Story Quality and the Persistence of Memory

Every once in a while I get something stuck in my head that’s absolutely unproductive but I spend a whole lot of time thinking through.  So here’s a question I was faced with recently.  Can a story be considered good, have the right mix of elements that resonates with the readers and makes for a good plot, when it’s absolutely unmemorable?

I came upon this when I started up playing Max Payne 2.  This wasn’t my first go round with the Max Payneiverse.  I logged my time in with the first Max Payne, like 15 hours or however long it took to get through it.  And that was an award winning game.  Back in 2001, it was the talk of the town.  The video games journalism town.  It’s scummy and the family trees are all tangled up there, I wouldn’t recommend you visit.

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Anyways, the first Max Payne.  Most highly praised for its gameplay, atmosphere, and squinty mugshots, but more than a few people gave it props for its story as well.  I played through all of it.  I have memories of my impressions of the plot.  But, in going to the supposedly familiar places, meeting all the supposedly familiar people, and killing a bunch of dudes all of again, I discovered that I don’t remember much of the actual events at all.  I spent hours with it, yet the actual happenings of the story are a big void to me.

That’s not to say that it’s a bad story.  Plenty of people had a good time with it, else it wouldn’t have gotten all those plotprops.  The few memories I have of the plot are decent enough.  I remember it being surprisingly down to earth compared to what else I was playing at the time, I remember being satisfied by the noir style telling, and I remember hating the Nordic theming at first but then absolutely loving it towards the end when I realized Payne is pretty much a historic berserker.  But the things that went on to cause those impressions?  No idea.

Part of that is just the nature of the beast.  Max Payne pulls back some noir storytelling, and noir by its nature is very introspective, reserved, and doesn’t tend to lead to the big Aha! Moments that really stick in the mind for the long term.  So the fact that a lot of it’s not sticking around may be a sign that it’s hitting the form it’s going for.

It may well be the type of story that only really shines on multiple retellings, when one’s had the chance to absorb more of it and read into it more fully.  I’ve come across quite a few plots that require experience or a certain mindset to really get into.

In any case, I find it difficult to look back on Max Payne and evaluate what I went through there.  Of course stories are subjective, and there are a lot of elements that can go into making a quality plot.  Does memorability need to be one of them?  If something was good while you went through it, even if it has no aftertaste, can you still consider it just as good after the memories leave?  I find myself torn.  To some degree, I’m pretty sure I enjoyed Max Payne’s story while I was playing.  There were at least good points to it, and just because I don’t remember them doesn’t mean they weren’t there.  But none of it stuck.  I spent all that time with it, and I’m carrying none of it around with me.  And to some degree, that has to diminish the experience once it’s over.  Is it enough to make it all invalid?

Then again, a lot of this is me trying to internally evaluate a work that I have no memory of.  I had my time with it.  I may not of been the most engaged, but I know I had some fun, and just because I don’t remember it any more doesn’t take that away.  Beyond that, it doesn’t matter to me now.  Whether I can call the original Max Payne good or not doesn’t have an impact on me until I start playing the game again.  We’ll see if a story can be unmemorable but still be good then.

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Freytag’s Pyramid vs. Non-endings in Storytelling

Man, Frank R. Stockton was such a punk.

So, there’s a lot of bad endings in the world of stories.  I’m not talking about downer endings, those can actually be quite good no matter how sad they may be.  I’m talking about those blatant sequel hooks, rushed finales, story threads you’ve been waiting for the conclusion on that never finish up, works that just skip the denouement entirely, and the like.  Narrative tricks that stop the story without finishing it.  Non-endings.  Non-endings have been around for quite a while.  Longer than you or I.  Frank R. Stockton punking it up all over the 19th century is proof enough for that.  It seems they’ve been getting more and more frequent in the modern age, though, as pretty much every writing industry gets more competitive, as serial fiction gets more popular, as more creators either get lazy or try to leave things open for the follow up.  It’s easy to see why.  Endings are really, really hard in the first place.  Keeping track of all the myriad threads you’ve opened up?  That’s for nerds!  And hey, if you set things up so that people have to keep with your story beyond the initial work in order to get a satisfactory conclusion?  Who cares if it’s manipulative as all hell!  There’s dollars/ego at stake!

