Friday, June 12, 2009

The Death Knells of Storytelling

A death knell is the toll of a bell announcing death or some omen that tells us that death is coming. The bright light from a nuclear explosion, for example, is a death knell because though the light will not kill, the shock wave and the radio active fallout that follow most certainly will.

Death plays a significant role in storytelling. There are many views concerning death, but there is no disagreement on one thing. With death comes an end to our ability to accomplish our current goals. So in storytelling, when a character dies, the goals of the character are no longer attainable. That impacts our stories in many ways. In computer games, which is one form of storytelling, the threat of death (or the dreaded game over) drives the player to play longer and harder.

In novels, death comes in many forms, but it serves the same purpose. The toll of the death knell drives the reader to keep reading. In the classic love triangle, the death knell may come in the form of a wedding engagement, with the wedding being the death. Once the other two are married, the third in the triangle is dead to her own goal of marriage. I used this plot device in Searching for Mom, though it was really a modified love triangle.

It may sound dark or morbid, but I believe every great story is a story about the struggle against death. It could be death to a way of life. It could be death to a dream or ideals. It could be physical death. The point is that we must operate without the safety net. The consequences for a character failing must be the end of his chances of success. We must not leave the door open for him to try another day. If he succeeds, he succeeds with great glory, but if he fails, he forfeits the game, the prize, or even his own life.

The reader must hear the death knells. If he can’t, maybe the writer is still working with a safety net. Look at a story. Does it ever reach a point of no return? If so, is it significant enough that the reader will care? If it doesn’t, the story is missing a key ingredient. The story is missing death.

This is too large a subject to cover with one post. Look for related posts in the future.