1. terobi
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    terobi Contributing Member

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    "Surprising deaths" that don't break reader promises

    Discussion in 'Plot Development' started by terobi, Jun 17, 2015.

    (I don't intend to actually spoiler anything - this would be easier if this forum had spoiler tags like IMDB does - but here goes. Possible GoT spoilers ahead; )



    With all the media stuff over the last few days about a certain television show (which I'm sure precisely nobody has managed to avoid), it's had me thinking about killing off characters like this. One of the reasons that character death has been so shocking (and why so many suspect a resurrection) seems to be that there's still so much "story" left for that character, and it seems like there's something lacking narratively by their sudden removal from the cast, and so much left unanswered.

    While yes, this kind of death is realistic (here I'm reminded of Eddie Izzard commenting on Princess Diana's death in a sudden car crash in the early hours of the morning being like if you were watching The X Files and the main characters all suddenly died for no reason), it feels like it's going for shock value but leaving a big hole in the narrative, setting up events and mysteries that are unlikely ever to be answered, and will be inconsequential now if they are.

    My question is, how do you use a major character death as a plot twist, avoiding these kinds of "broken promises" (to borrow a term from the Writing Excuses podcast), but still imply that there's more of a character's story to come in order to have their sudden death be truly surprising and tragic?
     
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  2. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    I don't know that I buy into the idea of a broken promise as a result of character death. Every character's story would have a lot left if she/he lived. That's no reason to avoid a death. Ever seen the Buffy and Angel TV shows from the 90s, that Joss Whedon created? There are some shocking deaths in that series, and the characters that die had a lot of potential story left. But their stories ran out early. I'm fine with that.
     
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  3. terobi
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    terobi Contributing Member

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    Oh certainly, I've seen them many times - and Joss has a habit of giving his characters sudden, meaningless deaths - but there's a point where it seems like it's not just "potential story left", but that their current story isn't "resolved"...

    And the trouble is, it seems to me, if you've got a character to the point where it feels like their story is "done", then killing them off isn't shocking any more - it feels like you're just trimming off the characters who haven't got anything else to do now all their character arc stuff is done and you're pretty much just denying them a "happily ever after".
     
  4. izzybot
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    izzybot Human Disaster Contributor

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    I'm trying to think of a way to talk about this that doesn't revolve around discussing particular characters' deaths, which is both spoilery (though shows like Buffy and Angel are like ... over a decade old tbf) and relies on everyone present having seen/read about them, hahah. Also I have avoided GoT spoilers but also don't watch the show so I have no idea about that topic whoops.

    It's an interesting a complicated sort of issue I think. It's hard to argue that there was really 'more story' when the story the writer laid out called for the character's death at that time. We only feel like there was more story. Which is good, I think - if you feel that that towards a character and their death then it means the writer for sure did their job on blindsiding you, which is how violent/sudden death tends to work in real life. 'Plots' don't resolve when you die irl. Things are left undone. So it's realistic; it makes you hurt. Yay?

    As a reader that can feel unfair but like ... man death is pretty unfair. Personally I appreciate, on some level, when horrible things happen seemingly at random. That one death towards the end of s6 of Buffy? I sobbed. It wasn't fair. There was story left. But I wouldn't say I felt lied to, or what have you - but then I get excited when things I don't expect happen, and stuff like killing off a main character or injuring them in a significant way (looking at you again, Buffy) comes unexpected because, imo, it doesn't happen enough. I don't think that main character invulnerability should be a thing. Maybe I'm weird though.

    I suppose there's an implicit promise in having main characters that they'll survive and always be back next time, and if you intend to kill'em off, there's really no way to not break that promise.

    So, how do you do it - I don't know. From behind the scenes, when I write deaths, I usually try to sneakily make sure that there aren't any really bad loose plot threads that only this character being alive can answer without making it seem like their story as a person is really tied up, because I don't like plot holes (revolutionary, I know I know). Have them complete a developmental arc or what have you without implying that they're a 'complete person' (because there is no such thing) whose life will be peachy from here on out (because that's not how life works). Well unless I think it'd be better to leave a hole, something not super important to the main plot, just to make the character's absence more heart-wrenching. "But I never got to tell him I love him" except, well, more complicated and less trite, hopefully. This way there's no 'technical' fault in killing the character - you haven't painted yourself into a corner plot-wise.