Yeah, so non-endings abound, they’re getting more pervasive, and a lot of authors seem really, really attached to them.  They also make all of your stories worse, though.  And I’ve got the science, in the form of pretty line graphs and century old literary theories, to prove it.  And you can’t doubt any of it.  I got my Bachelor of Science degree.  See, “Science”.  It’s right in the name.

Anyways, once upon a time there was this guy called Gustav Freytag, better known to modern literary historians as the Frey-Dawg.  The Frey-Dawg was a novelist and playwright who wrote some things you’ve probably never heard of unless you’re European or something, but he moonlighted as a literary critic because nothing picks up women in the 1800’s like talking smack about Shakespeare that they’ll never understand.  Remember than in case you ever get your hands on a time machine.  It was in the latter field that the Frey-Dawg truly made his mark on history.  Check this out.

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This is Frey-Dawg’s Pyramid.  Also known as Freytag’s Pyramid or Dramatic Structure because your English teacher had all the personality of a brick wall.  This showcases what is just about the most basic plot structure you can have and still have a story anybody’s going to want to read.  That line could represent a lot of things, like tension, pace, reader’s interest, the amount of changes being made, whatever.  You could argue about that for years, and it really doesn’t matter.  It’s something you feel mostly by impulse, what specifically it is doesn’t make a difference.  Basically, this plot structure sees your hero kicking it in his crib at the start, spends a bit of time showing you the base level of what the story-world is, before shaking it all up with the Inciting Incident.  Said Inciting Incident starts up the rising action, with the hero progressing through the plot and leading up to the big “Luke, I Am Your Father” moment at the climax.  After the climax, the story stops introducing new elements and focuses on wrapping up the threads it does have, the mysteries have been uncovered, the hero is whaling on the bad guy, that sort of thing.  Then there’s no more to do, and you hit the denouement, where all the happily ever after happens, and the story sets the stage for the life you’ll assume the characters and world will have after you put the book down.

The Frey-Dawg built this pyramid strictly with five-act Greek and Shakesperian dramas in mind, but you can actually fit most stories ever since mankind was hanging around in caves telling tales of rocks mating into something approaching this mold.  Not only is this such a basic measure of storytelling, this also outlines what are usually the minimum requirements to tell what most readers will consider to be a ‘complete’ story.  This is generally what it takes to satisfy readers.  This is the structure that most simply fills the needs of storytelling.

Of course, tastes in narratives change over time.  While this structure fit a lot, possibly even most, of stories up through the early 1900s, most modern authors and readers alike prefer something considerably more complicated.  Modern storytelling tends to extend the rising action greatly, pushing the climax back into the endgame, and adding in a lot of mini-climaxes or complications on the way there.  Both the exposition and the denouement tend to be shorter, establishing the baseline and wrapping things up a lot faster compared to the time spent on the main thrust of the plot.  You have little bits of falling action interspersed among the rising action, then the main fall happens over a lot less time than Shakespeare would give it.  So, for an example of how Frey-Dawg would work that structure around a modern story, here’s the pyramid for an absolute masterpiece I just spent the last five minutes thinking up.  Man, I’m awesome.

Modern story freytag

Don’t get too stunned by how amazing I am.  We still have some talking to do.  So, the important part, at least for our discussion today, is at the end there, the bit starting right after the climax.  Even in modern-day stories, where the post-climax period is a lot shorter, our stories still have a period where they wind down, then plateau before THE END.  That is vitally important.  That is what you need to have a good, satisfying ending, no matter how happy or sad your conclusion is.

And that is what all these various non-endings fail at.  Frey-Dawg clearly showed future generations just what it takes, and our storytellers are just stomping all over it.  These endings suck because they fail to take into account the basic needs of a finale, as demonstrated by Frey-Dawg’s Pyramid.

Let’s take a look at exactly how these work out.  There’s three main structures these bad endings tend to fall into.

