Writing Excuses 9.49: Hiding the Open Grave

So, you’re planning to kill somebody, but you don’t want anyone to see it coming. How do you make that happen?

We begin by talking about the hints that writers inadvertently drop, and why they drop those hints. Then we look at how to write without sending those cues, and how to get away with that while still fulfilling promises made to the reader.

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Take a story you’ve been planning. Kill the protagonist in the first scene, then have a secondary character step in and pick up the plot. You don’t need to finish the whole story this way–just get far enough into this exercise that you can see what a surprising death looks like from your side of the keyboard.

Ruins, by Dan Wells, narrated by Julia Whelan

14 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 9.49: Hiding the Open Grave”

  1. Isn’t the reason that we know certain characters are going to die just because of cliche and tired writing? We are told to torture our characters because we are told that interesting fiction is about tension, trials, and pain (which I have never agreed with), and we have been doing this for so long we’ve run out of ways to be original. If we can predict death and shocking moments that clearly, haven’t we reached a point where we need a new style of writing, one without such a predictable trope as “relationships always fail”?

  2. One way to hide the open grave: have an early antagonist (or stooge thereof) prepare the hero’s grave and have it left open as a threat and display of power. Then the reader thinks “yeah, you think he’s dead, but the last guy was so convinced of victory they actually bought him a grave, and look how that turned out.”

    (Of course, that method’s been taken. Sorry, people who aren’t Jim Butcher.)

    Paul: so if you don’t think it’s necessarily the conflict that drives the story, could you suggest an alternative focus? (I’m assuming that “being interesting” and “driving the story” are synonymous here – the thing that makes me keep reading the story is my interest in it).

    Personally I’ve always found how the author creates conflict to be the core thing – the dough of a chocolate chip cookie. Setting, theme, etc are all the chocolate chips and coconut and oatmeal and whatever else you might add on, but it’s the conflict that binds it all together. (Well, I’ve occasionally considered the logistics and economics of the world being painted, but that’s a level of attention granted especially to books that I already enjoy enough to give them that extra notice (or, in the case of Mistborn, because it’s a very economy driven plot – stealing enough wealth to economically take over the empire in book 1, running a city under seige in book 2, and a model of what happens when critical items like food become scarce in book 3))

  3. @ Paul:

    It’s not just that these “tricks of the trade” are formulaic, the logic is also ‘certain’ or self-evident. Sometimes it’s causality more so than mass-recycling.We know specific characters are going to die because the cause/effect relationship presents itself to the reader and foreshadows the event subconsciously.

    Why do we continue to write them if they’re predictable?
    1) Genre-readers return to experience these recurring tropes. It’s why they’re reading that genre to begin with.
    2) These tropes/formulas serve thematic and structural purposes
    3) And they serve well as red-herrings rather than plot twists.

    If plot twists are anticipated in advance, it was either the failing of the writer or it wasn’t a plot twist to begin with.

    Innovative writers use this against the reader to help deliver the actual, unexpected twist. They know the reader recognizes certain patterns and will draw parallels to these plot formulas. The writer encourages this self-deception so that it conceals the upcoming twist. If the red herring is a well-known formula–all the better because it’s more conspicuous.

    P.S. Good story telling *IS* only interesting with tension. Tension = conflict and without conflict there is no story. The character has to be emotionally invested in the story’s drama in order to provoke reader sympathy. So “pain” is necessary on some level. You don’t have to torture your characters but you have to make them struggle.

  4. First line of the episode synopsis is hilarious when taken out of context.

    Are you planning to surprise someone with murder? Boy have we a show for you!

  5. I am a little surprised that Kelsier in Brandon’s first Mistborn book did not come up in the podcast. Obviously his death was well foreshadowed, but he looked like the protagonist from the beginning, so I thought of it as a kind of surprise. Not a shock, certainly, but a little surprising.

  6. As you mentioned the known death of a mentor when they have a younger protegee, I was like “what!?” I am sometimes still surprised when an older, still vital – but somewhat ragged-around-the-edges mentor-hero – dies. It may be a function of my getting older and identifying with these mentor types. [possible spoiler] Terry Brooks did this to me a while back when I read “Bearers of the Black Staff.”

    At least Jack Reacher is still around and kicking butt, so I should be able to relate to him when he is 85 and beating up cheats at the social security office.

    When the mentor hands off his arc, or when a death is a result of self sacrifice that allows for an ultimate victory that works for me. [possible spoiler] Jumping to a movie, in I Am Legend the ending works for me, though in Omega Man (anyone remember that) I was so surprised by the ending that I jumped out of my chair in denial (of course I was 18 then).

    I remember reading the first few books by George RR Martin and thinking first what a brilliant writer he is – one of the best I’ve read- yet being dissatisfied as I became invested in characters only to have them brutalized or killed – brilliantly written, and gritty and realistic, but not satisfying to me personally.

    Not sure where I was going with this other than to note that even when I am surprised by a death, I can accept it as a reader there is some ray of hope or continuity is attached to that event somehow. Hope that makes sense.

    Thanks for another great episode.

  7. When I saw the title of this one, I thought it was gonna be Dan giving us tips on writing serial killers.

  8. spoilers for mistborn, for all the good that does on a venue without spoiler tags.

    Re: Kelsier’s death:

    I feel it escaped falling under the trope of “OF COURSE the mentor-figure is going to bite it” because he was a rather large part of the pitch of the series in the first place. It was too natural to see him as a protagonist. The idea of “let’s overthrow the evil emperor with economic rudeness’ depended rather heavily on the viewpoint character who actually had experience in the field of organized large-scale mischief.

    Even if the series is billed as an epic fantasy, the first book was really focused in scale. The step up to the more global level in the sequels is what made Kelsier disposable, and the jump from fantasy-flavored heist story to warring for global conquest disguises itself well to new readers.

    It felt like Kelsier had plot armor until the last possible minute because the goals established and realized during the first book alone felt like promises for a full series. “The protagonist we met first martyrs himself against the evil emperor” isn’t a remotely surprising way for a main character to go. Since the book has two equally-present MCs in Vin and Kelsier, it didn’t even feel dark or edgy. It just happened far early than anyone would have ever imagined because in the long term, Brandon wasn’t telling us the story we were initially led to expect.

    I’m sorry those thoughts aren’t organized more effectively. It’s late and I have been nano-ing for too long. My internal heckler took the internal critic with him last time I beat him into submission.

  9. I don’t think that allowing the reader to know a character is going to die is necessarily a bad thing, or takes away from the impact of a death. In the Lynburn Legacy trilogy by Sarah Rees Brennan, there was a character who I knew, halfway through the second book, was going to die. She wrote a great (and long, and of course spoilery) post about it: http://sarahreesbrennan.tumblr.com/post/103378549267/that-girl-who-dies-fridging-feminism-writerly

    My point is that even though I knew for a long time that this character would die, it didn’t lessen the impact when they did die, for me or the other characters. It was still heartbreaking. But it’s probably very, very difficult to set up in the way that Rees Brennan did.

  10. What Brandon said at the end about accounting for franchise made me think about ‘Megamind’.
    The good guy ‘dies’ because he has one weakness, and because we see him as basically being Superman, the audience is like ‘ya sure, makes sense it’s his kryptonite.’ We assume, based on other stories that that was the logical way to kill him. Only to find out that we totally got played because we made assumptions based on our media culture.

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