A Character’s Time to Die

“We aim for the point where everyone who is marked for death, dies.”
– Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead

My wife and I have been working our way through a TV series recently, and one of our favorite characters just died. (I won’t mention the name of the show or character, so as not to spoil it for those who have not seen it). This character’s death did not come as a complete surprise to us. The storm clouds had been gathering around him for a while, as it were, and there had been hints that he wasn’t going to make it out alive. From a narrative standpoint, his personal story arc was pretty much over, with nowhere left to go. It really was his time to die.

Nevertheless, his death still was still difficult to witness, and not just because it was a rather violent and shocking death. We mourned the loss of this character because we had been following his story since the first episode. We had watched him struggle and grow as a character, and we felt like we knew him-in many ways, even better than other characters on the show did. We liked him, and we miss him. His absence in the story after his death is as significant as was his presence beforehand.

I know that you know exactly what I’m talking about here. Even now, you’re thinking of the death of one of your favorite fictional characters, aren’t you? I’ll bet you can still recall in vivid detail where you were when that character died. It’s fascinating to me how we can feel genuine grief over the loss of someone we intellectually know was never alive in the first place. But they felt real to us, didn’t they? Such reactions are evidence of good writing, and the sort of connections that all storytellers hope to create with their audience.

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Death is one of the most powerful tools writers can use to impact their readers. The death of a character can elicit a range of emotions, ranging from anger, fear, and sadness, to catharsis, joy, and even humor. (Admit it: you laughed when the Boba Fett fell into the Sarlaac and it burped).

As I have reflected on the death of this particular character, I’ve come up with five lessons about using death as a tool to strengthen your storytelling.

1. His death was earned.

You remember on Star Trek, when Captain Kirk and his crew would beam down to an alien planet. Everyone knew that Kirk wasn’t going to die, and neither were Spock, Dr. McCoy, Sulu, or any of the main characters. But those unnamed security guards in the red shirts? Yeah, we all knew they would be the first to go. And what’s more, we didn’t really care. Their only purpose in the story was to be cannon fodder or monster chow.

This character wasn’t a red shirt. He had earned his death-or rather, the powerful emotions that came from it-because we had known him from the beginning of the story. We had invested time in learning his story, and thus his death had meaning to us.

2. His death had meaning to other characters.

It wasn’t just us as viewers who were upset when this character died. Part of the emotion of the moment came from seeing how the other characters in the story reacted. We mourned his death partly because we saw his friends mourning, and we knew what he meant to them.

Death will always bring with it a certain shock value, especially if the reader doesn’t see it coming. Much of the horror genre depends on the tried and true “jump scare” type death, or the “who’s gonna get it next?” approach. But gratuitous deaths, or deaths for their own sake, will never carry the same weight or meaning that the death of a solidly developed character will.

3. His death moved the story forward.

This character’s death came at a critical point in the story, and his death served as a primary motivation for the other characters going forward throughout the rest of the story. Virtually everything that happened thereafter in the plot was directly or indirectly related to his death.

Death is a powerful motivator, and is often what sets the hero off on his or her journey. It’s the death of Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru that motivates Luke Skywalker to leave home and go with Obi-Wan Kenobi. It’s the death of Mufasa that causes Simba to run away from Pride Rock. In fact, Disney has built an entire empire on the corpses of dead parents, few of whom ever even make it out of the prologue.

But while a death near the beginning of a story can be a natural reason for your character to start their journey, it’s by no means the only place where it can happen. Lenny isn’t killed in Of Mice and Men until the very end of the book, for instance, because in that case, the whole story has been leading up to that moment in one long crescendo. The same holds true for Old Yeller, and Where The Red Fern Grows, where the story is about the loss of one’s pets.

4. His death reflected his life.

He got to go out in a blaze of glory of sorts, voluntarily sacrificing his life to save three of his friends, including his best friend. This was in keeping with how this character was during his life, constantly looking out for and protecting his friends. His death therefore felt natural, and even right.

The manner of death should also fit the tone of the story. It’s best not to include a gruesome or graphic death in a story that has been fairly tame thus far. William Wallace’s death in Braveheart-where he is hung, drawn, and quartered-is gruesome, epic, tragic, and inspiring all at once, and is perfectly in harmony with the tone of the rest of the story. Such a death would feel out of place in

Even a death that feels random and even senseless can be impactful if that is the story you’re telling. In The Walking Dead, pretty much anyone can die at any time, without warning or fanfare. That’s the reality of living in a zombie apocalypse-death is always right around the corner, and that sense of fear is what the story is all about.

