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Have you ever finished reading a story and your response was meh? You didn’t hate it or love it—the story just existed. Have you ever read a story that was exactly what you expected after skimming the back cover? I have. I don’t reread those stories. When people sit down to read a book, they’re eager to be taken on a journey. When all the stops along the way are predictable, that journey feels more like a grocery run than an adventure.
Unpredictable stories are more than an original idea, flashy characters, and a fun plot thrown together. An unpredictable story must be written boldly. Most stories today aren’t bold because their endings mimic genre archetypes. The happy ending of the romance genre is the wedding, so the couple always gets together. The happy ending of the adventure genre is the completion of a quest, so the hero always defeats the villain.
I have nothing against happy endings. But clichéd endings are a problem. If readers can guess the story’s direction, they won’t be wowed at the end.
Adventure and speculative fiction authors have numerous clichés they could twist for a bold effect, but I want to address one in particular: keeping main characters alive. Main characters always survive. If they die, the story can’t have a happy ending, right? Wrong. A story can end well even after a tragic death. (Important note: Killing means the character is dead. None of this coming-back-to-life business.) I’ll list three reasons you should consider this tactic.
#1: Killing Increases Suspense
Stories sometimes feel like they’re neatly wrapped with a bow on top, and we’re sure that nothing bad will happen inside such wonderful packaging. When the story threatens disaster, we get on edge. But only a little. When the villain traps the hero in his clever scheme, we wonder how the hero will escape rather than worrying that he’s about to die. That’s a critical difference. The former engages the minds of puzzle-solvers and intellectuals, but the latter engages the hearts of readers.
How do you change readers’ perception? How do you convince them that catastrophes can occur in your book? You include terrible events early on. Let’s talk about Infinity War (but just the first scene, so only minor spoilers). The film opens with Thanos killing a powerful main character with his bare hands and beating two Avengers to a pulp, along with a few hundred civilians. That was a tone-setting scene. From that moment on, I was on the edge of my seat, literally and figuratively. If that main character could die, who might be next? If Thanos could handle two Avengers so easily, what chance did the squad have? And if they lost, how high were the stakes?
Do you want readers to sweat through your book? Then don’t pull punches. Even if you don’t kill characters, blindside your hero with trouble as soon as possible. Show readers that anything could happen.
#2: Killing Adds Meaning
The OYAN curriculum videos introduced me to the importance of a story having meaning. Mr. Schwabauer’s words have stuck with me through all my writing adventures: “A goal is worth what your hero is willing to pay for it.” If your hero achieves his goal without much personal loss, then the goal has little value, and your story will seem insignificant. It’ll be a romp about characters who had some exciting escapades and fulfilled their desires.
That kind of story probably won’t grip or teach readers. Your story’s message will be linked (intentionally or unintentionally) to your hero’s goal. If the goal lacks worth, the message can be ignored too. You don’t want that.
Let’s say your story’s theme is forgiveness. Your villain did something awful to the hero when he was a child, and now the hero craves revenge. During the climax, the hero is about to stab the villain with a rapier, but in the pivotal moment, he decides not to.
How nice. That sort of ending is neither uncommon in Christian fiction nor poignant. The only cost to the forgiveness is the grudge the hero abandons. What if, instead of just forgiving the villain, the hero dies saving the villain? Not only would that prove the hero’s forgiveness is sincere, but also that forgiveness is more important to him than his own life.
When a character readers love commits the ultimate sacrifice, that’s the deepest level of meaning you can accomplish in fiction. Readers can’t walk away without being impacted.
#3: Killing Deepens Realism
Last night I watched The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, and though I enjoyed the show, a few scenes made me cringe. In one, Walter Mitty gets in a helicopter piloted by a man who is so drunk he can barely walk. Naturally, the flight goes without a hitch and everything turns out fine.
A drunk person in a vehicle is a problem.
Needless to say, when Walter climbed the tallest mountain in the Himalayas alone with no previous experience and didn’t die, I wasn’t holding my breath. The movie wasn’t supposed to be an edge-of-your-seat thriller, so those errors were excusable, but they still took the adrenaline out of the story and made me roll my eyes.
Don’t allow that to happen in your story. When a man falls out of a train that’s speeding along a cliff, he dies. (Looking at you, Bucky.) Don’t cheat death or readers will feel cheated too.
Whom Should You Kill?
Now that you understand the advantages of killing a main character (or two), whom should you knock off? Is it luck of the draw? Not exactly. The victim will be different for every story. Since I can’t point to a character and say “This one,” here are two quick tips to help you choose.
First, you need to kill someone readers expect to survive. You’re not strictly aiming for shock but trying to demonstrate that anything could happen. Don’t kill the old mentor or the boring ally or the parents. Kill someone readers assume will be in the story for the long haul. That’s how life works. We have no plans to die today.
Second, pick someone readers love. But be careful; if you eliminate their favorite character, they might slam the book shut. Want to learn how to avoid that fate? Return in a few weeks and I’ll explain how to execute a character without ruining your novel or enraging readers.