Sometimes Death is JUST What The Story Needs

The 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 few months creating this story. I was having a dang good time and loving what I was creating, 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. The perfect solution that broke my heart.

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 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 to the story arc, 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 finished 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 writers 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.

About Josi Kilpack

Born in raised in Salt Lake City, Utah, I'm the third of nine children and the mother of four kids of my own. I've written 13 novels, most of them directed to the LDS market, and also write articles, short stories, and do freelance editing. I've been involved with LDStorymakers, a guild for LDS writers, since it's inception ten years ago and am currently the president of The Whitney Awards, a genre award program for LDS writers. I live in Willard Utah with my husband, kids, dog, and chickens.
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6 Responses to Sometimes Death is JUST What The Story Needs

  1. Th. says:

    .

    It’s true. Most of the time I don’t mind killing characters, but there are a few that hurt.

  2. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    Agreed. But pls, no Suicide-as-Resolution stories pls. Especially in first person. :) Oh, yes, I’ve seen ‘em.

  3. Jonathan Langford says:

    I agree with what you’re saying. After all, most stories are about characters reacting to challenging and unusual situations.

    At the same time, there’s a problem to which I think detective novels in particular are prone, which is a superfluity of corpses. Agatha Christie was, in my opinion, a frequent offender here. Sometimes it seems as if the focus is so much on trying to solve the crime that no one actually cares if the victims keep piling up in the process. While death makes a great plot device, it should never be *only* a plot device. We should care about and be horrified by the death of a person, not impatient to see what happens next. At least, that’s how I feel about it — though admittedly that’s more for what I think of as ethical reasons, as opposed to purely artistic ones.

  4. Scott Hales says:

    I’m never a fan of fiction that lacks the courage to kill off a character for the sake of a happy ending. Steven Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds,” for example, was ruined for me the moment Tom Cruise’s son–who was believed to have been killed earlier in the film–showed up, safe and sound, for the heart-warming final scene. (Truth be told, Tim Robbins had already ruined the film for me by that point, but the son’s miraculous survival didn’t help.) Charles Frazier’s “Cold Mountain,” on the other hand, will always have a top place on my shelf because Frazier was smart enough to see that he had to kill off one of his protagonists so that his other protagonist could complete her personal journey. If he had done otherwise, his book would not have been as good. Making that kind of sacrifice in and for fiction, I imagine, is no easy task, but writers brave enough to go through with it–even at the risk of disappointing readers who demand happy endings–have my respect.

    Sometimes authors needs to be cruel with their characters. When I first read Douglas Thayer’s “The Tree House,” I thought that the death count was a little high and unnecessarily cruel. Did Thayer really need to kill off those characters in order to make his point? The more I thought about the novel, though, the less I questioned Thayer’s narrative decisions. His protagonist, I came to see, needed each and every one of those deaths.

    Often, sparing characters from tragedy and suffering is not always in the best interest of the work of fiction. Some characters need a cruel author to make them live as characters.

  5. Josi says:

    I totally agree that flippant death is obnoxious. The reason death can work well is because it creates an emotional response with the reader, to do that, the death has to have purpose and has to impact the main character. It should influence the plot, but should more strongly influence the character who suffers because of that. it has to be a reason for ‘change’ within the character. When it’s gratuitous, it can work against the potential impact and create dislike for your character if they simply move on without being affected by it. Chickening out does the same thing, though, robs us of the impact that could be made. Readers are smart and they can see through it if death is poorly handled. Thanks for the great comments!

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