5. His death was remembered.

In the next episode, the other characters hold a wake, and they each put remembrances in his coffin. Each character is given a chance to say their goodbyes and pay their respects. It’s somber and formal, and very cathartic for everyone involved, including the viewer. It’s our chance to say goodbye as well.

When people die in the real world, we eulogize them. We remember their life and honor their death. Character deaths need a similar eulogy. When a fellow hunter dies in Supernatural, Sam and Dean Winchester give them a “hunter’s funeral,” full of meaning. When Gandalf drops off the bridge of Kazahdum with the Balrog, there isn’t time to stop and fully remember him until the Fellowship arrives safely at Lothlorien, where Sam composes a poem about Gandalf’s fireworks while the elves sing a lament.

This doesn’t mean that there has to be a formal funeral service for every character death, but there should be at least a moment sometime where other characters can reflect and remember their loss. The Wolverines in Red Dawn take time to carve the names of their fallen friends on a rock before moving on with their war. Wilbur the pig is saddened by Charlotte’s death, but is happy seeing all her children living on.

Death is a part of life, and will always be so. It’s quite natural to incorporate death into our storytelling, and we should. Because part of the reason we tell stories in the first place is to keep memories of those we love alive for future generations. In this way, stories have the power to transcend death itself.

10 Suggestions for Writing Transitions

I have a transition in my current work-in-progress that has been giving me headaches for a while now. It shouldn’t be so difficult—I’m just moving the main character from one scene location to another—but every time I try to revise it, I still get that niggling “this isn’t working” feeling.

And, okay, I’ve had readers point it out, too, so I know it’s not just me. But what to do about it?

Recently, I’ve been reading Make Your Words Work by Gary Provost. It’s an older craft book (the original copyright was in 1990), but it’s proving to be one of the most helpful I’ve read when it comes to crafting on a sentence level. Plus, the prose is engaging and very readable, which is surprisingly rare in writing craft books.

Lucky for me, Provost has an entire section about transitions in his chapter on pacing.

Provost gives three different types of transitions:

  1. Transitions of Time
  2. Transitions of Place
  3. Transitions of Subject

Regardless of what type of transitions you’re dealing with, all good transitions will “make a connection between what the reader has just read and what he is about to read, by implying the relationship between those two bodies of information” (Provost 89).

In other words, a transition can’t be abrupt and confuse the reader. Readers hate being confused.

Provost also gives ten suggestions for transitions:

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1. Don’t Use Long Transitions

Sometimes if days, weeks, months or even millennia pass, writers feel like they need to fill in that gap and explain what happened during that time. If nothing happened during that time that’s directly related to your story, readers don’t need it. If your character is just going about life as usual and nothing happens at his office job that will affect the plot, readers don’t need it. Keep transitions short.

Remember: “A story is not everything that happened. It’s every important thing that happened” (Provost 91).

2. Don’t Write a Scene When a Transition Will Do

This goes along with the previous suggestion. Sometimes we are so worried about telling everything that happened, that we will write entire scenes that are unnecessary. I know I’ve done this before. If nothing really happens in a scene and nothing changes in the story, consider cutting the scene and using a simple transition instead. Often, that will help with pacing issues.

3. Don’t Explain When You Don’t Have To

If your character is doing something that your reader already understands, like driving a car, for example, you don’t need to explain your character going through the motions of it. Simply acknowledging that they drove from one place to another is all that readers need.

4. Don’t Acknowledge When You Should Explain

However, if your character is doing something uncommon, something that the readers wouldn’t necessarily know how to do, like escaping from a dire situation, you can’t simply say that they escaped. Readers will feel cheated.

5. Do Not Use Transitions to Conceal Information

If something big happened during a transition, like a woman going into labor as she drove across town, you can’t simply say that she drove across town and then surprise readers when the baby shows up. Readers assume that you’re telling them all they need to know and the woman driving across town was not all they needed to know about that trip.

6. Don’t Write Transitions That Distract the Reader

According to Provost, “In general, your writing improves as your words become more specific. If you can make your character trot, dash, or lope, the writing will be more effective than if she simply “runs.”…However, in writing transitions your goal is somewhat different. You don’t want to attract attention.” He goes on to use the example of having a woman cross the street. “If…you write “Diana dashed across the street to Penelope’s” you will distract your reader with the vivid picture of Diana dashing and you will also occupy him with the question, “Why is Diana dashing?”” (Provost 94).

Keeping it simple is much better when writing a transition.

7. Point to the Transition

If the transition will be coming later in the story, like the main character travels to Europe, the readers need to be warned ahead of time that this trip is coming or it will throw readers out of the story.

