Tuesday, May 15, 2018

But First... Some Death

            I’m still feeling a bit guilty about missing the Writers Coffeehouse this weekend, so here’s a quick thought about something that’s come up more than a few times with Saturday geekery movies...
            Every now and then I come across a story— very often, but not always, a horror story—which begins by introducing us to a big cast of characters.  Four or five friends going on vacation up at the lake.  Or maybe some kids partying in that abandoned house on the edge of town.  Or a group sneaking off into the woods at night for some passionate fun up in clearings and up against trees.  And then...
            They all die.
            Every one of them.
            Dead and gone. 
            Possibly even eaten. 
            All in the first ten minutes.
            At which point... we get introduced to our protagonists.
            If I had to guess, I think this kind of opening in stories has spun out of that oft-quoted, rarely understood rule “start with action.”  Writers want to dive in with a big opening.  And what’s bigger than killing people, right? 
            Now, I’m not against starting things with a bang.  Or against killing a character if it serves the story.  But there’s a two-fold issue when I fall back on this kind of opening...
            One is that I’m wasting perfectly good deaths.  No matter how funny or clever or nightmarish those deaths are, I’m pushing the audience into compassion fatigue.  And I’m not even doing it with people who matter.  I’m killing off all-but-nameless cutouts that my audience has no investment in and desensitizing them to the impact those other deaths could have.
            Two is that... well, this isn’t really a great narrative structure.  A key thing about every story is knowing where it begins. When I do something like this, it’s a false start.  It has almost no bearing on my actual plot or story. And that means my story probably begins sometime later.
            Yeah, there are always threads stretching before my first page.  Previous relationships, earlier jobs, a string of birthday parties, and, yes... even a few deaths.  But are they relevant to this story?  If I had to boil down what this story was about, to condense it into one page, would any of those early elements be on that page?
            Y’see, Timmy, if I hit a point where I've killed off every character I've introduced and my story’s not even close to over... there’s a good chance it means this is where my story actually starts.
            And I was just wasting everyone’s time before this.
            So stop wasting time.
            And go write.

3 comments:

  1. It bothers me when a movie shows deaths in a way that isn't meant to be emotionally significant. Often the only reaction from the audience is a chuckle.

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  2. Action is usually further down on my priority list when reading a good story. I want to care about the characters and how they evolve and figure themselves out. Why I am really enjoying Eli right now. You and Daryl Gregory (loved Spoonbenders, and 14 was a great adventure) are excellent character developers. The adventure is great mind you, but if we don't care about the characters, it's just empty charades. Thanks, your books are great.

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