Continue reading

Crafting the Experience vs. Sidequests

Imagine you’re reading a book, or watching a movie, or whatever you’re into. It’s still in the exposition, and the hero’s just received the call for some big epic quest. Oh, woe is us! The dark lord, Slapdick the Tormentor, ruler over these lands for the past 86 years, is now letting loose his last gasps of life on his deathbed! Normally, this would be cause for celebration, but in an effort to make sure nobody in the world outlives him, he’s engaged an ancient global-destruction magic! The mages of old, foreseeing this would come to pass, instilled a holy bloodline with the power to cancel that magic, but only by activating magic stones hidden in the most monster-infested dungeons around the world. Unfortunately, members of that bloodline were universally bad with women, and so you, Hammercles von Chunkmeier, are the only descendant left! You must save us! You’re our only hope!

And so, noble Hammercles sets off on his great and fearsome quest to activate the stones and save the world. Well, almost. First he has to tend his livestock, make sure they’ll be alright while they’re away. Then he has to write a farewell letter to his mother. Then, on his way out of town, the local cleric asks for his help collecting herbs for healing poultices, and what kind of hero would he be if he left his healer poorly stocked? And so on, for hours and hours of screentime or chapters and chapters of pages.

That’d be a pretty miserable story, wouldn’t it? The author would be completely ruining the experience there. It wouldn’t matter how epic the quest was, you’re just sitting through the granular experiences of this guy you’ve yet to find reason to care about. The pacing’s all ruined, the tension so masterfully built up by the intro is all gone, and your time is being wasted. Readers will experience a story as they well, through their own individual lens, but even so, it’s up to the author to craft it, to build things towards the story they’re really trying to tell. What was the author thinking?

I had that experience recently. I was in for an epic story, yet ended up just grinding through a huge amount of mostly-meaningless minutia. Save for one major difference. In that case, it wasn’t the author who had failed in crafting a good experience. It was all on me.

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Dragon Age: Inquisition opens up with some really massive stakes. The sky itself has torn in twain and is pumping demons out into the world. You’re the only survivor of the massive strike that caused it all, and the world can’t decide whether to worship you or blame you for it. What quickly becomes clear, though, is that you’re the only one with the power to close that tear and stop the demons from coming through. A really powerful opening, all in all.

Then, once you’ve gone through the starting mission, it dumps you out into the Hinterlands, a sprawling, expansive area with much to explore and lots to do, with no more direction than “Hey, go talk to this lady, then, you know, whatever.” It essentially leaves you at the mercy of the many, many sidequests in the region. In retrospect, it’s obvious that the developers intended you to just hang out there until you got bored and come back later on for another round of sidequests, what with part of the area being blocked off until later in the game, the few enemies too strong for you in the first round, and the fact that new sidequests keep being added as you progress. Thing is, they don’t really give you much in the way of guidance as to what you should or shouldn’t do. And I’ve been trained by hundreds of other games to always do all the sidequests, for they shall give you POWER. And so, while the world was reeling from the loss of its lady warpope, I was hunting rams to feed some refugees. While the populace lay in fear as to what would come out of the massive rift in the sky next, I was collecting herbs for some medicine. While the harbinger of the end of days moved his pawns around the land, I was racing my new horse. I was really good at it, too. Beat all three courses on my first try.

Anyways, by the time I was done in the Hinterlands, I had done pretty much everything they had to offer there. I was twelve hours in without doing much of substance, way overleveled, and bored with the game. Luckily, it picks up strongly afterwards, but the point remains that staying there for so long was really harmful to my experience.

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It reminds me a lot of Xenoblade Chronicles. That’s an excellent game, one of my favorite of last gen, in fact, providing a really transcendent experience… so long as you ignore sidequests. Each area is filled with stuff to do, packed to the brim with small sidequests, that, if you try and complete it all, will totally choke out all the plot, the new characters, the action, the areas, with just their sheer mass. The sidequests in Xenoblade Chronicles are like an invasive kudzu to a tree, you, the player, have to carefully keep them in check or they’re going to smother everything else. And yet, just like in Dragon Age: Inquisition, that stuff is only there as an option for me. Even though I have the urge to do everything doesn’t mean the game is making me do so.

