As an author, you need to realize the single most important thing death does for your writing.
We'll get to that in a second. But first...
The other day, Father and I shared a special bonding experience. I'd hinted and begged and finally dragged him into taking me to see the Expendables 2 -- buildings exploding, cars flipping, guns roaring out bullets, Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, Chuck Norris, and....yeah. The only reason I would ever consider seeing a movie like this.
Right up there. Top right corner, people.
Hi, Liam. (He was really looking in his scope for me, but my camouflage skills are too adept. See that rock on the top left? That's me).
So we made it a special day. Purchased tickets. Got our popcorn. Sped along into the theater with Dad in my wake, shoving in, to my genuinely angered contempt, the top of the popcorn bag, which everyone knows is the butteriest.
We get in the theater and find we have it entirely to ourselves. Good. So take Dad's hand, jitter around in my seat in anticipation, and then proceed to commentate, both comically and authentically, the whole movie with him. (If you don't want spoilers for this film, read no further).
The beginning had a great start. Because Liam (AKA, "Billy the Kid") totally BOOMED his bullets and BANGED his extra-attractive sniper rifle atop cliff after cliff as I whooped my approval, uttering, with no sheam I might add, phrases such as "YEAH. This is a GREAT movie. This is DEFINITELY a buy." and "I want to hug him so bad right now."
(Dad, referring to the female Liam was speaking to: "She does too.")
But then, the unthinkable happened.
Bad Guy: "Drop your weapons or he dies."
Liam: "Don't do it, sir. You don't owe me anything!"
*Hits Liam. Shea's heart bangs into her stomach*
Liam: *Falls to his knees after being hit* "I'm sorry, sir."
*Good guys drop their weapons. Captors about to put him in the helicopter.*
Bad Guy: "Are you afraid of me?"
Liam: "No. I'm not afraid of you!"
Bad Guy: "You should be."
*stabs him. Shea's entire body freezes and silence reverberates in her numbed ears. The elation is wiped from her existence, the room torn of its bliss, ripping the smile off her face to be replaced with open-mouthed disbelief, a pounding heart, wide eyes, and frantic mental reassurance that it is not real, it's not real, it's not real*
And Dad can do nothing but gape at the screen and try not to laugh as he realizes the one reason we came to see this movie has died within the first twenty-five minutes.
But look. At the effect. It had. On me.
Now, let's subtract the fact that I have a "sincere admiration" of Liam and look at what that death did for the story of the movie. It was, what we authors call, the "initiating event" which propelled the plot forward and forced action to respond, forced a sequence of events to follow. That is plot. And death is a powerful, powerful tool in writing, yet one, too, which has to be treated with the greatest caution.
So today, we're going to talk about using death in books.
What is the single most important thing death does for your writing?
It lets the reader know you mean business.
It makes your book real, tangible, and not just some fairy tale that has little substance to be drawn.
And that is what killing characters is all about.
It SHOWS your readers NO ONE is safe. ANYTHING can happen in your authorly hands. I've read book series where again and again all the beloved characters make it out alive and it gets to the point where I think...why am I even worried? I know they'll make it out. So the urgency and stakes immediately curdle.
The opposite, of course, is when an author OVER-uses death, desensitizing the reader and making them numbly expectant of it, as I admit to feeling some at the end of Mockingjay.
So as writers, we need to be careful.
As we've seen, there is a strategy to death. It can sting, shock, retch, propel, liven, conclude, and devastate. Yet it needs to be contemplated with the utmost care.
When I choose who to kill off in my books, sometimes it is an innate, undeniable knowing. And sometimes, as I go along, I realize abruptly that the story calls for it. No matter how hard I resist or try to imagine the death a different way, in the end, I succumb to this uncanny, untouchable intuition, like the fate was always meant to be. Unchangeable. The character I killed at the end of Breakers was one deeply and insurmountably close to me, one who I owe perhaps my entire novel writing career to. But...I always knew somewhere deep down that he would die. It was his place. So I cried when I wrote his death (it's SO hysterically arrogant I don't even have any sheam about it), but I have never cried writing as I did killing the other character at the end of Breakers 2. Ever. It was one of those moments where I'd seen a flash of his death long ago before the novel's start and tried to resist it. Tried to say it won't happen - the story will change, it's heart-wrenching but I'll never do it.
But no. It had to happen. And it was such a powerful, personal experience to have the tears literally falling from my eyes as I wrote it. I didn't even know that was possible.
But that, perhaps, was the greatest deciding factor of all. If you as the writer feel something over this death, the reader will too (though of course, you need to water down your emotions by twice to measure that of what the reader's will be, as a general rule. We're simply in love with our work, brethren).
And other times, like right now, I can't decide if I made the right choice in killing one of the two potential characters I was going to kill off in my latest novel. It's up for debate right now with a maddening sense of non-resolution with the series, but that, my friends, is how drastically important such events are to me.To all of us. These characters are more real and vibrant and...necessary to our survival. Than they will ever be to your readers. With the exception, maybe, a few kindred spirits, such as my editor, Laura. Though she's little understanding of how crazy I truly am, so that statement may be inadvertently inaccurate.
Another vital department of the death strategy in writing is one we as authors need to be cognizant of:
Not every death is given fireworks and slow-motion sequences like Boromir and his arrows. Even the most amazing person can be killed senselessly, in a split moment, with no final words or hand-squeezes as we storytellers often like to sing out before the moment happens. There is a fine line here. I wrote one character's death specifically for the purpose of showing just how sudden and unsung it can be. One moment he's there -- a character we've gotten to know and respect through half a book -- the next, BOOM, shot, dead.
But the issue here is to remember that you ARE a storyteller. It is our job to capture the beauty of what others do not see. We turn storms into orchestras, kisses into creeds, smiles into flashes of brokenness that we see in our hearts and never dreamed could be translated to the page. But we do translate it. So be careful with ruthless deaths, as important as their purpose serves. Killing off too soon or unjustly may frustrate the reader. Try for a balance. Trust your gut. Push past your fear. And know that if you really, really, really, really don't want to kill a character...
That means you probably should.
I leave you with this. Because Expendables 2 was SUCH a flippin' gold mine...