Writing Excuses 9.49: Hiding the Open Grave
Key Points: To foreshadow or not a character’s death… Do you want to surprise the reader? What tells the reader this character is doomed? Tropes… Making a character just round enough to die. Characters whose only function is to die. How do you avoid this? Don’t truncate the character’s arc. But watch out for unfulfilled promises. Let someone else finish the arc, or complete the arc some other way. Mentors often die. Watch out for characters who are only there to die and motivate the main character. Try to avoid steering into the death — make it a surprise by treating the character as a full character. Just because you love a character doesn’t mean they have to die. Character deaths should be meaningful, which may require setup, red herrings and other distractions. Does the character who is going to die get a POV like everyone else?
[Mary] Season Nine, Episode 49.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Hiding the Open Grave.
[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] I’m Howard.
[Brandon] Mary, you came up with this topic. We’re recording live, by the way, at the Writing Excuses Retreat 2014. Say hello.
[Brandon] Mary, what does hiding the open grave mean?
[Mary] So, hiding the open grave is talking about when you know a character is there to die. Sometimes you’re reading a novel and you think, “This character’s totally going to bite it.” They do, and you’re not surprised, and the death is hollow. I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, and this is a spoiler, but you don’t know which book it’s for because I have three coming up in the next year and a half. In one of the books, I’m planning on killing off a major character. I’ve been thinking about how to keep the audience from knowing so that that death is actually a surprise, as opposed to being the, “Oh, yeah, cannon fodder.”
[Brandon] Right. I think there are a lot of different strategies we could talk about on this, but I think the best place to start is actually by identifying the things that give tips that a character is going to die. How do you know? What are you picking up on? What are these things that are driving them?
[Howard] This is a photo of my girlfriend waiting for me back home.
[Brandon] Okay. Why? Why does that do that, Howard? You’ve identified… That’s a trope.
[Howard] It’s a trope, but one of the reasons it’s effective is because we’ve established that this character has something waiting for them at the end of this that we can all identify with and we haven’t said that about anybody else. So we’ve established a case where if this character dies…
[Brandon] We will have an emotional [kickback].
[Howard] We know what’s being lost.
[Dan] My brother, whenever we will read each other’s stuff, will always end up at some point writing in the margins, “This character wants to live in Montana.”
[Dan] Because that’s a line from Hunt for Red October. One Russian officer who’s like, “I would like to live in Montana.” We’re like, “That guy’s so dead.” Then he is. So…
[Brandon] So how do we avoid this?
[Dan] Well, part of the problem there is that the characters aren’t real enough. They have just enough roundness to them that you feel bad when they die and no more than that. So that as a cue to you that their purpose in the book will be to make you sad when they die.
[Mary] See, I think it’s that, and combined with it, they serve no other function in the plot. When they are doubling somebody else’s role, if they die, people are sad, but you know that the plot will still succeed. I think if when you have somebody and if they were to die, the plot would be in jeopardy, then that’s…
[Dan] Well, and even more so than that, using this Russian officer again from Hunt for Red October, his job is redundant, because the other main character is a higher ranking officer. His other job is to be the sounding board. So we know when the Americans and the Russians finally come together, we don’t need that guy because then the American we’ve been following throughout the story will become the sounding board.
[Howard] America has enough people in Montana.
[Brandon] So. I’m going to push this a little further and say you are writing this story. What do you do then to hide this character’s death, because the character still has to die. Because we’re not talking about not killing characters, this is a different podcast. How do you make it so that it is not so blatantly obvious that the Montana guy wants to die?
[Mary] One thing that I’ve been thinking about is that one of the things that happens to authors is that they know the character is going to die, so they truncate the plot arc. They plan a short… Or they plan a short character arc for the character. Or an arc that if it is truncated, doesn’t affect the main plot. So I actually think that planning something that is longer so that you can see the arc and when it is cut off short, it comes as a surprise. So, for instance, with the guy who wants to live in Montana, if there had not been someone else who is higher ranking than him, it would have been surprising to see him killed.
