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.

Social Life

Since I began to write as more than a hobby I’ve been told you have to ‘have a online presence’, ‘the days of the reclusive writer are over’, ‘Myspace is where it’s at’. Only some of that turned out to be true. To start my online presence I joined Myspace and every other social media I could type my name in. before long I had my name in everything and was coming up for plans on how to make each account different from the next.

Then reality set in.

There was clearly too much to do. We’re given 24 hours in a day and some of that time needs to be spent on writing. Like actually writing. Who could imagine such a thing? But how are you going to do that when you’re spreading yourself thin on multiple platforms?

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In the past couple of weeks I’ve been seeing the mass exodus of Instagram users to a new platform called Vero. the familiar sensation to follow suit and not be left behind…then I thought better of it.

I’m not saying that I’m a hero, but when the call arose I stood up and said no.

I’ve learned that if something is the next best thing or the Facebook killer chances are it’s not. Remember Ello? How about Google+? Heck, even I don’t remember Peach. These things come and go. And by the time you learn how to build a brand on there it’s dead and you haven’t written a thing.

It’s true that the time of the reclusive writer is over and social media can have you connect with so many amazing people from across the world. If it weren’t for social media I wouldn’t be on this blog. But it has to be used responsibly.

As a writer it’s your job to, well, you know, write. If social media is hampering that then remove it. At the very least make your social media work for you. For myself my Facebook posts to my Twitter. My Instagram posts to my to my author page and my Tumblr. And my blog posts everywhere. That’s kind of it for me. Three main social media outlets that I use sparing throughout the day. With what few hours I have this works for me. What works for me won’t necessarily work for everyone but the issue is in finding your own balance. Whatever your social media outlets may be just remember to write, write, write! Also if you join a new site read the terms. This Vero thing keeps your posts as their own, along with some other very shady stuff.

Until next time have a writeous day!

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Matt Williams is an avid reader, a collector of many pens, an ever improving father of two, and an all-around fanboy. When he’s not wrestling with cats or building the inkslayer army you can find him hunkered down writing something imaginative. You can read his first book Beyond Here, a middle grade story involving a coma and a singing flower with a bent stem, along with a few projects with his other daughter. Follow him on Facebook and Instagram.

Celebrate Your Accomplishments

Hey you! I see you! Toiling away! Biting your nails with worry! Not sure you’ll ever make it/do it again/finish that book/be successful. I totally get it! This writing thing is tough! It’s only for the strongest, most awesome people! Which is why you deserve a gold medal no matter where you are on the journey.

 

Celebrate YourAccomplishments

Here. I made you some! So stop moping and start celebrating every little thing!  (These are words I’m saying to myself as much as you.)

Got a great book idea!

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Started writing a book!

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Completed a first draft!

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Sent your writing to CPs or beta readers!

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Conquered the impossible revision!

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Polished your MS to a shine!

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Revised even after you thought you were done!

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Sent a query!

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Got a rejection!

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Got a request!

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Got a new CP or writing buddy!

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Attended a conference!

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Entered a contest!

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Pitched to an agent/editor!

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Got an agent!

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Revised with an agent!

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Almost emailed your agent seventeen times in one day, but restrained yourself to only two times!

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Went on sub!

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Got an editor rejection!

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Made it to second reads!

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Made it to acquisitions!

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R&R!

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YOU SOLD A BOOK!

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Revised with an editor!

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Survived copy edits!

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ARCs!

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Your book has a cover!

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Your book is on Amazon!

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First review from someone you don’t know on GR!

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First trade review!

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A starred review!

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Book launch!

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Survived people emailing you with the errors they found in your book!

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Started writing the next book!

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Amanda Rawson Hill grew up in southwest Wyoming with a library right out her back gate, which accounts a lot for how she turned out. Her debut novel, THE THREE RULES OF EVERYDAY MAGIC, will be published by Boyds Mills Press September 2018.

 

Reading as a Writer

We’re writers, but we’re also readers. Some of us were readers long before we had the idea to become writers (raising hand). Some of us read a lot, some a wee bit less (hand creeping up again).

I admit that I read less these days. Partly because life is so busy that by the time I sit to read, I struggle to stay awake for more than a few paragraphs. I used to make Fridays my reading days but that hasn’t been happening as much lately either. But I still read. Every. Day. And I almost always have multiple things going, because there are different types of reading:

  • Reading to learn
  • Reading to keep up
  • Reading for inspiration
  • Reading for the sake of reading

It’s the last two I want to talk about, though.

Most of the books I read these days are in my genre, not only because I’ve always preferred women’s fiction, but also because most of my author friends write women’s fiction.

When I’m working on a project, I seek out books that deal with similar issues to the one I’m working on and authors with similarities in our writing styles. I know there are authors who won’t read anything that resembles the project they’re working on for fear that the other author’s words/voice will seep into theirs. That’s never been a fear for me. I read them for ideas, for inspiration.