If I had made a story where the side plots and minutia so completely got in the way of my pacing, flow, and main plot, my readers would have rightfully blamed me for ruining my work. It was my responsibility to craft the experience, after all. But I’m not a game developer. The types of stories we’ve been talking about here are told in partnership between the author and the player. And maybe this time, it’s the player who’s been messing it up.

When playing games, I have a strong impulse to try and finish up any side content I can as soon as it becomes available. It feels shameful to me to move on with something left undone. But that’s not always the right way to experience the game. It’s not wrong of the developer to choose not to carefully craft the experience, instead leaving a great mass of content strewn over a wide area for me to enjoy at my leisure. It’s not even wrong for them to refrain from giving me direction and letting me make my own way through the great fog of content. A lot of great video game experiences have been built that way. For me, there’s a bit of a learning curve in being able to let things go, but in these games, I have the power to craft some of my own experience. As the player, I need to learn to use it.

Never Trust an Author

No Author

Western culture has an odd fascination with liars. So many people, telling lies so blatant that everyone’s learned not to trust them, yet still we place them at the highest echelons of our societies. Politicians, corporate executives, lawyers, and the like, all very well known as fibbers of the highest order. Yet still we raise them up, largely because of their lies, giving them some of the highest salaries and greatest honors our communities have to offer. They’re some of our culture’s most accomplished false witnesses, some of the most public liars, yet they are far from the most blatant. No, the most devious, the boldest, the most blatant liars take up an occupation that generally gives them a lot less income or prestige, but it’s worth it to them because it affords much more opportunity to lie. Most professions at least have to give off the impression that they’re there for legitimate reasons, but this one, we’ll readily pay them to lie to us. In all of human history, has there been a bigger rat liar than the humble storyteller?

Authors, writers, dramatists, playwrights, that whole blasted trade. They will give us the most obvious lies imaginable and expect us to take them with a smile. These are the people who will just make up a tale from whole cloth then devote themselves completely and utterly to making us believe it could be true. They’ll do their best to convince us, through words, details, and any other tool of their trade, that their imaginary words are real, that their characters exist, that their stories are actually happening, even as you read them. They will do anything they can to immerse you in their lies, to make their words leave the page and overtake your own reality, at least for as long as you’re reading them. These are the mendacious folk who will just spawn a character from their own twisted minds, then make them complex and fleshed out enough that we feel for them just as much as we do those in real life. These are the cruel beings who will use their wicked powers over words to make us feel every twist and turn in the plot as if it was actually happening to us. The author is the malicious mage who draw us into their cold, cruel worlds and personally feel every smile and tear their characters go through. It is they who trick us into making the unreal real in our own minds, in tearing and boosting our emotions with nothing more than their tall, tall tales.

And we love them for it.

The Bookshelf Tag!

We haven’t done one of these viral social blogging posts in a while.  Which seems a little odd to me.  After all, there’s plenty of questions I know people are just dying to ask me.  Questions like “What’s a day in the life of the world’s sexiest man like?” or “What deities do I have to thank for the fact that you’re in my life?” or “How exactly are you supposed to pronounce Aether, anyway?”  Given that I’m still one of the internet’s biggest enigmas, I felt I owed it to the world to respond when our good friend Mishka Jenkins hooked us into the Bookshelf Tag that’s been going around the internet.  Basically, got ten questions here, all about me and books.  And because I basically carved out this corner of the internet for me to do nothing but talk about myself, I’m going to answer these questions.  With words.  And self-indulgence.  Because really, isn’t that what the internet’s all about?

Here we go!

1. Is there a book that you really want to read but haven’t because you know that it’ll make you cry?

Not really.  If a book can make me feel, that’s a beautiful thing.  Even if that feeling is sad.  If a story can break me out of my bitter, mortal shell, and actually feel for the characters to the point that I weep for them, that’s that almost always something worth experiencing.  There’ve been times that I put off sad stories until I was in the mood for them, because I knew they’d make me feel that way, but nothing I avoided outright.  Also, I’m a rock-hard stone-cold hunk of manly manliness who never ever cries.  That part helps too.