8. Use Key Words

This goes along with pointing to the transitions. Provost uses the example of a wrap-up party after filming a movie. By using the key word “wrap-up” when the actor is invited to a party that evening, readers are automatically oriented when the wrap-up party starts even if several other events have happened during the day before he actually reaches the party.

9. Use Bridge Words

We do this all the time in conversation with phrases like, “This reminds me of…” or “Speaking of…” These are the “similar words and phrases” that we use “to imply a connection” when we make a transition (Provost 97). Find some way to make a bridge between the time, place, or subject in your story.

10. Make Transitions Seem Logical

This usually isn’t a problem in fiction since “your scenes emerge from something that happened in a previous scene” (Provost 97), but it’s definitely something to think about, especially if you’re working on a non-fiction piece.

I don’t know if I’m the only one who struggles sometimes to find the right transition in a piece, but these suggestions have helped me think through the specific issues I’ve been having. Hopefully now I can come up with a better transition for my story.

Happy Writing!

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Jenilyn Collings loves to read and is always looking for books that will make her laugh. She is currently working on an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She enjoys watching Korean dramas, BBC period pieces, and thinks Avatar: the Last Airbender is the best show ever made.

15 Writers’ Light Bulb Moments

A few days ago, I asked my writing friends, “Have you ever had trouble with a concept, such as plotting, character development, dialogue, or pacing and there was a specific piece of advice or a book or an article that helped you in a profound way?” 



I was looking for light bulb moments, a sudden bit of inspiration or understanding that had previously alluded them. 

These were their fantastic responses:

On Drafting

#1: Shitty First Drafts by Anne Lamont. As a perfectionist, I would get writer’s block trying to write a perfect draft the first time through. This gave me permission to not worry about the first draft. Then by the second draft, I’m not dealing with a blank paper/screen. I make all of my composition students read this, and the vast majority tell me it changed their lives.” –Joy Sterrantino

#2: “She covers this in her book “Bird by Bird” and yes. It made me okay with my crappy first draft that I now have been putting so much time into after I was ready to throw it out and it’s actually starting to come together (I think…)” –Brekke Felt

#3: “Oh, I was going to say Bird by Bird – glad it’s already been mentioned! I read it so long ago that I don’t remember specifically what clicked, but I do still think about it when I get stuck, in fact just the other day, I was grumbling with myself over a chapter and I just told myself, “Bird by Bird, gal. Bird by Bird.” –Lindsey Becker
On Description

#4: “Yup! Sarah Eden’s class on description at Storymakers a few years back. Had the biggest light bulb moment of my writing life when she taught that you should only describe things it MAKES SENSE for a character to notice. Previously, I’d described anything and everything I thought the reader would benefit from experiencing. When I narrowed my descriptive focus on what an individual character would take note of, it deepened POV, emotional authenticity, and characterization…Wowza! The difference was mind-blowing. I feel like that’s the day I started to “grow up” as a writer. Or maybe “grow deep” would be more appropriate.” –Kimberly VanderHorst

On Plotting

#5: “I used to have trouble with plotting, but when I read Larry Brooks’ “Story Engineering,” it finally clicked for me. It’s still one of my favorite writing books!” Shallee McArthur
#6: “I really struggled with outlining a plot until I saw Dan Wells’7 point plot YouTube videos. I had tried other methods before that, but for some reason the 7 point plot really clicked for me”Rebecca Jamison
#7: “I found this post by Robin LeFevers really helpful at one point. And this post from Janice Hardy’s Fiction University really helped me figure out the plot for book two.” Rosalyn Eves


On Pacing
#8: “Someone, I think it may have been Orson Scott Card, suggested that the best way to learn the feel of pacing is to take a book you like and copy it, longhand.

“I’ve copied half of one of Patty Briggs’ books and it really DID help me learn pacing. It was like training wheels, and it’s something I keep around for when I’m really blocked. If I can’t come up with something to write for me, then I know I can always sit down and copy her book longhand and do a couple thousand words that way. That keeps me in the habit of getting my butt in a chair and writing for at least an hour a day.