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A few years ago, I was reading a review, and while the book sounded interesting, it was this line from the reviewer that stopped me: “I am constantly on the prowl for something that will distract me from the ‘task’ of reading and remind me of the joy of reading.”

I just finished reading a novel that reminded me why I love reading. And why I love writing. Okay, so first, it made me question whether I should give up writing and become a unicorn farmer because the more I read, the more convinced I became that I would never, ever be able to write that well. Which, of course, led to massive panic about the proposal chapters I’d recently submitted to my agent, a slightly-very neurotic email, and a gummy-bear filled pity party.

Yes, dear friends, that’s one of the pitfalls of reading in your genre. There will always be authors who are better than you.

But once I stopped freaking out and relaxed into reading this beautifully written story, I loved every word. I couldn’t put it down and I didn’t want it to end. And as soon as I stopped comparing my inadequacies to her brilliance, I was able to pin-point the thing that had been bugging me about the project I’ve been working on.

When I read a book that takes my breath away, makes me pause to reread a particularly perfect phrase, I copy it into a notebook that’s titled “inspiration.” I refer to that notebook often when I’m writing, not for ideas but as a reminder of my goals.

I’m not an analyzer. I don’t like to dissect books to see what worked and what didn’t. I prefer the books to work their magic – or not, as the case may be. I used to think that made me less of a writer. But like with the writing process, what works for one person doesn’t necessarily work for another. Breaking a novel apart doesn’t work for me. It’s like plotting … I’ve tried it, it stresses me out and strips the enjoyment out of the act.

Writing is my job. It’s not always fun and there are days when even scooping unicorn poop sounds like a better career choice.

My goal is to write the kind of story that reminds a reader of the joy of reading.

So yes, when I read, I take off my writer hat. I read for the love of the written word. And as I’m falling into a world created by someone else, I know that by giving myself permission to enjoy the ride, I’ll come out the other side a better writer.

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orly

Orly Konig is an escapee from the corporate world where she spent roughly sixteen years working in the space industry. Now she spends her days chatting up imaginary friends, drinking entirely too much coffee, and negotiating writing space around two over-fed cats.

She is the founding president of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association, a member of the Tall Poppy Writers, and a quarterly contributor to the Writers In The Storm and Thinking Through Our Fingers blogs.

Her debut women’s fiction, The Distance Home, released from Forge May, 2017. Carousel Beach will release May 8, 2018.

Connect with Orly online at:
Website |Facebook | Instagram | Pinterest | Goodreads | Twitter

Story Core

Today’s classic was originally posted on November 17, 2011. 

A few days ago, I came across some advice that has transformed the way I’m thinking about my current WIP. I found an interview with Robert McKee (who’s famous for his book, webseminars, etc. on screenwriting) where he says this:

Story begins when an event, either by human decision or accident in the universe, radically upsets the balance of forces in the protagonist’s life, arousing in that character the need to restore the balance of life. To do so, that character will conceive of what is known as an “Object of Desire,” that which they feel they need to put life back into balance. They will then go off into their world, into themselves, in the various dimensions of their existence, seeking that Object of Desire, trying to restore the balance of life, and they will struggle against forces of antagonism that will come from their own inner natures as human beings, their relationships with other human beings, their personal and/or social life, and the physical environment itself.

I knew, of course, about the concept of an “inciting incident”–that thing that happens that starts the hero or heroine on their journey, the thing that sets this particular day off from all other days. However, I’d been thinking of it more in terms of the “call to action” that takes place in the classic hero’s quest.  And I knew that my character had to want something–and that there had to be something that prevented her from achieving what she wanted.

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But I find that this idea of balance clarifies my thinking about the core of the story itself: why is the MC’s life out of balance? What triggered this imbalance? (Was it a slow evolution or something that happened suddenly, catastrophically). In short, it’s not enough for the character to want something–she has to want something because it will restore something to her life that she feels that it lacks.

For example, in the lovely children’s book The Higher Power of Lucky, Lucky is continually searching for the “higher power” that she hears people talking about in the various twelve-step recovery programs that she eavesdrops on. Her search is intensified when she begins to fear that her guardian, Brigitte, is going to leave her and go back to France. Once this fear develops, she searches for a way to keep Brigitte in Hard Pan (pop. 43).

Sometimes this imbalance is dramatic: the death of someone in the MC’s life, a divorce, a break-up. Sometimes, though, it can be as simple (and complicated!) as falling in love, realizing something unwanted about yourself, or feeling like an outsider.

So now I’m back to another revision–but one I feel hopeful about, because I feel like I’m finally peeling away some of the issues that are holding the story back. I know what needs to happen (if not how it happens). (Also, McKee reminds me that 90% of what we write is crap–and that’s why we revise.)

What about you? What tricks have you discovered for unearthing the core of your story? And what sustains you as you revise?

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Rosalyn Eves is a part-time writer, part-time English professor, and full-time mother of three. She loves all things BBC, especially costume dramas and mysteries. When not wrangling children (and sometimes when she should be wrangling children), she’s often found reading. Her debut novel, BLOOD ROSE REBELLION, is now available. The sequel, LOST CROW CONSPIRACY, comes out March 27.