2. Pick one book that helped introduce you to a new genre.

‘Stolen Bloodline’ by Mishka Jenkins.  I very rarely dip into the romance genre, but I’ve actually been enjoying the works Mishka’s been putting out since she decided to start making a living as an author.  It’s not just because she and I are close, I’ve honestly been enjoying her works on their own merit.  She mixes up a lot of the fantasy and adventure and conflicts and other stuff I do usually like with some well-written love stories, and it’s made me a lot more open to the romance genre than I was previously

3. Find a book that you want to re-read.

‘The Burning City’, by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle.  I read it a lot as a kid, and really liked how well-realized and unique the world was, but looking into it more recently I’ve been seeing that there’s a lot of transparent and blatant allegory and imagery that was lost on me in my younger days.  Haven’t read it in years, but I’d love to give it another go to see what my older, better-educated mind might be able to pick up now.

4. Is there a book series you’ve read but wish that you hadn’t?

Nope.  Even bad media has some sort of value.  There’s been stories that have wasted my time, but none that I’m actively worse off for going through.

5. If your house was burning down and all of your family and pets were safe, which book would you go back inside to save?

Well, I’d probably try to save my video games first, but if it had to be a book… well, it’d probably be my collection of the original Elfquest publications.  Those are available for free online now, but the copies I’ve got were part of the first run, back when you had to get a subscription from a small time independent publisher to get your hands on them.  They used to belong to one of my relatives, before being passed down to me, so it’s more sentimental than anything else.  The fact that the story’s really, really good helps the decision.

6. Is there one book on your bookshelf that brings back fond memories?

Any of my Star Wars books.  I used to be crazy into Star Wars as a kid.  ‘Wraith Squadron’ is probably the one I carry the most memories for, to the point that I actually got a bit depressed when its author passed away earlier this year, despite being as jaded as I am.

7. Find a book that has inspired you the most.

Hmm… that’s a tough one.  Terry Goodkind’s early books in the Sword of Truth series, I’d guess.  I don’t particularly like his work nowadays, but those were one of the biggest influences that got me into writing in the first place.

8. Do you have any autographed books?

My copy of the Ocean at the End of the Lane is autographed by Neil Gaiman.

9. Find the book that you have owned the longest.

A copy of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ I’ve had since we put on the play in 6th grade.  I played Oberon.  Unfortunately, my parents were in the habit of selling everything as soon as they thought I was done with it, so I don’t have anything older.  I lost a lot of my childhood, that way.

10. Is there a book by an author that you never imagined you would read or enjoy?

I’m not actually a fan of most classic or older literature.  I find the writing style and plot development to be a bit less nuanced when written before the era where people were studying and educating themselves on these things.  So, I was very surprised when I found myself getting drawn into Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes novels in such a major way.  The plots are generally just as poorly developed compared to most of its modern counterparts as everything else of the era, but the stories are still really well-written otherwise, and I find myself drawn into them quite easily.

The True Power of Artistic License

Artistic license.  The concept that a good plot is more important than a realistic depiction.  That which an author uses when reality selfishly refuses to accommodate what they need for the plot to work.

I was talking with Harliqueen a while back, when she was in the process of writing what would become Heart of the Arena. At the time, she was greatly concerned about historical accuracy, about making sure all the facts she was implementing to her story conformed as much to historical fact as she could make them. She wanted to ensure that her story stuck as closely to reality as reasonably possible.

At the time, I was struck by that. I’ve been taking the exact opposite approach in my own ongoing work, treating my subject matter with however much flexibility I needed to make the awesome scenes I wanted, and I’d been considering that one of my strengths. And you know what? I still do. Both approaches, that of perfect accuracy and of wanton artistic interpretation, definitely have their merits. It just so happens that the latter is serving my story a lot better.

Even from the outset, I have a lot of room, a necessity even, for utilizing artistic interpretation. While Harli’s tale draws its roots from Roman history, mine bases a lot on mythology and religion, a much softer science. Moreover, I’m drawing from both quite a few different cultural tales and faiths, and taking some inspiration from apocrypha as well, so I really need to implement a lot of ‘creative interpretation’ to ensure my story’s logic can integrate all these sources yet still be consistent. Even beyond that, though, I’ve been thinking that heavy use of artistic license, to the extent I’m looking at with my current work, could be a very beneficial factor in itself.