“What I learned from pacing–I had previously thought that it was sort of a 2-1 ratio or 3-1 ratio of how long it takes me to write a scene versus how long it “reads” or plays out. It’s more like 5-1 or 10-1–and this is in snappy urban fantasy paperback stuff, so, slower-paced genres would be even more drawn out. I realized that we write in slo-mo. It’s like claymation.”—Rebecca Sachiko Burton

#9: “KM Weiland’s website for lots of things, especially an article on how putting movement in a scene can change the pacing. Also BrandonSanderson’s advice to make your character want something and get it in the first few pages, even if it’s just a glass of water.” –Rebecca Blevins
#10: “Pacing. Okay, I have to admit that this is a concept I haven’t totally been able to wrap my head around. And then I read Take Off Your Pants by Libby Hawker. Her bit about thinking of pacing like an inverted triangle is brilliant. The idea is that the start of each chapter is like the wide side of a triangle and as you go along it continues to slope until there is only one thing the character can do. And then the end of that triangle opens up into another inverted triangle. Now, that I can wrap my head around.” –Erin Shakespear


On Chapter Endings

#11: “Chapter endings and pacing. Read any of J. Scott Savage’s books to study those. Sarah Eden’s class on description was incredibly enlightening. Another one for description was one of David Farland’s Daily Kick in the Pants articles. Dan Wells Seven-Point Story Structure YouTube video for plotting.” –Rebecca Blevins
On Dialogue

#12: “I read a lot of writing books, so I can’t remember where this came from (but it was from multiple books, I know that) that dialogue shouldn’t be a give and take.

a: Where were you?
b: The bank.

Each character has different motives/realities, and they’re acting for their own best interest, not to make someone else’s life easier. So it would be more like:

a: “Where were you?”
b: “Did you leave any cookies for me? I could eat an elephant.”
a: Were you at Sally’s? I told you not to go there.
b: I need cookies. Real, real bad.

I guess Donald Maass’s book on microtension helped me a lot with this concept. That’s in his book The Fire In Fiction.” Sydney Strand
On Characters

#13: “One thing I learned from Writing Excuses that helped me understand characters better is that as real people we tend to act differently and speak differently depending on who we are around. When we are with our parents we may act differently around them than we do around our best friends…. So using that idea, we can show how our characters may act differently depending on who they are around. They won’t always necessarily talk or act the same all the time.” –Judy Robinson

#14: I love this article from Michael Arndt about the five things he learned at Pixar to make a good beginning. I especially love the bit about how our character needs to make the unhealthy choice. There’s a healthy, responsible choice to make and an unhealthy, irresponsible choice to make. Our character needs to make the destructive one or else there really isn’t a story. –Erin Shakespear

On Everything Else

#15: “I have a whole set of tutorials that I use over and over again, but KM Weiland helping Writers become authors and Writing Excuses are the most bang for buck.” –Michael Bacera



Have you had any light bulb moments? We’d love to hear about them!

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Erin Shakespear writes middle grade fantasy full of quirky creatures, magic, and strange adventures. With six kids, her days are full of quirky creatures, magic, strange adventures, and…loads of diapers. She also likes to dabble at photography, sewing, jewelry-making, and pretending she’s a grand artist. 

The Avengers and Writing Humor

I really enjoy the Marvel movies and, with Ant-Man still in the theaters, I thought I’d talk about my favorite thing in them. No, it’s not Tom Hiddleston’s smile or Chris Hemsworth’s biceps. It’s not the epic scale of the movies or the special effects. No, my favorite thing about the Marvel movies is the use of humor. And the best part about the humor in the Marvel movies is that it’s totally relatable to writing, which means I can watch the movies and call it research.

Some people shy away from using humor in their stories because they aren’t writing a funny book, but using humor in a story does a lot more than make the reader laugh. In fact, I think it’s something that most, if not all, stories need to have in small doses. In any case, I thought I would highlight a few ways that the Marvel movies use humor:

1. Hooking the reader (or viewer)

In the very first scene of Thor, Jane grabs the steering wheel from her assistant and their vehicle crashes straight into Thor, running him over. To make matters worse, Jane’s assistant then proceeds to taser Thor. The unexpectedness (and because the viewer knows that Thor can’t be permanently injured by something so piddling as a giant research van or a taser—this wouldn’t be funny at all if it happened to an ordinary mortal) of the accident makes it funny and intriguing, making us want to know why the Norse god of thunder is wandering around in the middle of the desert, and we’re hooked into the story.

2. Creating relatable characters
At one point in The Avengers, Tony Stark is asked what he would be without his Ironman suit. To be honest, I don’t relate to much of his list. I’m not a genius or a billionaire or a playboy. Maybe a bit of a philanthropist, but, really, that’s not what makes me relate to Iron Man. What makes me relate to Iron Man is his sense of humor throughout the movies. He’s quick with the snappy comebacks and often makes me laugh, even when the situation is dark.

And humor in dark situations leads me to my next point:

3. Breaking up tension

This is something that the Marvel movie franchise is fabulous at doing and they do it all over the place. The writers are very good at breaking up tense scenes with a witty line or something funny. One of my favorites is near the end of The Avengers when Thor and Hulk, who had previously been fighting each other, had just cleared out the train station of all the aliens. The two of them look at each other, share a brief “good job” sort of look…and then the Hulk punches Thor, sending him flying.