A Study In Humanity

One of my passions is buying and selling vintage décor. I’ve been to a lot of estate sales, and they are a fascinating study in humanity. Estate sales are basically indoor yard sales where everything in the house is for sale. They’re usually run by an outside company that prices the items and receives a percentage of the profit. In most cases, the homeowner has passed away and the remaining family members need help sorting and managing all the belongings left behind.

At first, I admit it felt intrusive—even disrespectful—to traipse through someone’s home alongside all the other eager buyers, snapping up people’s earthly possessions for bargain prices. How would I feel if my whole life was on display, up for sale, reduced to boxed-up objects carted away by strangers?

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But soon my perspective shifted. Apart from the typical trappings of daily life—bedding, dishes, sofas, clothing—I started to pay attention to the fascinating touches that make every person precious and unique. I began to see these sales as a form of tribute to the people who had passed. I’ve found old family photos, love letters, and recipe boxes stuffed with carefully copied, hand-written recipes. I’ve purchased trophies, amateur artwork, and travel-worn suitcases.

Every house is different. Every life is one of a kind.

My favorite spots to explore are the garage and the basement storage room. Those spaces tell endless stories: there’s the man who stockpiled rocks and fossils; the seamstress with boxes upon boxes of fabric and ribbons and patterns; the family that collected antique tools and kitchen gadgets. All were people with their own dreams and passions, loves and losses, disappointments and triumphs.

Inevitably, many of the homes also contain the typical objects associated with the end of life: walkers, orthopedic shoes, oxygen tanks. There’s no avoiding the twinge of sadness I feel at the sight of those reminders that life is fragile and finite. Plenty of those items could be found in my own home before my mom passed away. But such reminders are important. They keep us rooted in our own humanity.

In my mind, these sales are more than a means to keep my business afloat. They are a source of Story, a prompting to pursue my passions, and a visceral nudge to make the most of every day I am granted in this life.

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Growing up, Christine Hayes loved reading stories about creatures that curl your toes and legends that send a shiver down your spine. Now she loves writing about them, too. Her debut novel, MOTHMAN’S CURSE, was released in June 2015 through Roaring Brook Press/Macmillan. Christine seeks inspiration by haunting flea markets and estate sales, searching for cool vintage finds with a story to tell. While earning her degree in music she visited Asia for the first time, and later moved there with her family for several years. She has been addicted to travel ever since. Christine and her clan now live in northern Utah. Find her online at www.christinehayesbooks.com.</div

Letting Your Character Tell the Story

There is a scene in my manuscript where two of the main character’s friends have a disagreement and the main character is understandably upset by this rift between her friends. When I was writing the first draft of the scene, I tried to show how upset the main character was by describing how she was feeling. I tried to make it powerful and poignant—I even included a metaphor!

And it did not work at all.

In fact, after writing the scene, I left myself a note that went something like this: “Ugh! Too melodramatic! Fix this!!”

(Yes, even my editing notes were too melodramatic. It was bad.)

I knew there was a problem with the scene, but I didn’t know how to fix it. Really, I didn’t even know what the problem was, just that there was one. I couldn’t identify what, though. After all, I was trying to show, not tell. That’s what we’re supposed to do, right? But the scene just wasn’t working.

Sometime later, my brother and I had a conversation about journal writing. He mentioned something by Arthur Henry King that stuck with me.

King said:

Abstract statements about our feelings are boring and don’t really communicate. But a plain account may communicate a great deal. If we write down faithfully what happens to us, our feelings will come through, and they will be felt indirectly and therefore truly. So rather than say how we felt on our marriage day, we should try to describe what happened to us on that marriage day. Our feelings will come through much better than if we just say how we felt.”

Huh. That was different. The more I thought about it, though, the more sense it made.

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What I was doing in that scene was trying to convey how my character was feeling through those kind of abstract statements King was talking about, and they didn’t work. Although I was trying to show how she felt, in actuality, I was trying to convince readers of it by telling them how she felt. Oh, sure, I was in her head and telling things from her perspective, but it was still telling. There are times when a story needs telling, I’ve learned, but this was not one of them.

As I revised, I tried to keep King’s statement in mind. Rather than trying to show how she was feeling through physical sensations (like stomach churning and fists clenching) or her descriptions of her emotions, I tried to stick with what actually happened in the scene from her perspective.

It works so much better. When I kept the story focused on what was happening in the scene as she would see and interpret it, the scene started coming together. It turned out that I didn’t need to think of a new, creative way to describe being upset. I didn’t even need the metaphor. What I really needed was to let my main character tell what happened in her own words.

What tips do you have for writing scenes with strong emotions? Do you have any favorite books that you feel deal with emotion well?

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20180131_162833 (4)Jenilyn Collings loves to read and is always looking for books that will make her laugh. She has an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from 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.