Basically, what I’m thinking is that a properly applied sense of artistic license can add its own layers onto the work as a whole beyond just what it allows for plot. A good, strong, consistent manner of deviating from what’s established by reality can help to establish an atmosphere and tone for the work on its own, helping it to stand out and creating its own unique. Pretty much any work based in any way on the real world makes use of some degree of artistic license. By being deliberate about it, though, and ensuring its applied consistently throughout, the author can take command of it to help make the work as a whole more unique, having a stronger overall design, and more flexibility in how to implement stories.

There’s a fine line there. Artistic license should only be applied where there’s room for it. That’s one of the reasons I have a lot more flexibility in working with mythology and religion than on other subjects. I’ll already be using a lot of various sources with a lot of internal inconsistencies, where there may not be in something like history. However, every inconsistency is the seed for some sort of interpretation. And by managing those inconsistencies and growing out of them creatively, I’ll be able to make my work a lot stronger than it would be otherwise.

Rules for Writing Death

Life is not fair, least so when it’s coming to an end. So much of human thought and culture focuses around death, it’s no wonder people get so emotionally invested in it, even in simulated form on the page. Character death can be one of the most powerful emotional experiences in a narrative, but because of the emotions involved, it’s also one that has to be handled well and placed appropriately, else you’ll have your readers/viewers rightfully crying foul.

I’ve mentioned this before on the blog; I’m currently working on a graphic novel/comic/whatever as my main creative project. I’ve got a lot of plans for it. One of my plans is to build our main group of heroes up to seventeen people, then have that group whittled around to about seven or eight as the work moves towards its denouement. So yeah, there’s going to be plenty of fallen heroes, and no Plot-Important Character Immunity.

However, as I’ve been planning this out, I’ve been thinking back to some of the other works I’ve gone through, with the characters in similar situations. Specifically, works like A Song of Ice and Fire and The Walking Dead. Works with an excessive amount of character death. Works where not only can anyone die, but most characters will die. And they’re both very strong works in their own right. However, all that death pushes the tone quite a bit darker than I’m wanting to go, and the sheer quantity of it makes most individual cases of characters dying lose a lot of the impact.

There’s a line there. With the story I’m wanting to tell, characters are going to die by necessity, but kill too many, or too darkly, and the work’s going to get dour, the death itself won’t be as strong at driving engagement, and any hypothetical readers are going to be a lot more hesitant to let themselves connect with my characters. I’m going to have to toe the line. Of course, I don’t have any firm idea of where it is.

I decided to put together guidelines for myself. As a mental exercise, and to make my work stronger as I progress, I’d set goals for how I’m going to be treating death in this work. Things that define the how, when, and where death is going to be applied in my narrative. Of course, as with everything in writing, these are flexible, but having them thought out in advance should make my story a lot better than it would be otherwise.

And, of course, if I’m putting in all the work anyways, I might as well make a post out of it, right? Here goes:

Only kill characters when it truly advances the story

If I just want to get a character or group of characters out of the way, there are a lot of ways to do so. Make them get pissed off and leave. Have them be too scared to get involved. Have them taking care of their own business in Timbuktu. Have them retire. Hell, if I need bad things to happen to them, it’s a simple matter to have them be grievously injured, kidnapped, or something of the like.

Death is the narrative equivalent of a big freakin’ sledgehammer. It’s there to shatter, to break down, and to drive spikes into aspects of your narrative. There’s definitely times when a sledgehammer is called for. However, you wouldn’t use a sledgehammer whenever you needed to drive in nails. Likewise, you don’t want to kill off characters every time the opportunity arises.

Knowing myself, I’m sure there’s going to be tempted to kill off characters as a means of managing my large primary cast. After all, the focus can only be on so many things without drawing the pace of the story to a crawl. This is a bad idea for a variety of reasons. For one, these side characters could still be useful. Killing them off removes all utility I could be getting from them in the future. Killing characters indiscriminately is also needlessly manipulating of any readers who may be honestly interested in them. If anyone’s grown attached to them, it’s downright disrespectful to kill those characters off in favor of new, unproven ones. It also wastes any emotional torque such death could bring, in properly designed death scenes.