    As for how the reader feels about it, that's kind of up to them individually. Maybe there's not a ton of damage control you can do there. Except just not killing anyone, I guess? I think you're always going to have people who both laud and criticize character deaths, claiming that it's either cheap and poorly-written or masterfully done. Just do your best, I guess, make sure there are no egregious foul-ups, and let people react to it as they will.
     
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  5. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    A good author can pull anything off. One book I read recently and really like had the main character (and a first person narrator who was the only POV character) die before the end. Great book, but the death really caught me by surprise.
     
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  6. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    I don't mind main character deaths, as long as their death impacts on the other characters and has a major impact on the plot. In fact, sometimes these deaths can serve the purpose of creating jeopardy for the other characters.

    As long as we're discussing TV shows rather than books, I remember a shocking death in Star Trek: The Next Generation—fairly early in the series. It's when Communications Officer Tasha Yar was killed by that tar creature. It was the first time ever that a major Star Trek crew member died. And really died, and did not come back. This mean that every time crew members were in danger after that, there was always that feeling ...uh, oh ...it happened before, it can happen again. The fact that it didn't actually happen again doesn't matter. That was an excellent touch.

    Farscape also killed off a few major characters, but their deaths always mattered. Some were killed very quickly and unexpectedly. Others had deaths that took a bit more time. One in particular did 'return' from the dead, but it was a plausible return, and done very well indeed. (What a cliffhanger, though!)

    The thing about GoT that annoys me is that the deaths are becoming the whole movement of the series. Everybody now is just waiting to see who dies and who/if any doesn't. This, instead of character development and interaction of main players. Just death death death. I stopped reading the books at book 4, because I got fed up investing in characters who were then killed off for no reason, to be replaced with other characters who were then killed off for no reason, etc. Maybe some people think this is 'gritty' and realistic. Me? I think it's lazy writing. I got bored with it. I wasn't upset. I was just bored.

    Pity. The series had such great potential ...and the first death was a masterpiece—a character we really did value—and really did set the plot in motion. Then just ...meh....
     
    Last edited: Jun 17, 2015
  7. Ivana
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    Ivana Contributing Member

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    I think I know who you're reffering to. My fiance just called me to ask if that's really possible that his favourite character had died :D (he didn't read the books).
    *But I don't think he's really dead. :whistle:*
     
  8. Stacy C
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    Stacy C Banned

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    A popular thriller/suspense author I read killed a major character in his last book, with no sense that her story was over. It kind of stunned me, but mostly I'm interested in how he's going to go on with the story now that she's gone. Nobody is indispensable, but she was entwined in so many parts of the ongoing story it won't be easy for the author to account for her absence.
     
  9. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    We do have spoiler tags:

    The spoilage.
     
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  10. Mckk
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    Mckk Moderator Staff Supporter Contributor

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    @terobi - as Wrey above says, we do have spoiler tags. In the toolbar, on the left of the floppy disk icon, there's a button called "insert". Click on "insert" and you'll see a drop-down menu of "Quote", "Spoiler", and "Code". Essentially, highlight the text you wanna tag, click Insert >> Spoiler, and you'll have your tags.

    But yeah for the longest time I was typing in the code for spoiler tags myself cus I didn't realise they had it under insert.
     
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  11. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    The only thing I would hazard is your timing. Seems the serial killing is spilling over into other media venues. Defiance seems to have taken a page from Martin this season and one is left to wonder just how long this wave will last. You don't want to be on the down-side of that swell, aye.
     
  12. Commandante Lemming
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    Commandante Lemming Contributing Member Contributor

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    I wouldn't worry about it too much. Maybe drop some foreshadowing and such, but if you're going to kill off a character to move the plot, do it.

