#writerproblems: #characterdeath in #storytelling (Part 1: Noooo, Billy!)

You know the scene.

The kind that makes you go, “NOOOOOOOOOO!” because a beloved and/or cool character is about to die.

Every time. Seriously, every time I see PredatorI say, “Nooo, Billy!” at the screen. As a member of the audience, I’m invested in seeing the characters’ survival against the Predator. I want to see the characters’ skill sets aid them in overcoming the conflicts and obstacles that await them before the journey’s end.

This can be said as a reader of any high-stakes story, really. Look at a few big SFF series for examples. We want Captain Kirk and his crew to survive. We want Harry Potter and all his friends to survive. We want the Fellowship of the Ring to survive. We want Katniss Everdeen and her loved ones to survive. We want Luke Skywalker and his friends to survive.

We know these people are fictional, but there are facets of these characters that connect within us. This makes us care about them, so of course we go “NOOOOO!” when Dumbledore is struck down by Snape, when Prim and dozens of others are bombed by a device made by the Katniss’ oldest friend, Gabe.

And then…

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…and then there are the deaths that just don’t feel necessary.

Now I just want to pause here that I’m talking about this as both a reader and a writer. I get that pain and consequence have to occur in a high-stakes story. You can’t threaten death without delivering at least a little bit of death or you risk hollowing out the stakes.

What bothers me as a reader and worries me as a writer are those unnecessary character deaths. You know you’ve encountered stories with this problem. That’s why I showed the aforementioned Predator clip of Billy. Billy, the biggest and buffest bad-ass of Dutch’s team, stops on the tree-bridge to face the Predator. Why?

xqbict878a3zOn screen, we’re not given a reason apart from MANLINESS. Just look at him, stripping down and cutting his own chest. It’s the ultimate bad-ass standoff!

Only in the story, it’s not the ultimate bad-ass standoff. That’s for Dutch (also stripped down) and the Predator.

So why did Billy have to die?

As a “reader,” I could shrug to “noble sacrifice,” except no other death has bought the survivors time or advantage. Billy would know that. I could also shrug to “acceptance,” since earlier in the film Billy says, “We’re all going to die.”

But as a writer, I think I really know why.

It’s because you can’t have an ultimate bad-ass standoff between TWO good guys and a bad guy. Plus, in terms of physique, Billy and Dutch are an equal match. Heck, I think Billy could have beaten Dutch in arm wrestling.

So Billy had to die.

hta_animated-book-cover_catching-fire_02It feels like when there has to be a bit of death in the story, writers sometimes choose the character most similar to the protagonist. Take Finnick Odair from the Hunger Games trilogy: he’s strong, knowledgeable, another survivor of the Hunger Games (also: pretty). We meet him in Catching Fire, grow connected to his personality and backstory, root for him when he gets married….aaaaand watch him die on the assault on the Capital. Now it can be argued his arc’s complete, so the audience knows who he is. SOMEone’s got to die in a war; his death will have the strongest emotional impact while primary heroine Katniss can continue on.

Fine. Fair enough. At least Finnick got to die on page/screen, UNLIKE BILLY.

Notice how after all his bad-ass preparation, we never get to see Billy fight the Predator. We just hear his anguished scream, and know he’s dead.  Such off-screen deaths drive me nuts. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is guilty of this, too, both in book and on film, when it comes to characters like Professor Lupin and the Auror Tonks. They die during the battle at Hogwarts while Harry’s elsewhere, so we never see their final moments. They’re just dead.

Wow, I went off longer on this than planned. Dammit, Billy, you got me all wound up!

I get that I have to accept beloved characters dying. I just want those deaths to MATTER. You bet your ass I cry when Beth dies in Little Women. I bawl when Clint Eastwood’s character Walt is shot in Gran Torino. I refused to believe Hercule Poirot was really dead in Curtain until I went online for evidence to prove otherwise…and couldn’t find it. Even Dobby, that goofy little house-elf Dobby, had me sobbing both while reading and watching Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. I hated that these characters had to die.

But their deaths help spur the protagonists–and the narrative–forward. Without their deaths, there is less at stake; therefore, there is less concern for the characters.

Now I have waaaaaay more to say about character death, but Bo’s up and given me the giggles by saying, “Billy will always be in the chopper of your heart.” Yes, yes he will!

So let’s pause to talk. Is there a story with a character death that really frustrates you? Should I kill more characters in my own books?

Lastly, be sure to stay tuned to my monthly newsletter. Big changes are coming, and I don’t want you to miss out!