And really, there’s going to be a lot of situations where it’s just not necessary. I’ve got a story to write about death, my work will be better off just removing them from the situation in a way that leaves them alive. For audiences to take death seriously, it has to be handled respectfully, and throwing it at the wall the first chance I get without properly exploring it is not a sign of respect. Most of the time, it’s going to be both far more appropriate and easier to adequately write to have characters be injured, but survive, to be off on their own quests, or something similar, than to kill them outright.

Death is a conclusion, and should be treated as such

A lot of works do shocking, completely out of nowhere character deaths. A lot of works do them very well. That’s not something I’m really wanting to explore in this piece. I’m going for something strongly character-driven here, and every major death is the end to one of my character’s stories. That means it should be written like an ending. It will need a proper foundation, solid build up, and significant resolution. Essentially, a death scene needs its own individual arc to be handled properly in this piece, one that plays out over much more time than just the scene itself.

This holds the risks of making deaths more predictable. If done write, with death used sparingly, and only when appropriate, I may be able to avoid that, but in any case, and predictable but well-written death is still worlds better than the opposite.

Plot-important deaths are about more than just the character dying

War sucks. People die. Their friend move on, because really, they have to. Everyone’s impacted by death, though. Some more than others. But everyone carries it with them.

I don’t want members of the main cast to just die and never be mentioned again. Deaths will impact the characters close to them for long after the initial event. Some will handle it better than others, some will show it more than others, but everyone is affected. Character death is a massive thing in a narrative, and one of the most commonly-seen mistakes in modern fiction is to kill a major character just for a quick emotional peak and not use it for anything else afterwards. This wastes a lot of the deaths potential, and is disrespectful both to the characters and any reader that’s connected with them. Death always needs to drive further action.

Nobody comes back

This is an idea I’m not entirely attached to yet, because I’ve got a setting where I could easily justify resurrection in certain circumstances, but I’m definitely leaning this way. If you ever want to ruin all emotional impact character death will have, forever, the quickest way is to bring a character back from the dead.

This is a problem that’s really endemic with superhero comics. We’ve had quite a few well-publicized character deaths already, this decade. Captain America, the Human Torch, Batman, just off the top of my head. All of them died. All of their deaths received major publication in mainstream media. All of their followers were totally nonplussed at their deaths. All of them are back now. Those last two things are related. After all, why should your readers take death as final when it’s obvious the writer doesn’t.

So yeah, I’m going to say that unless a death puts my story seriously off track, nobody’s coming back from the grave. I do reserve the right to have characters appear dead, but show up alive and well later, so long as nobody confirms their death and that’s foreshadowed at or around the time of killing.

No deaths purely for meta reasons

Sometimes, you can just feel the writer moving things around in the story. Nowhere is this more commonly apparent than in character death calculated to have an impact on the reader. This is the brand new villain killing the badass character just so the reader believes their super strong. This is the character dying with little build at the start of a new arc so the reader knows it’s a tragic story. This is the undeveloped girlfriend getting killed and shoved into the fridge so the audience audience is totally shocked and decides the hero has to go all grimdark now.

That’s not to say that everything that’s similar to the above is automatically bad. Just that most of the time, when the above situations are written, they’re written solely for their impact on the audience, with their storytelling utility held secondary. It’s outward facing rather than forward facing. Events can and should shock, sadden, instill joy, and otherwise emotionally effect the audience. However, you do need to give your audience some credit; they are absolutely ready and willing to connect with your characters and immerse themselves in your story. The best way to instill an emotional response is to direct events towards your characters, rather than the reader. It’s a subtle difference, but one your reader can easily pick up on. Deaths need to drive your story, not your audience; they’ll easily follow you where you’re going, if it’s well-written enough. But trying to manipulate a response out of them just makes them resist.

So it’s perfectly reasonable to expect readers to respond to my character’s death. But killing characters off just to make the reader respond is both ineffective, as the reader will know and fight against it, and short-sided, as it rarely is well-written enough to drive the story.