[Mary] Because you would have expected a long plot arc in which Montana actually is his reward. If he had been in conflict with someone, like the girlfriend who is waiting back… If you have two characters that are in a happy relationship at the beginning…
[Brandon] That spells doom.
[Mary] That spells doom for the love interest. Because… Particularly if they have a happy relationship and the main character’s like, “No, I can’t go because of girlfriend in Montana.” You’re like, “Okay. Well, girlfriend is clearly going to get killed or kidnapped so that he can… Is provoked into going.” So if you have a slightly unhappy relationship, so it looks like the thing to be resolved is the relationship between them, then when it comes up later that one of them doesn’t survive, it’s surprising.
[Dan] See, that’s the thing that I think a lot of writers are reticent to do. Because why would you put an arc in there and never fulfill it? Why would you put an arc that you’re never intending to fulfill? Well, this is why. Because it tricks the reader into investing in that character, and arguably works much better like… Because they’re invested in a different way.
[Brandon] Now, this is dangerous, though, because you leave us with too many of these things, you are then not fulfilling on promises. So is there a way you can mitigate that or still fulfill the promise? By creating this arc, you’re giving a promise, this is going to be this character’s arc. Oh, nope, halfway through we’re done. That can be unsatisfying.
[Mary] Well, I think that that… I think there’s two things. One is that I think that that lack of satisfaction is part of what makes the death shocking, and what makes it feel more real. Because in real life, no one gets to complete their arc. The other thing is…
[Howard] I might live…
[Mary] Go ahead and think that, sweetie. This is the first night of the retreat. The other thing that you and I were talking about, Brandon, was the idea of having somebody else pick up the arc or having another way to complete it. You pointed out some things in, I think, Game of Thrones?
[Brandon] I cannot remember what it was I pointed out. I’m sorry.
[Mary] That’s all right. Anyway.
[Brandon] But I have seen this done before, very well. For instance, the I’m going to go back and patch things up with my dad, and then the character dies. The friend goes back with a picture of the person who died and says, “Hey, his last words were talking about you.” But that again can fall into that cliché of… If you do it the wrong way, the reader’s going to be like, “Oh, they’re dead then.” They’re not going to be…
[Howard] A better… I say a better… That can obviously be done well, so that it works fine. I think of… So you’re carrying the pie into the house and then you trip and the pie lands on the floor and nobody’s getting pie for dessert, but we do have ice cream in the freezer.
[Dan] That’s even sadder than the characters deaths.
[Howard] Yes, I know it is. But… So, yes, he’s going to patch up things with his father, and then he dies. Then one of the other characters realizes, “You know, I really don’t have a very good relationship with my mom.” At the end of the book, we see that character having learned something, and going and talking to his mom. As a reader, we feel like, “Oh. Well, at least somebody got to have something that was kind of like the pie.”
[Brandon] Let’s stop for the book of the week. Because, Dan, you have our book of the week.
[Dan] Yes. It occurred to us as we were putting this episode together, that we have not yet done Ruins, the third Partials book.
[Brandon] That’s because someone was in Germany.
[Dan] Well, except… The last time we recorded is while I was here on the tour for Ruins. It still didn’t occur…
[Dan] To any of us. So. Alas. Anyway.
[Brandon] What is Ruins?
[Dan] Ruins is the third book in the Partials series. Which is post-apocalyptic science fiction. We’ve talked about the series before. The first one’s kind of dystopian, the second one’s a quest story. The third one, Ruins, is an out and out high fantasy war story disguised as post-apocalyptic science fiction.
[Mary] It’s really good.
[Dan] Well, thank you very much. And, apropos to our discussion, several characters die.
[Dan] In gruesome and horrible ways.
[Brandon] Howard, how can they get a copy of Ruins, or, if they haven’t read the first one, Partials?