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

JeanLee-nameLogoBoxed

#Readers, Start the #NewYear With Amazing #Indie #Fiction #SerialReads. #Writers, Why Not Give #Serial #Writing on @_Channillo a Go?

Ah, January 2019, you give me so much hope for the coming year! We must begin with stories, for of course we must. Whether you love to read or to write, you are here to experience a story.

Have I got the stories for you!

Not just my own fiction–I’ll get to that. No, I’d like to introduce you to some wonderful indie writers who have been publishing on Channillo, a subscription-based publishing platform stocked with hundreds of stories written by talented writers from around the world. A few Channillo writers have stopped by to share their stories as well as why they feel serialized fiction is awesome for readers and writers alike.

urban in motion (2)Let’s start with some basics. Your name and title(s) on Channillo, please!

coverpic-2127 Jamie Seitz, Nick & Amy

Nick and Amy have been married for seventeen years which is a big deal because marriage is hard and messy and a fifty percent divorce rate and all.  Nick and Amy live with their three kids in the middle of the United States, in a place like Iowa or Ohio or some other smallish, flat state with too many vowels, growing corn and soybeans, making it basically indistinguishable from any of the other states around it and uninteresting to anyone that didn’t grow up there.  Nick is a procrastinator by nature which drives Amy crazy and Amy is spicy when she gets annoyed, which Nick adores.  Together they are every marriage still trying to keep it real after almost two decades together while dealing with the not-so-fun parts of everyday life.

 

Ibrahim Oga, Vista of a Sisyphean Mindcoverpic-262

Vista of a sisyphean mind series looks at the world in a unique perspective that is inspiring and motivating. The series is an exploration into the greatness of life.

 

 

 

 

coverpic-2011 Guenevere Lee, Leda and the Samurai 

Leda, a young woman who moved to Japan to escape her abusive family, is slowly adjusting to her new life. She’s learning Japanese, making friends, and enjoying the summer festivals. On the day of the famous Tanabata festival, she finds a small shrine – but when she steps out of the shrine, she steps into Edo Era Japan.

Trapped 400 years in Japan’s past, what follows is half fantasy, half historical fiction. Is her coming here an accident? Or does it have something to do with the sudden appearance of European ships off the coast? Leda must discover how she ended up in this situation, and how she can get back home – or if she even wants to go back.

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What made you choose publishing your work as a serial as opposed to a collection/novel?

Seitz: I do write novels in the traditional way, but writing Nick & Amy as a short story serial on Channillo gave me the opportunity to put something out every other week and get immediate feedback, which is not how writing a novel works.  It’s quite refreshing to show the world what I’ve been working on for a week, get a laugh or two, and then do it all over again, while working simultaneously on a novel project that no one will see for months.

Oga: I choose to publish my work as a serial because I don’t have a complete manuscript. It gives me to the opportunity to share the parts I have written and see how interested people are in the work. Also, the pressure to publish the next installment in the series is a good motivation to write. Writers love deadlines.

Lee: I wanted to write a serialization. I guess I was inspired by things like manga, which have contained stories within an overall larger arc – and can go on indefinitely. I was also romanticizing the turn of the century, where authors like Charles Dickens would publish their novels as serials, sometimes not even knowing the ending or how long it would be.

I like how flexible serialization is.

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I found this quote published in The Washington Post back in 2015, and I’d like you to comment on it:

Critics will undoubtedly moan that serialization would favor literature that’s heavy on cliffhangers and light on subtlety — and that it would corrupt more “serious” works. … Yet it requires the same characteristic any worthy novelist already seeks: momentum — a value that needn’t come at the expense of integrity.  -Hillary Kelly, “Bring Back the Serialized Novel”

Seitz: There is truth that serial literature requires a reason for the reader to keep coming back for more, and maybe it works best as a cliff hanger for many serial stories.  But at the heart of any story, a hard cover NYT Best Seller or an online serial, isn’t that exactly what every author is striving for?  Spinning a story so thrilling or hilarious or mind-blowing that their reader can’t stop turning the pages though it’s hours past their bedtime.

Lee: You can’t tell me that modern novels don’t rely on cliffhangers. Have you ever read a YA novel? Look, cliffhangers aren’t bad, tension is not bad, motivating your readers to read the next instalment by getting them emotionally invested in a character is not bad.

A novel is like a movie, it comes out all at once. A serial is like a TV shows, building anticipation for the next chapter every week.

