror movie. the monster isn’t really dead yet. The fine fellows from Monty Python made a great scene where they spoofed this idea with the Black Knight. Even after he was only standing on one leg with no arms, he was still hopping around trying to kill Arthur.
- Killing a character because you don’t know what else to do- Sure you need to introduce some change into your story, but death isn’t always the answer.
- Getting rid of a character that doesn’t fit into your story- Better ways to get rid of that character include, but are not limited to: moving, getting lost, being kidnapped, alien abducted, you get the idea.
Hopefully that gives you some food for thought about death. (Yes, I am well aware that ‘food for thought’ is a cliche, but I wanted to check if you were paying attention.)
If you have other questions, let us know, and feel free to give us some feedback on the post.