Monday, February 13, 2017

When in Doubt: Kill Someone Off

A popular post from March 2009

By Josi S. Kilpack

They year is 1999.

The Place is my dining room in my house in Draper, Utah.

The book I'm working on is my first one, Earning Eternity

It happened like this.

I had never written a book before, but had spent the last two months creating this story. I was having a dang good time and loving what I was created, but I'd hit an impasse. I didn't know what came next. I had built conflict, but it wasn't enough. I had great characters, but they weren't enough either. I was faced with that 2/3 sag, where you're not quite ready to end the story, but you're running out of steam. I thought about some of my favorite books, trying to figure out what those authors did. That's when it came to me.

I broke into tears, pushed away from the table and stopped writing for the day. The next day I sat back down, let my fingers hover over the keys and burst into tears again. I couldn't do it. I was a mother, I had a son of my own. I couldn't do it.

Another day passed and I just knew--I just knew that if I didn't do this the book would suffer. To be true to the entire structure of a novel, I had to let my character suffer--REALLY suffer. So I did it. I wrote the car accident that led to the head trauma that led to the death of Kim's son. I cried the whole time.

My husband came home from work and my eyes were red and swollen.

"What happened?"

"Jackson died."

"WHAT?" (Jackson was also the name of a boy in our neighborhood)

"Jackson, in my book, he died."

Husband freezes and looks at me like I'm an alien life form (no worries, I've gotten used to it since then--happens all the time these days) "Huh?"

So I explain it to him; how Jackson's death was necessary, but it broke my heart, and it's just so sad and I'd been really upset about it. I start crying again as I try to explain. He thinks I've truly lost my mind (who's to say I haven't?)

It was my first fictional death, and it hurt to know that I'd done it. And yet, when the book was done I knew that I'd been right--the story did need it. The sacrifice had paid off, never mind the heart ache.

Since then I've become a regular serial killer of characters. Some are important characters, some are just 'props' we don't need anymore. They've died in a myriad of ways, and while I don't usually cry anymore, that's not because it's easy. I don't like random acts of violence any more than the next person, however, in the case of writing a good book-well, there are just times when somebody has to die. Here's why.

Death challenges the deepest fears that we, as humans have. Even those of us with a religious bent worry about death--the mess, the other side, the people left behind. Death is painful on many levels, and that being the case it's a powerful tool of manipulation. That's what we do, you know, we manipulate people into thinking and feeling what we want them to think and feel. Don't try and deny it--you know it's true. And while there are hundreds of ways to create this manipulation of our readers (kissing scenes, rain, tearful goodbyes, vampires that glisten in the sunlight) there are few quite as powerful as death--be it the bad guy getting shot in the head, the hero's lover falling victim to small pox, or, as in my first book, an only child dying as a result of a bad idea gone horribly wrong.

There is also a sense of relief about death that you can't get through other means of character torture--with death you know that that character's life is over, and then the remaining characters need to rebuild without that person. It's a huge 'change' that can then grow new conflicts and direction for your story. Even the bad guy getting what he deserves provides opportunities of reflection and growth. Because death is so difficult, your readers are hungry to see the remaining characters cope and grow because of this adversity, giving you a whole new tool belt of tactics to use for the rest of your story. Bad guys are made worse when they kill someone, and good guys are made gooder when they triumph over such tragedy.

You are likely reading this with one of two reactions--you're either nodding, thinking about some great death scenes you've read or written, or you're thinking I'm a little tipped in the head. Don't feel bad, I'm the last one to say I'm not tipped, but I will say that when I reach those parts of my books where I'm feeling it sag, or I need to get the story started but not sure how to get those first pages in there with enough action to hold my reader, the first thing I do is look around at my characters and see who is dispensable. That's not to say I don't shed a tear now and again--I'm not completely heartless--but you never know when death might be the very thing to save your story.


Karlene said...

Nodding head. I killed off one of the main characters in my very first novel. At first, I was just going to hurt her real bad, but that didn't work.

Overall, the novel stunk, but killing her was the best thing because it provided the context for everything else in the book.

Don said...

Also nodding head. My first death is not a beloved character, but someone who was a bit of a jerk, so it wasn't terribly hard.

When you mentioned the 2/3 sag, I had to quickly open my MS. Yup, there's the death, at almost the exact 2/3 mark.

Annette Lyon said...

Another head nod. Only one of my six books has no death in it, and most have at least two. I used to thnk I was obsessed with death, but now I think it's what you said--a great tool for conflict and character.

Danette said...

I do appreciate this blog, thank yous (i know there is more than one, lol) for all of the words of advice. I at least learn something following this blog. And I get to comment even though I'm not an author yet, just a writer. Looking forward to learning even more at the writer's conference. SO thanks.

hi, it's me! melissa c said...

That happened to me in my book, The Guitar." I new that someone had to die. Books are made of drama and even though I don't want drama in my own life, I want tons of it in my books! Good post.

Heather Justesen said...

My first death came at the first of my first novel, which is to say, It didn't make me cry, but then, the book really isn't all that good anyway. lol

I HATE that 2/3 sag. That's when my really good conflicts are usually used up except for the main one at the end, and how do I carry the story to that ending part?

I probably won't be doing a significant amount of character killing, but I do have a couple I totally plan to off. I probably ought to look around and see who else could go. Maybe that would solve the sag I'm looking at in my WIP....

Julie Wright said...

I killed off my first character when I was sixteen . . . I wonder what this says about me.

Kimberly said...

I haven't killed anyone yet. Sometimes I wonder if I'm too much of a whuss for this writing gig...