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Writing Excuses 7.39: Death

Writing Excuses 7.39: Death


Key points: character deaths can raise the stakes and increase tension. Don't waste character deaths, make the deaths meaningful by letting the readers know the character. Death reminds us that there is a cost. Consider alternatives -- what if they die or what if they live? The number of deaths and the way you present the deaths should match your genre. Showing just the key images allows the audience to imagine the rest. The purpose of the death should affect how they die and what you show the audience. Writers are often emotionally invested in the death of a character.

[Mary] Season Seven, Episode 39.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses. Today? Death!
[Howard] 15 minutes long.
[Mary] Because you're in a hurry.
[Dan] And we're not that smart.
[Brandon] I'm Brandon.
[Dan] I'm Dan.
[Mary] I'm Mary.
[Howard] And I'm not dead yet.
[Mary] Yet.
[Dan] Okay. We've got 15 minutes.
[Howard] I think I'll go for a walk.
[Mary] Mwahahahaha.

[Brandon] Okay. Handling killing characters. Has everyone here killed a character? Howard, you've killed some of my favorites, so you I know.
[Howard] Oh, yes.
[Dan] Dan, yeah, you've killed people.
[Dan] [chuckles]
[Mary] Oh, yeah.
[Dan] I've made my whole living killing characters.
[Brandon] Yes. All right.

[Howard] I'll be… Let me be the first to say that I've done it well and I've done it poorly.
[Brandon] Okay.
[Howard] Over the last dozen years, I've done it well and I've done it poorly.
[Brandon] That's a great place to start. Tell us about well and tell us about poorly.
[Howard] I'm going to start with poorly. One of the first characters I introduced in the strip was… Aliens that I introduced in the strip was Sh'vuu, who was a sort of a cephalopodish thing in a hover chair. Sh'vuu was kind of interesting, just sort of a calm officer. Then, in a book where he hadn't been featured much, he got a tank instead of a hover chair, and in a situation that wasn't supposed to be combat, got blown up and died. A lot of people were disappointed with that. I realized that it was… There was too much distance between any measure of character development he got, which was not very much at all, and the book in which he died. By the time you read about him dying, nobody cared. I cared, because I liked him, but the things that made me like him weren't on the page. Or if they were on the page, they weren't on a page that was anywhere near him dying.

[Brandon] Okay. That's an excellent point. I mean… One thing I want to raise here is… For me, people say, "Why did you kill this character?" You guys, you listeners, you know that I take a fairly academic approach to a lot of writing aspects. I'm not one of those that talks about the mysticism of writing and this sort of thing. But when it comes to a lot of character things, I am much more discovery writer-ish. With killing characters, I don't ever think of killing characters. I never sit down and say, "I bet they won't expect this death." There are some writers who I know do that. I'll kill this person so… Because that way they'll believe anyone can die. In fact, didn't Joss say in one of his movies where someone important dies, "I'll kill this person to make them believe I'll kill anybody?"
[Dan] Yes.
[Howard] That was a deconstruction of… I don't know if Joss said it, but it was definitely a deconstruction of Serenity where they said that it worked so well because the first death, actually it was the second death that we're treated to, once that character dies, we feel like anybody can die. There is that moment where Jane says… Jane and one of the other characters are talking, and she says… Not Jane, the other character says, "You know we really… None of us are getting out of here." Jane says, "I might live." She's speaking for the audience at that point, and she's speaking for the author. In the deconstruction, you realize that after that first death in the ship, all bets are off. This could be a story that ends badly for everybody.

[Brandon] That is, academically, one of the reasons, if you're approaching this academically, one of the reasons to have casualties. Is to in some ways raise the stakes, but in other ways to say, "Hey, look, nobody is sacrosanct." I think basically George Martin's career lately is based on this concept. Anyone can die in these books, and you believe it… even after the first one, you believe, all right, anyone can die. It gives a great sense of tension. Yeah, go ahead, Mary.
[Mary] The other thing that it does is that it gives importance to the deaths. A lot of times what happens with people when characters are killed and killed… Where the death is cheap or not used well, is that it's a throw away death. It's just… It's a body that's a background character. It doesn't matter. That's… To me, those deaths are largely wasted. It's… Going back to Firefly again. In that very first scene, there's an officer who's essentially cannon fodder [inaudible]. A lot of people die in that very first scene. But they take a little bit of time to let you see this man's fear and let you under… Let you have just a little bit of him before they kill him off. That makes the death meaningful. Because the character… You're getting the audience to invest in them. Otherwise it's just words on the page.

[Dan] One of the meanest things I ever did is the big main character death in my third book, I Don't Want to Kill You. People… I'll here, like on twitter all the time or in email, someone will just yell at me and say, "Dan Wells, I cannot believe you just did this." I'll say, "Oh, you just read page 267, right?" "Yes, I did. Oh, I hate you so much." The reason that I killed the person that I did is because that was the character I loved. I knew that it had to be meaningful and it had to be important. If I didn't want to kill this character, that meant they were the one who had to die, because it would have the most effect. Because if I loved them, ideally the reader would love them as well, and really feel the impact when they left.
[Mary] One of the other things that death does is that it reminds you that there is a cost. That frequently not only is it the character that you the author loves the most, but also one that either the audience for the character, your main character, loves the most. That sometimes there is a price that they have to pay for getting to the end.