    Now, I personally get really, really annoyed with unneeded character deaths - to the point where I've quit two shows because I thought they killed off characters in capricious fashions. But I also love Game of Thrones and am planning a very shocking death near the end of my own WIP. I think when they lose me is when a character dies with no foreshadowing, no reason, and by a method that throws off my suspension of disbelief.

    The two cases in point, where a show lost me, were Grey's Anatomy when they killed off George O'Malley and Downton Abbey when they killed off Matthew Crowley. So let's unpack those two scenarios. Both of those were shows that had to write out characters due to the actors deciding to leave, so they didn't have adequate foreshadowing.

    On Grey's, they actually set up a really nice exit for George - the "nice guy" doctors who was always to weak/shy to get the girl, but the audience loved to death - by having him finally do something super courageous and join the military. They spent a ton of time building up how heroic he was being and how he was finally growing up....and then they literally ran him over with a bus right at the end before he could formally join. He saw a lady that was about to get run over, tried to save her, and died when the bus hit him (actually the finale revolved around his colleagues at the hospital treated a patient who was so badly disfigured by a bus accident that they couldn't identify him, and then at the end they figured out it was George). So, yes, he died a heroic death - but they cut off the heroic ending they'd foreshadowed, and did in in a very cliche way that unsuspended my disbelief (how many times have you heard the phrase "I might get hit by a bus."). I quit not long after that, and I'm glad I did because they went on to kill my favorite character Lexie Grey and her lover Mark Sloan in a freak plane crash (glad I didn't see that), and then they killed Dr. Derek Sheppard (the male lead) in another freak plane crash. You can write actors out, that's fine, but do it with some smarts, and don't kill all of them.

    Downton was a very similar situation. The actor was leaving, and Matthew had to be written out...this was a problem because Matthew was the entire reason for the plot (for those unfamiliar, Downton Abbey's inciting incident is the Lord of a grand English estate losing his last known male heir - a nephew I believe - in the Titanic disaster. They then have to research who's next in line, which turns out to be a decidedly middle-class lawyer named Matthew Crowley...who then *SPOILER* ends up marrying Lord Grantham's eldest daughter and securing the family inheritance). Hence, the show lost it's main reason for being when he left - which is a separate problem - but they did it by getting poor Matthew into a freak car crash right after he met his new baby son (he was so happy that was driving erratically and failed to see an oncoming truck). Not only was this death cliche, it also happened in the last minute of the episode with no foreshadowing, and then everything faded to black.

    So - there are two examples of how NOT to kill a character. I think it's pretty obvious the both of those made some pretty glaring and obvious mistakes that can be identified and used to reverse engineer a properly written death that doesn't lose the reader. I think in the end it may more about avoiding known pitfalls than in writing them a specific way.
     
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  13. terobi
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    terobi Contributing Member

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    It seems to me, though, that "foreshadowing" a death stops it from being in any way shocking.

    Sure, you can "foreshadow" someone's death from illness, or establish that they will always do something stupid if anyone calls them a chicken, or whatever - but how could you ever foreshadow a death in an accident, or by some betrayal by another character, and still maintain shock value?
     
  14. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    Golly (to quote Mary Crawley), they wrote him out so early that I actually forgot about him. :whistle:

    [​IMG]
     
  15. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    Ultimately, as writer, you just have to go with your vision for the story. All of this sort of thing is entirely subjective, so what else are you going to do? If your vision for the story calls for a swift, unexpected death of an important character, then write it that way. If you're the type of author who can't stand the thought of killing off character, then go that route instead.
     
  16. ToeKneeBlack
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    This can be turned on it's head; a character is about to die with no conceivable way out, but when the dust settles the protagonist has saved them.
     
  17. Commandante Lemming
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    Commandante Lemming Contributing Member Contributor

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    Yeah, I'm planning a foreshadowed death that doesn't actually happen (in my next book unfortunately, which means I have to finish this one)

    Too much foreshadowing is probably bad, but I do think the death has to make sense in context. The two examples I dropped didn't work for me because they seemed contrived - the authorial hand at work rather than the organic progression of the story. Whereas - let's take Game of Thrones as an example - most GoT surprise deaths are only surprising because we as viewers expect not to have our heroes slaughtered before our eyes. In real life, things like Ned Stark's beheading and the recent finale death of (REDACTED), happen all the time. They make sense in context, we're just surprised by them because we expect the hero narrative to go differently.
     