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What benefits have arisen with plot, character development, and/or voice as you write a serial?

Seitz: I wanted to write Nick & Amy as a series of realistic fiction vignettes, every day funny stories about a regular married couple that don’t necessarily build on each other, but add another layer to the relationship with each new installment.  As a serial, it’s been a fun way to play with building strong character development little by little in Nick and Amy, exposing deeper aspects of their marriage, relationships, and personalities through whatever daily adventure I’m putting them through.

Lee: I can experiment a lot more. I can have story arcs that focus on one particular character, or do a fun story that really has nothing to do with the overall arc, but adds to the atmosphere and the tension in the story. I feel like I just have so much more liberty telling this story.

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What do you think draws readers to read serial (non)fiction?

Oga: Brevity. Our attention span is getting shorter as there are more and more things vying for it. People are drawn to serial works because the instalments are succinct. Serial successfully heighten pace and suspense. It enlightens and entertains long enough to hold the reader’s attention. It gives readers breaks between instalments to get them interested again. Each instalment starts strong, finishes strong, and creates suspense to intensify anticipation for the next.

People also like the participation in following a serial. Without the ability to read ahead, people are on the same page in terms of discussions of the work. Everyone tries to keep up with the reading in order to keep up with the conversations.

Lee: I think people like the anticipation. They like being rewarded every week with a new instalment. They like to wonder between instalments about what’s going to happen next. It’s a kind of interactive way to read a novel.

What advice do you have for fellow writers who want to give serialization a go?

As with anything artistic: just do it. If you don’t like it, or it fails, you have nothing to lose. It’s all experience that will help you with your next project.

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Do you receive any reader feedback on your writing as it’s posted? What do you do with those reader comments?

Oga: Comments are important. Good or bad, they reveal how readers perceive my work. I cherish comments a lot because they help me better understand my expression of thought and plots. Comments help answer a lot of questions for me. Did my work inspired the emotions I hoped to raise? Did it enlighten the reader as I’d hoped? What is the reader expecting in the next installments? Is my work gripping enough?

I use comments to write better.

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What advice do you have for fellow writers who want to give serialization a go?

Seitz: Give it a try!  Serial fiction certainly wasn’t in my wheelhouse, but it’s helped me grow as an author, forcing me to work harder at making a story tight, concise, and well done in less time and in less words.  It’s sharpened my skills as a writer and it’s been a fun learning curve.  It certainly helps to do some planning beforehand to decide what you want the series to look like, but beyond that the freedom it gives you makes the writing rewarding.  It helps to find it a good home for your serial, like Channillo, where the diversity of material, styles and authors is celebrated and embraced.

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Many thanks to my fellow Channillo writers for their time! It’s important for us to challenge our writerly selves, just as it’s vital to expand our reading horizons. Channillo gives the opportunity for both. I do hope you’ll check them out…and perhaps my own books, too, nudge nudge. 😉

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I’ve also got the latest edition of my newsletter available for viewing! If you haven’t yet, please subscribe here.

Okay, that’s enough self-promotion. Be sure to tune in this month for another author interview, some thrilling music, and, of course, storytelling.

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

JeanLee-nameLogoBoxed

#Writers, what #storytelling elements go into #ChristmasStories? My #family gives a few clues. Oh, and my #fantasy #novel is #OnSaleNow.

As December days swirl by like snowflakes in winter’s wind, I like taking breaks from life for Christmas stories with my family. Be it watching A Charlie Brown Christmas or reading Santa Clauses: Short  Poems from the North Pole (a haiku collection I highly recommend), I love cozying up with my loved ones by the Christmas tree to laugh with Yukon Cornelius, whisper with Pocket the Rabbit, or sing “Away in the Manger.”

What is it about the stories we save for Christmas time? Why do we pack them up with the ornaments and stockings as another special sparkly for December? This week I talk with my family about their favorite Christmas stories to discover what makes them so special.

First, Biff.

Takeaway: Christmas stories should be fun, and elves are hilarious.

Next, Bash.

Takeaway: Christmas stories require a bit of action, even violence, in order to achieve the “happily ever after.” Also, alien robots.

Wonder what Blondie will add to the mix…

Takeaway: Learning what Christmas is all about is very important, especially when animals are involved.

Kids tucked up in bed, Bo and I pull out one of the many Christmas catalogs we’ve received lately to talk about a unique occurrence with Christmas: the Hallmark Christmas film. What has Hallmark figured out about Christmas stories that gives them the knack to make so many every year?