[Brandon] I'm going to kind of diverge this in a different direction. This is all very fascinating. This isn't how I approach it. I'm… As I kind of started to say, this isn't how I do it at all. I let characters take risks, and then decide if there is a consequence to those risks. I actually don't sit and say, narratively, which character do I want to die in order to create emotional impact and things. Which is very rare for me, because I am so much of an outliner. I instead say, "Okay, I'm building this character's arc, what risks are they going to take?" I will let them take these risks. What are the consequences if they take these risks? Well, they might die. Then I build a story that way. For me, I'm not sure why I do it that way. Something kind of makes me… Writing books is all about tweaking emotions. But something makes me cringe about using my characters' deaths to tweak emotions. It's like a step I don't want to take, because it's like then they just become a tool to me, if that makes sense. [Garbled]
[Howard] That makes… No, I know exactly what you're saying. It is the difference between playing the part of the clockwork God with your universe and playing the part of a murderer.
[Brandon] Well…
[Howard] That's the way I look at it. If I am killing…
[Dan] [garbled] I totally am playing the part of a murderer.
[Mary] I'm like… I definitely… There are times when I am totally in your camp. In Glamour in Glass, there's a death, and I was not completely certain right up until the moment that I wrote it which way I was going to go. I was pretty sure, but I wasn't sure which way I was going to go. But other cases… In Scenting the Dark, I totally knew who I was going to kill and in what order.
[Brandon] Right. Well, Mistborn has a very big death in it. The death was planned from the beginning. But it was planned as this character demands this price. It's part of that character's plan, so to speak. When things like that happen… I guess it's just a mindset sort of thing. But it's very different. It's a time when Dan's very much more of a one drafter, and I'm more of a discovery writer.
[Mary] So, how often… Because I can see being uncertain for a death that happens…
[Brandon] I will have two outlines.
[Mary] Oh, really?
[Brandon] I will have a this is where the book will go if they live, this is where the book will go if they die.
[Mary] Oh, interesting.
[Dan] Oh that's [garbled -- classy?]
[Howard] So it's a choose-your-own-adventure novel?
[Brandon] It's a character-chooses-their-adventure novel.
[Dan] [garbled -- that you and?] Only you get to read.
[Brandon] I actually did have a draft… Outline draft of Mistborn without the main character that dies at the end dying.
[Dan] Really?
[Mary] Wow.
[Brandon] It was only a paragraph, this is where it would go if they didn't die. And this is the impact on the rest of the trilogy. As I've told you on Writing Excuses before, I usually write the first book before I do the rest of the series's in-depth outlining. Before that, I only have a few paragraphs. Because I need to have that first book footing. So I've… But, yes, I did have a draft where that character lived.
[Dan] That's interesting.
[Mary] Yeah. So we're all sitting…
[Dan] Now I want you to write the big epic fantasy 2000 word, or 200,000 word, choose-your-own-adventure book.

[Brandon] We've got to do our book of the week. Let's go ahead and stop. I'm actually going to do the book of the week this week. We want to do Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing. I have read a great portion of this book, and absolutely adore it. It's… A lot of people stress about grammar. The thing is, we all know grammar naturally. That's the thing you don't know. When I became a teacher, I had this all explained to me. We know grammar. What you stress about as a writer is knowing the right punctuation and kind of wording rules to make what you want to say come across on the page. That's what you're looking for. You're looking to look at punctuation and grammar as tools to convey the proper emotions. Things you can already do in speech, you want to come across on the page. This book helps you do that. They are very simple and they explain the rules in wonderful ways. I suggested as a great reference book for anyone. They have a copy on audible which is wonderful, and Grammar Girl is awesome. So check out the book.
[Howard] Grammar Girl is also available as a podcast on iTunes which you should check out.
[Brandon] Yeah. It's a wonderful help.
[Howard] Head out to You can start a free trial membership, and download your copy of Grammar Girl's…
[Brandon] Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.
[Howard] Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.

[Mary] You know your two different endings… Possible endings remind me that Mira Grant, when she wrote Feed, in which she kills off a character that made me go, "What! Did you really just…" And then she managed to get away with it. She… Several of her readers would say, "It's the worst possible ending. How could you have killed that person off?" So she, as a challenge, said, "No, that's not the worst possible ending. This is the worst possible ending." Then wrote an alternate ending called Fed which is available on her website.
[Brandon] Wow. That's pretty cool.
[Mary] Yeah. It's very cool. And she's right.

[Howard] Did… Asking for a spoiler for those who have read Blackout… Did… There's a point in Blackout where one of the characters talks about what might have happened had somebody else died in the place of the person who died.
[Mary] I…
[Howard] Have you read Blackout?
[Mary] Yes, but talking about it becomes increasingly difficult.
[Brandon] Yeah, let's not go there.
[Howard] Okay. No.

