James Scott Bell teaches that every scene must include death. Whether it’s the death of a dream, the death of hope or the death of a real person, every scene in fiction must propel the protagonist toward an alternate way of solving a problem.
Writing Tip for Today: Death isn’t something most of us want to think about, but death when writing fictional scenes is a great way to keep your story advancing.
Life’s Twists and Turns
Your character thinks she has life all figured out. Or at
least she’s running toward an ideal version of life. So, as she enters a scene,
this character thinks all she need do is follow a set plan, and everything will
fall into place. Wrong! You as author throw a wrench, curve ball or obstacle into
her plans. This creates conflict and tension, which we all know is key to
story. This is the death of best laid plans.
But beyond your character’s aggravation, this roadblock or
obstacle forces your character to rethink her strategy. Maybe the life she
envisions for herself won’t be as simple as one, two three. Maybe she’ll need
to get creative. Fight back. Figure out an Alternate Route.
Your character has his eye on a promotion at work—but then he loses his job. The psychological death mirrors our lives—aspiration and struggle are often followed by death of that dream, which forces us out of our comfort zone. Do this with your characters too.
By forcing your character to find a Plan B (or C, D,E), you
generate curiosity, loyalty and sympathy from readers,. Nobody likes the trust
fund baby! We love the character who must overcome, scheme or sacrifice to win the
Dream and Decide
Another way to use death in your scenes is to help your
character understand the stakes of the goal he chases. Maybe he thought he’d be
a hero if he went to war, only to come back and find that no one supports the
military. This is the death of a dream.
A girl imagines a perfect life if she can marry a certain
man. If the man changes (physically, mentally or emotionally), her ideal dream dies.
She must decide whether to change her dream (goal) or keep chasing her original
goal. Growth and change are at the heart of good fiction. If readers are hooked
to find out how she deals with this dream death, the story succeeds.
These forks in the road keep readers guessing, show the
character as he manages unexpected events and helps readers empathize. After
all, we die a thousand deaths in real life.
Death Means Dead
In thrillers and murder mysteries, actual death keeps readers reading. The goal is usually to find out whodunnit, and why. I’m not sure why we all have such a fascination with this topic, but most of us are scared spitless of our own demise, so there’s a morbid curiosity in reading about someone else’s death.
If the point of your story is to unravel this kind of mystery, be sure you don’t wait until page 50 to put a dead body onstage. The actual death isn’t what keeps readers reading. It’s the clues, subtle foreshadowing and the protagonist’s personal reasons for solving the mystery that readers crave. In murder mysteries and thrillers, place the event as soon as you can.
All these deaths—psychological, emotional and sometimes
actual, should be forcing your character to change in some way. Write a little death
into the next scene you write.