[Howard] Go to audiblepodcast.com/excuse. You can start a 30-day free trial membership and pick up Ruins or any other audiobook, really, for free. But you should get Ruins. Or Partials. My 14-year-old… I caught her with Partials the other day.
[Brandon] Oh. How dare her?
[Howard] What’s funny is, it was a library copy. I looked at it and said, “Oh. Why’d you get that from the library?” She said, “Because the librarian said it would be good.” I said, “Oh. We’ve got an ARC to it downstairs.”
[Brandon] So, other clues that someone’s going to die? I’m going to raise the mentor specter. Because this has several implications. The mentor… Why do we know the mentor is going to die?
[Mary] Because the mentor usually has more skills and more knowledge, and in order for the protagonist to be able to fulfill the quest, you have to get… Kill the person who could do it better than they can.
[Brandon] Yes. Exactly. This has become… This is a major trope of the Hero’s Journey. It is so blatantly obvious in today’s fiction that… I mean, most of us, who are writers, I would assume read Harry Potter and were like, “Oh, when’s Dumbledore going to die?” Spoiler. Dumbledore dies. But you know what, it’s… It happens in basically every Hero’s Journey movie or book that happen… That comes. Can we do anything about this? Do we want to do anything about this?
[Dan] Well. Again. This might not be a great example, because everyone knew Dumbledore was going to die, but one thing she did that I thought worked pretty well is she gave Harry two mentors, and killed one of them first. Then didn’t kill the other one for a couple more books. A lot of people thought, “Well, he’s going to be safe now. We already lost the mentor.”
[Howard] She crippled Dumbledore as well, with the hand thing, which…
[Brandon] Yes. She also did a very good job in having someone that we care about be the method of Dumbledore’s death. Somebody that we didn’t want to be involved in that, which then raises…
[Dan] At that point.
[Brandon] A very nice twist on the topic.
[Dan] It was not just checking off the box. It was a very gripping scene that we hadn’t seen before.
[Brandon] Yes. Fully ingrained into the story.
[Mary] And the death of Dumbledore serve some purpose other than just motivating the protagonist.
[Brandon] Yes. Well, that’s a very good point about this. One of the things that makes these things translucent is what we call the girlfriend in the refrigerator. Which comes from Green Lantern comic books, where he has a girlfriend and she is killed primarily to give him motivation. Which has all sorts of feminist implications. You can read fantastic essays about that. Storytelling wise, it means that there is this character whose death’s only purpose… The only purpose to exist was to die so that the main character can have more motive for going about their quest. That makes it very obvious when this character… They’re often too good to be true, they’re often…
[Mary] The only thing that makes the hero happy. Like, okay, well then…
[Dan] Well, it goes back to what we were saying earlier about make sure that the character has their own motivation. Make sure that they have their own arc and their own personality. You grow to like them for who they are and not for what they mean to the protagonist.
[Mary] The other thing that I’ve become aware of during the process of working on this is that there are times when the author will put in foreshadowing that this character is going to die. I actually think that it’s related to something people talk about when they’re driving motorcycles. Which is, when you are driving a motorcycle, that you need to keep your eyes on where you want to go. The time when wrecks happen most is when you look at the oncoming traffic, because your body will unconsciously steer into it. So I think that one of the things that an author will do is that they will focus on the death and forget to add in all of these other elements. Forget to treat the character like a full-blown thing. But also start dropping little things, like I… I caught myself writing, “That’s going to be the death of you someday.” I’m like, “No! No.”
[Howard] So you’re unconsciously telegraphing that event.
[Dan] My… The third John Cleaver book, I Don’t Want to Kill You… Spoiler warning. Two… I won’t say who because… It is one of my favorite things in the world. This happened today. People will get on twitter and just totally cuss me out for killing one of their favorite characters. The thing is that book has two characters, two major characters who die. One of them, I knew I was going to kill, and the other one I didn’t until I got to the point and I’m like, “Well, okay. Obviously, I know what’s going to happen now.” The one I didn’t plan actually has a lot more impact, and I think it’s because of that. I didn’t have the opportunity to steer into it. I just got to the moment and thought, “Oh, this’ll be great.”