  18. terobi
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    terobi Contributing Member

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    Well that particular death is exactly what I was thinking of when I made this topic;

    Jon Snow's story still isn't resolved, even though he's dead - killing him off now has been so controversial compared to other character deaths, not because he was one of the few "good guys" left in the series, but because his story isn't done yet. The mystery of "who is Jon Snow's mother?" has been a recurring question from the very first episode of the series, and the very beginning of the first book - we're in classic Chekhov's Gun territory if you continually bring up that question and hint to the audience that it's an important mystery - and now that he's dead it 1) looks like we'll never get an answer, and 2) no longer means anything if we did find it out.
     
  19. izzybot
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    izzybot Human Disaster Contributor

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    I don't know if this helps at all, but in one of my projects there's this long rivalry between two characters whose interactions are always dangerous or sinister in some way, but it's implied that the instigator sees it as a 'game' and, like the Joker (I'm just now realizing this comparison oh no), he wouldn't know what to do with himself if he actually 'beat' his opponent. They each have each other at a disadvantage at various points and both end up physically injured or psychologically scarred many times throughout this relationship but the grounds of the thing - hopefully - make it seem like neither will ever win or lose. So, even though they've lived their lives at each others' throats, and you should probably assume that if one's ever going to die it'll definitely be at the other's hands, it's hopefully still a shock when the instigator finally follows through (esp since the newly-dead guy is a main character who you might assume has mc immortality).

    So that's maybe an example of foreshadowing, but still making it shocking? In theory at least, if I do my job well.

    eta: another thing though it may be, if possible, even less useful

    I love alluding to mythology and folklore and whatnot in my stuff which, if you know the story I'm referencing and can tell that that's what I'm going for, could certainly foreshadow deaths. For instance two characters compared to Phaeton and Cygnus could clue you into their respective demises ... if you know about the story associated with the Greek characters and are able to figure out the allusions (because it's meant to be fairly well-hidden). Really only foreshadowing for other mythology nerds :x But it's in there. I like to mess with details, too, so it's not like a straight retelling of the myth and other ones I play around with have their endings averted outright, so even if you do know the story it's not necessarily a give away.
     
    Last edited: Jun 17, 2015
  20. cutecat22
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    cutecat22 The Strange One Contributor

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    Derek didn't die in a plane crash.

    I know because I watched it to the end.

    But I agree about the Crawleys in Downton Abbey. I stopped watching after Matthew's death because it was so so very wrong. The could have at least got a look-a-like!
     
  21. cutecat22
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    cutecat22 The Strange One Contributor

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    It doesn't always have to be about the character who dies, sometimes, it can be about the characters left behind.

    In book one, I kill off a distant character but it's more to do with showing how the character left behind (his grand-daughter) deals with the loss, it's how we find out what her weaknesses are and it forces her to look at herself and how she deals with things.

    In book two, there is a death but it's a shocker. It's someone who's risen from being a baddie to now being a loved goodie, unfortunately, the act that made him a baddie has always been on his mind and so, he's actually ready to die (if anyone can be ready to die in their twenties) because he's repaid his debt, he's given his life to save another.

    Not only does it add shock value but it pushes the story forward and opens up the plot for book three (which is still at the planning stage and might not even be part of a trilogy).

    So, deaths aren't always what they seem.
     
  22. Ivana
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    Ivana Contributing Member

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    Again,
    I don't think John Snow is really dead. :)
     
  23. terobi
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    terobi Contributing Member

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    I think most people think that - if only because his story isn't actually resolved yet!
     
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  24. cutecat22
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    cutecat22 The Strange One Contributor

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    :-O The newsreader?

    Really?

    Oh, that's quite sad.
     

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