Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Why Not to Kill Everyone in Chapter One

I've been thinking about the idea of "storyness" in the context of the books I read (or that someone read aloud to me) as a child and how they taught me some important fundamentals about what makes a story. Stories have beginnings, middles, and ends. Every student in a beginning writing class hears this ad nauseum. We make a big deal about set-up (beginning) and climax (end), leaving the middle as a wide and soggy swampland. Actually, the middle is where all the fun happens--jacking up the tension, throwing one complication after another at your protagonist, Making Things Worse at every turn.

Back in February, when I was up in Pasco WA as Writer Guest of Honor at Radcon, I had the opportunity to spend some time with a group of 8th grade students. (Radcon does an awesome job of outreach to youth.) After chatting about my own writing and reading aloud a chapter from Hastur Lord, I embarked on one of my favorite things to do with kids: Let's tell a story together. It went like this:

Okay, I said, let's use something from that story to get going on our own. What should we use? Kidnapping!

And who shall we kidnap? Anna!

Who are we? Movie stars!

Where are we holding her? At the zoo!

Why are we kidnapping her? For ransom money so we can make a movie! A zombie movie! No, a ninja zombie movie!

Okay, what happens next? Rosie, her best friend, er, trusty sidekick, decides to rescue her! (Now both Anna and Rosie are getting into the act.)

So Rosie sneaks into the zoo...what goes wrong? She lets the Siberian tiger out of its cage!

About this stage, we ran out of time, which was really too bad because the kids were on a roll. A couple of kids, usually boys, kept wanting to kill off characters, which is something to watch out for if you try this collaborative writing yourself. They don't yet have the sense of a whole story unfolding with rising tension and complications, but they respond pretty well if you show them how that just ends the story before it gets going. They also get it that it's more fun to torture characters than to just kill them.

What I wonder is where the suggestion to kill off everyone so early in the story comes from. It could very well be a way of saying, "This is stupid and I wish it were over." Or the fascination with things that go boom!  and create lots of gore and flying body parts. Or maybe, and this is where "storyness" comes in, it has to do with not understanding that wonderful, juicy, fun aspect to all the complications and tension of the middle.

On the other hand, since these kids were clearly into zombies, maybe killing off all the characters at the beginning is part of the set-up...


  1. What if the characters that are killed off in the beginning aren't the real main characters? CSI usually starts out by killing the most immediate person or people, and then the real main characters step in to solve the mystery.

  2. Michele, that's very true. Where would murder mysteries be if we didn't kill off anyone at the beginning? (That question suggests an interesting variation, in which everyone thinks there's been a murder, but in reality there hasn't!)

    These kids, however, were asking something else, as if the drama of looming catastrophe, complications, plot twists, were too much and they just wanted to cut to the end.