Death and the Novelist

Today I’ll continue with tidbits gleaned from the writing conference held last week in Indianapolis. I was pretty stoked to attend a workshop put on by the prolific James Scott Bell. I own some of his writing technique books and since I regularly give presentations, wanted to see how he conducts a workshop. I wasn’t disappointed.
Writing Tip for Today: Bell launched his workshop by talking about DEATH. Not the novel’s death, or even the novelist’s death. He stated, “A great story is the record of how a character fights with DEATH.” I liked that and here are a few of the deaths he used to illustrate:

  • What Flavor of Death? As Bell pointed out, there are several kinds of death the character can battle. PHYSICAL death is an obvious choice, but what about PROFESSIONAL death? A character can risk losing a job, a career or one’s reputation in a field. As if that’s not enough, what about PSYCHOLOGICAL death? The loss of a loved one, being an outcast, or losing at love are all ways of forcing the character to face death of self. A Romance is nothing more than the characters battling to preserve their selves and win the love of the other.  The big question with a psychological or emotional death is: WILL THIS CHARACTER BE DAMAGED GOODS?
  • Love, Love Love. Bell spoke about how a novelist may think the core plot should revolve around healing (or winning the goal). But he asked us to reconsider that LOVE is the ultimate plot. If the “center of your novel, the ENERGY BALL, is LOVE, you as novelist can demonstrate how “the love we lose to each other is in SACRIFICE. We find this love reflected in another’s eyes.” By utilizing love as a driving force, your novel can tap into every person’s need for acceptance, the universal need to belong. If done well love is so powerful, readers will have a hard time not caring.
  • Doors of No Return. Finally, there was lots more but I’ll touch on Bell’s illustration of novel STRUCTURE as a series of closed doors. He called them DOORS OF NO RETURN. In other words, you squeeze your character into a smaller and smaller box until there is no escape. The CLIMAX scene plays out the character forced TO ACT. No more talk. There is no try. Only DO. A character who instead chooses to die by inaction will be forgettable. A character who dies (physically, psychologically, etc) as a SACRIFICE, will be reborn. This is why readers crave stories about some sort of redemption. We’d all do well to consider the DEATH our characters will fight with as we write that novel. Visit Bell (and enter his contest!) at  or read his blog:

About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

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