Takeaway: Pretty people with Christmasy names and/or places facing a little problem and/or a little death in order to achieve love…which basically means that Die Hard is the greatest Christmas movie ever. Even the 30th Anniversary trailer that just came out agrees. (For the record, Bo and I recorded our talk before seeing this trailer. Guess this makes us amazing!)

Will I ever write a Christmas story? I’m not sure. Bo and I began dating and even married around Christmas time, so I cannot deny there’s a certain magic to the season. I also know how sharp grief grows at Christmas, making its hope all the more critical to share before it’s too late.

Hmmm. Maybe Hallmark has a point about love…after Charles Dickens made it over 150 years ago:

I have always thought of Christmastime…[as] a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time…the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely…

-Nephew Fred, A Christmas Carol

So yeah, Christmas stories may seem a bit too schmaltzy at times, but know what? That’s okay. This is the season when we’re all just a bit more open to love’s magic. There’s a power in these December days unknown at any other time of the year. Use that power, friends, be it in your storytelling or your life’s story, to share the magic. Use whatever you need, be it dogs, cookies, or flying reindeer.

Also, alien robots.

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Oh! Lest I forget, my novel’s on sale right now. The complete e-book and bonus content are on sale for just $2.99!

We have all of us had our bloody days, Charlotte. For many it is easier to remain in them than to change. To change requires to face a past stained by screams. (6)

Be sure to give some indie books to your fellow readers, and reviews to your fellow writers on Amazon and Goodreads! Nothing’s as awesome as the gift of words.

A most blessed Christmas to you all. Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

JeanLee-nameLogoBoxed

#Lessons Learned from #RaphaelMontes: #Writers Don’t Need to #Write a Spectacle to Have a Spectacular Ending.

Last week’s post on Alan Silvestri’s score for Predator didn’t have any room to touch on the bombastic ending that was Schwarzenegger vs. Alien From Unknown Planet.

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Man, what a spectacle. Muscle and teeth and gutteral roars vs. creepy four-pronged jaws and lazers and bombs and stuff. Lazers! Helicopters! Green gooey blood! HUGE explosions! It’s an ending that has you knocking your beer over as you cheer for Earth’s Last Action Hero. Kick interplanetary ass, Arnie!

Now, what if I told you that the ending to Raphael Montes’ Perfect Days is just as powerful as the Predator’s time bomb?

Perfect Days doesn’t end with an explosion, or aliens, or any of that. It’s a novel of the thriller genre, a tale told of one man’s love for a girl and the lengths to which he’ll go–i.e., abduction, rape, and murder–to have her.

(Spoilers abound. I still recommend the read, if you can handle this sort of thing.)

Are you familiar with the concept of “bookending”? It’s a method I recommend to my students when they don’t know how to write a conclusion paragraph for an essay. You look at how you began your work, and see what element can be brought back in the end.

In short, set up in the beginning for the pay off at the end.

No, it’s not easy, because for once it’s a pay off you don’t want readers looking for. This element needs to be something it feels like characters have walked away from, discarded, grown from, etc. Such is the case with Teo, a student on the verge of graduating med school. The book opens during one of his last classes.

Gertrude was the only person Teo liked. The other students weren’t quite as at ease around her….Teo didn’t want anyone to notice how good he felt there. He’d walk over to the metal table with his head down.

There she’d be, serenely waiting for him. Gertrude. …

In her company, his imagination knew no bounds. The world melted away, until he and Gertrude were all that was left. (1-2)

Teo, our main character, has forged a relationship with a corpse. Not physical, but intimate. Opening this way, Montes not only shows readers how uncomfortable Teo is around other people, but how much his imagination fills in reality for him; for instance, when another student makes a conclusion about something, Teo wants to laugh, “And if Gertrude could have heard that nonsense, she’d have hooted with laughter too” (3). Teo “knows” Gertrude, even though Gertrude is not this corpse’s name. He’s studied this body, and imagined all the rest. When the class–and chapter–end, so ends his time with Gertrude, and Teo is “alone again” (4). The character must now move on from this point.

So readers move on as well, and see Teo attend a party with his mother and meet Clarice, a petite free-spirit whose brief conversation leaves him absolutely smitten. He uses the university database to find her and, after another encounter, ends up striking her unconscious and taking her to the flat he shares with his mother.

He felt bad: it was the first time he had thought of himself as a villain. By stuffing Clarice in a suitcase and bringing her home, had he become a criminal? (32)

(I just had to share that line. No, this isn’t asked sarcastically–Teo genuinely contemplates whether or not he’s done something wrong. What a killer bit of pov.)