[Brandon] This is actually one of the things I like about Schlock Mercenary is when you decide to kill a character… I mean, we’ve been at the gym before where you’re like, “You know what? I’ve just decided this character needs to die. They’ve only got a week left to live.” I’m like, “What? Howard! I like that character.”
[Howard] Well, and the… This isn’t actually a spoiler, because it’s what people are talking about on Facebook. The character right now, Lieut. Sorlie, through whose eyes we’re seeing a lot of the story unfold. I really like her. When I created the character, I thought, “This is a fun character, and this is somebody who I could see having a heroic death. But I don’t want to think about her that way. I just want to… I just…” There are people on Facebook saying, “Oh, my gosh. I love this character so much, and that means you’re going to kill her, doesn’t it?” You know, I’m not convinced that it means that.
[Mary] But now that you’ve mentioned it…
[Howard] Well, and of course, I will taunt them. The characters that I love… I mean, if loving a character means they’re going to die, I just need to nuke the whole cast now. Because I love these characters more than any of you possibly can.
[Brandon] I’ve mentioned before that writing is like being a stage magician. I used that metaphor today in my class at the Writing Excuses Retreat here. I think that one of the reasons… I personally like nice character deaths where there is something behind them. Where it’s not a casual… There’s import, there is emotion, there is power. It’s part of what can make an ending really sing for me. To do that right, I feel like the foreshadowing needs to be in place for their arc to come to a surprising resolution. I think you can use the same sort of tools that you use for any sort of climactic event where it is going to be surprising yet inevitable. You want the death to be surprising, and yet in doing so, it somehow fulfills their arc in an inevitable sort of way. You’re like, “Wow! That is the end of this story. I didn’t see it coming.” A lot of times, it’s less about that moment and more about earlier on, doing lots of the red herrings, the distractions, the things that are going to make you assume that this character is safe.
[Dan] [We can…]
[Howard] One of my favorite, favorite character deaths in fiction, and you can argue that it doesn’t count because she brings him back in that book, is Miles Vorkosigan’s death in Mirror Dance. We are in his point of view, and he sees… He sees the gunman they’re fighting against popup and fire right into his chest. As he’s falling backwards, his last thoughts were, “Wait. But I haven’t…” Then we change POV. I remember reading that and thinking, “Oh, no, you didn’t.” Then we switch to the point of view of the character that they were trying to rescue and how this has impacted that character. It was a really, really powerful book because I didn’t see it coming. When we get that character back, it does not feel cheap, it feels like the sort of thing that only science fiction could pull off.
[Mary] I think actually one of the things you mentioned is POV. That frequently the character who is killed off it doesn’t get a POV and everybody else does. In London Falling by Paul Cornell, there is a character death that I did not see coming. It shocked me so much that I actually flipped back a page as if somehow if I reread it, the words would be arranged in a magically different order.
[Howard] I’ve done that before. Yeah.
[Mary] I’m glad I’m not the only one.
[Brandon] We are out of time on this topic, but I think this is… This is actually part of a larger topic. Because how well this works is going to depend on how enfranchised your reader is, how well they understand storytelling. Writing so that you can fool the enfranchised reader or so you could give them payoffs that a less enfranchised reader wouldn’t get is a skill unto itself. I’m going to can-of-worms that, and send this into another podcast on that topic.
[Mary] That sounds great.
[Brandon] So, your writing prompt. I’m going to give it to you. I want you to take a story that you’ve been planning, you’ve been working on. I want you to kill the protagonist in the first scene. Then, force yourself to take one of your other characters and have them step up and take over the story. You don’t have to finish writing this story, it’s just an exercise for you to do. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.
[Howard] Now go commit murder.
[Mary] Kill your darlings.