SPOILER ALERT: The following includes spoilers for City ofAngels(Sparks), Message in a Bottle (Sparks), A Tale of Two Cities (Dickens), The Brothers Bloom (movie), and Stranger Than Fiction (movie).
When—and how—to kill a main character. Because sometimes you have to.
But here’s the thing: if you find yourself choosing between preserving the integrity of the story, and pleasing your readers—you are doing something wrong. Readers (the only ones you care about, anyway) will only be pleased if you preserve the integrity of the story.
Or maybe you just want to avoid the clichéd happy ending. But if the ending is that predictable, the ending isn’t the problem; the rest of the book is. Killing the hero because letting him live is cliché is like painting your daughter’s nursery black because pink is cliché. It’s a stunt. Controversy for its own sake, instead of what’s good for the story.
What you’re really looking for is surprise—a twist the readers weren’t expecting. But ask yourself what kind of surprise you’re giving them—good or bad?
Nicholas Sparks’s Unfailing Examples:
- An angel falls in love with a human, eventually decides to become human himself, so they are finally free to be together when suddenly she gets hit by a car.
- A reporter finds a heartbreakingly romantic message in a bottle and goes on a search to find its writer, who turns out to be a rugged sailor in the throes of depression over the death of his wife. As he finally opens himself up to love again, he suddenly dies in a shipwreck.
We’re on the edge of our seats rooting for these people to get together, and then—whammo! Sorry, kids, here comes the rainy funeral scene!
Two Reasons This Sucks:
1. While many people like sad endings, nobody likes rude surprises.
2. It’s the same as the pot-bellied uncle who begs “gimme five,” and pulls his hand back at the instant you go to slap it. It’s not clever. It’s just mean.
The Surprise Death
If the death must be a surprise, then it must be meaningful, and the whole story should lead up to it.
When Sydney Carton dies in A Tale of Two Cities, we look back and see that his resemblance to Charles Darnay, his love for Darnay’s wife, and his regret that he has wasted his life, all lead him to give his life for Darnay, so Darnay and wife can live happily ever after.
The Brothers Bloom appears to be a charming heist movie—we aren’t expecting any good guys to die. Bloom, who has wanted out of the crime business for a long time, reluctantly follows his big brother, Stephen, into yet another con. Bloom doesn’t discover until the end that the con involved Stephen sacrificing himself to get Bloom out of the business for good—with a pretty girl, to boot.
“You don’t understand what my brother does. He writes his cons the way dead Russians write novels, with thematic arcs and embedded symbolism and s****. And he wrote me as the vulnerable anti-hero. And that’s why you think you want to kiss me. It’s a con.”
– Bloom in The Brothers Bloom
The Expected Death
“The woman I loved is…dead.”
– Christian narrating the beginning of Moulin Rouge
Like all of Sparks’s books, Moulin Rouge tells the story of two unlikely lovers who overcome multiple obstacles to be together—until one of them up and dies at the end, for no apparent reason. The difference? Moulin Rouge warns us at the very beginning. Do I miss the thrill of not knowing? No, because instead of holding out for a last-minute victory and then being sorely disappointed, I’m free to enjoy the story for what it is—a beautiful tragedy.
The Surprise Survival!
Or you can turn it around and hint—even state outright—that you are going to kill your hero, and then up and save him. Happy surprise! But be careful; the same rule for the surprise death applies for the surprise survival: it must make sense. In Stranger Than Fiction, for instance, Eiffel saved Harold Crick with his wrist watch, which had itself been a character since the beginning.
Hilbert: Why did you change the book?
Eiffel: Lots of reasons. I realized I just couldn’t do it.
Hilbert: Because he’s real?
Eiffel: Because it’s a book about a man who doesn’t know he’s about to die. And then dies. But if a man does know he’s about to die and dies anyway. Dies- dies willingly, knowing that he could stop it, then- I mean, isn’t that the type of man who you want to keep alive?
– from the final scene of Stranger Than Fiction
Agree? Disagree? Tell me why in the comments!