51SfedaRD6L._SX325_BO1,204,203,200_For the majority of the novel, Teo has Clarice locked up in two different cabins Clarice has used in the past, cabins owned by others who are used to her coming and going. At one point in the first cabin they’ve settled into a routine of sorts, and Teo begins to open up about his personal life.

He even mentioned Gertrude….He told her a serious [sic] of funny anecdotes about things he’d done with Gertrude. Clarice found it interesting that he was friends with a much older woman and said she wanted to meet her….It made him a little ill at ease, as he didn’t want to spoil things by telling her that Gertrude was a corpse. (81)

Teo doesn’t talk about Gertrude again with Clarice, and as tensions mount in Teo’s determination to keep Clarice and avoid arrest, readers don’t think much about Gertrude, either. Teo kills Clarice’s boyfriend, rapes Clarice, and even severs her spine to prevent her escape.

Climax: Teo is driving off a ferry, certain Clarice is still unconscious in the passenger seat from the last dose of sedative. But Clarice suddenly yanks the steering wheel, and their car goes straight into a restraining wall. Teo wakes up in a hospital. Surely it’s all over, with her family and police present, asking questions.

Yet there are no charges.

He asks to see Clarice, and is escorted to her room.

When Clarice looked up at him…she stared at him with unprecedented interest… “I’m sorry, but… who are you?” (253)

She couldn’t remember having seen Teo before, or what had happened in the previous month or year…. She seemed truly perplexed that she was engaged. (254)

The advantage of her lack of memory was that he could tell her whatever he wanted; he exaggerated the details in order to make it all sound poetic and inevitable. (255)

As the last chapter progresses, we can’t help but think Teo’s won. He’s successfully avoided the police and familial scrutiny. He marries Clarice, and all is as it should be.

Clarice was having fewer nightmares, although sometimes she’d still wake up acting strangely, and it was very distressing–she’d shout and break plates of food against the wall, saying they’d been poisoned. Maybe their marriage wasn’t perfect, but there were much worse ones out there. (260)

Last page: Clarice is pregnant. A family! Teo’s happy, and “Clarice appeared to be too” (260). Teo’s overwhelmed with love when they learn they’re having a girl, and is about to speak when Clarice interrupts him.

She smiled at Teo and said, “A beautiful name came to me just now. Gertrude. What do you think, my love?”

**********BOOM**********

No last-minute duel. No savior to put all things to right. But BOOM nonetheless.

Why?

A few things.

First, we’re left wondering about Clarice. Did she really lose her memory? She still calls him “my love.” But such a name as Gertrude…oh, that does not come out of the blue. We wonder now if Clarice is no longer trying to escape, but to dominate. Perhaps she has plans of her own for Teo.

Speaking of Teo, is he going to panic and kill Clarice? He’s killed his mother’s dog and Clarice’s boyfriend, so the act is not beyond him. He’s never handled moments of Clarice’s superiority well at all. Yet she’s smiling at him, calling him “love.” Will Teo leave his wife and unborn child lifeless as he did the corpse Gertrude at the end of the first chapter, and be alone all over again?

We do not know. We will never know.

That name, that single little element, is Montes’ bookend. He took the single most vulnerable point in the Teo’s life and gave it a body–a lifeless body, but a body nevertheless. And like all bodies left unburied, they come back to haunt even the most resilient of natures. By waiting until the absolute last line, Montes leaves readers in the wake of a narrative bomb: we don’t know if blood will be shed, if foundations will be cracked, or if all will go on as before, with “distressing” moments that might, just might, lead to a peculiar food poisoning.

So as you work out your ending, writers, ask: What element from the opening chapters can help create a narrative bookend? Perhaps a person, a token, a place may return. It could be as monumental as a dream fulfilled, or as momentary as a single name whispered on dying lips. It all depends if you wish to leave your readers happily tired by the journey, or blinded by the bomb. Either way, they’ll return to you knowing thrills are hidden in every chapter, right down to the final line.

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All aboard…for the December Newsletter!

(Oh don’t you think I’m done with Alan Silvestri yet. I’ve got a word or three to say about his score for The Polar Express.)

Subscribe so you don’t miss another round-up of terrific offerings from fellow Indie creators as well as updates on my own projects. I’d be happy to share your work, too! Just contact me with your plug and I’ll include it in next month’s newsletter.

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

JeanLee-nameLogoBoxed