At that point, the Avengers were in the middle of a nearly hopeless battle against the aliens, but that small moment gave viewers a break in the tension of the situation, gave them a little moment of hope. Giving small breaks like this is crucial in writing and storytelling because in breaking up the tension, it actually amps it up. It seems a little counter-intuitive to briefly stop the tension in order to increase it, but it works. The reason is that in tense scenes, especially longer ones or when the tension continues over several scenes or long periods of time, essentially only one emotional note is hit. In this instance, it’s fear. Fear that the Avengers won’t succeed, that they won’t work together well enough, that there are just too many aliens, etc.

But if the writers hadn’t added in any humor and kept going with fear, the monotone nature of the emotions in the scenes would become, well, boring. And we all know that the one thing you can never do in writing is be boring. Briefly changing the emotional tone in scenes keeps things interesting and keeps the reader from feeling overwhelmed.

4. Hinting at who to root for

Humor is often used to let us know who to root for and also which characters are redeemable. The Red Skull doesn’t really have a sense of humor. When things go wrong, he doesn’t crack a joke and I never want him to succeed with his plans. Loki, on the other hand, does have a sense of humor and because of that, I want him to win, even though he’s the antagonist.

5. Makes us feel like we’re part of the group

One of the things they do in The Avengers is constantly poke fun at Captain America because he misses so many references. As a viewer, though, we catch most of those references, so we feel like we’re in on the joke. Also, through well-placed and humorous dialogue, we understand the Avenger’s private jokes, like the shawarma, and we feel like we’re part of their team…only without the superpowers.

6. It’s just plain fun

Let’s face it, adding humor just makes things more fun. So go to and let yourself have fun adding humor to your stories!

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Jenilyn Collings loves to read and write things that are humorous or romantic (preferably both). She has worked as a dental researcher, a florist, a martial arts instructor, and a tracker at an alternative high school (she’ll leave it to your imagination what that entailed), but she’s now focused on writing and child wrangling. A long time resident of the Mountain West, she recently moved to New England with her family where she is gaining an appreciation for umbrellas, fall colors, and turning lanes while driving

Emotional Pacing

One of the greatest struggles I see in my writing students is understanding the balance of pacing. Many MANY of them talk about how the first chapters of The Hunger Games were boring, which is evidence of their lack of reading experience, but because of this attitude, they tend to think everything needs to be fast and furious.

To let them understand this concept better, I let them dabble in the genres of horror, mystery and thriller. Before they write, we discuss what it is about each genre that amps up tension, how that tension needs to manifest in order to hold the attention of the audience. Every year, during this lecture, I ask the question if they have ever been to a movie that tries too hard to scare them that it ends up comical. Every year, I get half a class of hands raised.
Sometimes I think we as writers forget that people reading are people. We can get locked into a particular emotion that we want to convey, a feeling we want the reader to have, and our plot can turn into the Whack-A-Mole of emotion. We either try to hit the same thing over and over hoping the odds are in our favor, or we jump from happy to sad to happy again without letting the reader fully feel any of them.
To really understand how this works, it is necessary to do some self-reflection and then compare with others.
Think about your own temperament and select 3-4 words that encompass your emotional state most of the time. For me, my typical emotional status can be categorized as the four F’s – usually I’m fine, occasionally frustrated, sometimes fabulous and, on rare occasions, furious. The transition from fine to anything else is rarely quick – it is a series of events, good, bad or stressful, that will start to build a case against fine.
After you know your 3-4 words, compare with others. Chances are decent you may have one or two that are the same, but not all three. When I asked my husband to list his, he said frustrated, fine and happy. Notice he doesn’t have the furious? People who know him acknowledge that he deals with high stress situations in a manner that is very level headed.
There are several tricks to eliciting the reaction that we want from readers (The Emotional Thesaurus series is an incredible tool at explaining this) but the key to remember the importance of distributing other emotions in with the main one we are trying to convey.
NANOTIP: When trying to get the word count, it can be difficult to slow down and get yourself in the emotional mindset necessary for certain scenes. Just change the font, or enable highlighting and leave yourself a note of the emotion needed. Remember, December is the month of revision.
Do you have methods you like to use to transition through emotions? Ever seen a movie or read a book that tried too hard to hit the emotional marks?

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Tasha Seegmiller is a mom to three kids and high school English teacher in Southern Utah. She writes contemporary women’s fiction with a dash of magic. Her loves include Diet Coke, owls, chocolate and cinnamon bears. She is an editor for the Women’s Fiction Writers Association quarterly newsletter and can be found here.