[Brandon] Let me say, getting back to the main topic of killing characters. I really do feel that a character death should also match your genre. Meaning, I write heroic epic fantasy. When I kill a character, who's a named character, when a character dies in one of my books, I want their… It's going to be at a moment of great power and emotion and things are going on. This is heroic fantasy. There are books where main characters die to a random arrow in a random battle. When you're writing… Reading more of it like a David Gemmell style book, main characters can just drop in a regular combat almost offscreen. Not really, but you look over there and, "Oh, they just died." That sort of thing is… Those are very different types of death. In fact, you can actually use those in both different types of books. But you know what I'm saying. I think you want to consider the mortality rate in your books should match your genre.
[Mary] Yes. Also the way you present the deaths as well. Because like when I'm writing horror, which I granted don't do very often, I get very visceral with the deaths. When I am writing Regency, I actually pulled back and go a little bit to omniscient for those deaths, because it is too intense for the characters the way I'm writing them. That there's moments…
[Howard] Because I… Sorry. Because I'm illustrating, a lot of the character deaths that occur, I will perform in silhouette. I do it in black and white, up close, and what's interesting is that for readers with any amount of imagination, it's actually far more visceral, because it's right up close to you, and you're seeing the reaction of the rest of the room to it happening. You are there. It's almost like it's happening to you, the way it's being illustrated. Yet, because it's not a big splash of gore, it's…
[Mary] The other thing that I think, with yours in particular that I think also applies to prose is that it allows the audience to imagine all of the other really gory parts. Frequently, that is far worse than anything that you can depict, whether with drawing or with words. I think sometimes with deaths, pick the single image and zeroing in on that. The… Whether it's blood, whether it's the moment where they… That the arrow hits them through the eye or what have you… [Garbled. The knife… Constant knives?]
[Dan] Yeah. The… Like in the John Cleaver books… They're horror books, I kill people all the time in them. They all die in different ways. Sometimes you'll see it right on screen with a lot of gore because the purpose of that death is to shock you, because we need to hit home how shocking the bad guy is or whatever. Other deaths will happen offscreen and we find the body. Other deaths will happen offscreen and we just hear somebody talking about it. Whatever the purpose is, that really will affect how they do it and how much of it you see.

[Brandon] Okay. Should we talk about how you as writers handle emotionally the idea of a character you really care about dying? I get asked this a lot by readers.
[Howard] In two minutes?
[Brandon] Yeah.
[Mary] I mean, it is… I am usually sad when I kill off a character, because I am emotionally invested in them. Frequently, I will write that scene, and then I need to take a little bit of a break. That's what dark chocolate is for.
[Brandon] Okay.
[Howard] I have… As you pointed out before we started recording… Now I'm alluding to back story. When I killed Schlock… And brought him back…
[Brandon] Right.
[Howard] There was a reason I did that. I needed to show some things. I needed to explore aspects of his personality before and after the event. I needed to begin exploring aspects of the technology. But when I realized that the decision he'd made really was going to kill him, there was no good way for him to survive that event, it tore me up a little bit. So I punched up the responses of a couple of the characters who were talking about it, recognizing that it affected them as well. So I took some of my own pain and said, "Hey, reader. You get to have some of this, too. You're going to live it through the doctor and the captain, who are going to discuss how they're feeling."
[Mary] Yeah. I could not believe it when I… I was like, "Well, clearly he's going to come out of…"
[Dan] He's going to pull through or something…
[Mary] What are you… You didn't just kill him… But…
[Dan] There you go.
[Howard] He's back… But…
[Mary] And yet not.
[Howard] I bring that up as a teaser for everybody else. Yes, there are places where I am going with that. Yes, this was important, but in a grander scheme that stretches to the end of this book and beyond.
[Dan] What I said about different characters dying for different purposes, and that affects the way they do it, that also affects the way I feel about it. When that character died in I Don't Want to Kill You, it tore me apart. Then I had to go through two different copy edits and two different proofreads, and I was sad every time I got to that chapter. I went like, "Well, I know this person's gone." Whereas in Partials, I killed someone, but it was a very heroic death. It was not a victimized thing, it was a I'm going to give my life so that you guys can all win. I love that one. That one doesn't make me sad at all, because that character got to go out in a blaze of glory.
[Brandon] There we are. I've never felt, since I do plan things out as I do, the option is always there, and they've already died to me, and lived to me, when I start the book usually.
[Mary] Schrödinger!

[Brandon] Yeah. Anyway. Let's go ahead and do a writing prompt. Does anyone have a death oriented writing prompt for us, Dan?
[Mary] [laughing]
[Dan] Oh… Um. Yes. Well, I think just what we were talking about. You need to find a way to kill a character, and then write it in a very sad way, and in a very heroic way, and in a very accidental way.
[Brandon] I would suggest, pick a character from a story you've already finished, and rewrite that story with them ending, with them dying.
[Mary] I think that's a brilliant plan.
[Dan] Cool.
[Brandon] All right. This has been Writing Excuses. You're out of excuses, now go write.
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