Being a Better Writer’s Summer of Cliche Writing Advice: Stuck? Just Kill a Character!

Welcome back readers, to another entry in Being a Better Writer! Where we are still locked in the Summer of Cliche Writing Advice! That’s right, it isn’t over yet!

Though it almost is. In fact, this is the second to last week. Next week’s entry will be the last entry into this summer’s special feature. That’s right, summer will be over (technically it ran a little long) and fall firmly upon us, so it’ll be time for the Summer of Cliche Writing Advice to end at last.

But honestly? This was a lot of fun. It was kind of refreshing to pick a single topic like this and focus on it for a while. In fact, I’ve already got another idea for a future feature later this year.

I’m also curious what you readers have made of this sort of thing. A larger, longer feature on a topic rather than each week covering a different topic as it comes. Would more feature like this be something you’d be interested in or not? Or do you prefer a new topic every week? Leave a comment and let me know!

So, with that said, let’s dive into today’s bit of cliche advice! In case you’re new here and this is the first post in the series you’ve encountered, the Summer of Cliche Writing Advice is all about looking at those bits of easily repeated, quickly remembered bites of advice that every author is deluged with constantly by the general public. But as with a lot of commonly repeated and retold sayings, often we have to ask if they’re really that useful, or just something that sounds nice and is quick and easy to say.

See, in the process of being stripped down into something that’s easy for anyone to remember, words have to be trimmed out. Cut for length. Or brevity. Sometimes words get changed for others that flow better in a short sentence. However, with all of this happening, you lose context and can even lose or completely change meaning.

So this series takes a look at these short, easily-(and oft)-repeated phrases and examines whether or not they’re really worth it. Do they teach anything useful? Are they helpful at all, or are they missing pieces that were lost for that brevity? Should we be saying them at all?

And our saying for this week? Stuck? Just kill a character!

This is a phrase that you may hear a lot in a writing group or from any clump of novice writers. It’s tossed out as a “solution” to any time a young writer suffers writer’s block or doesn’t know what to do next. “Oh, you’re stuck? Kill one of your characters! That’ll get stuff moving!”

Okay, let me get this out of the way right off: People that say this aren’t wrong. Picture any scene from a movie or book that you love, and then kill a character in it completely at random. Well, the audience has just sat up straight and taken notice because what just happened? Who did that? Why are they dead now!? In fact, the more “sedate” the story, the more chaos-inducing this change becomes. Imagine a random dinner scene from Pride and Prejudice and then imagine one of the character’s heads spontaneously exploding.

Well, that went a different direction all of the sudden, didn’t it! Now there’s blood everywhere, people are screaming, the plot has been thoroughly derailed, etc etc etc.

Now, is that good? Well … yes and no.

It’s good in some ways: It’s introduced direction, as well as a lot of questions and potential for conflict. Why did this person die? Was someone else responsible? Do they need to be found? What will the rest of the characters do?

And that, in and of itself isn’t bad. It’s actually really good. Questions, potential plot … those are all good things.

But hold up, what about, well, everything that was set up before it? The characters? The plot? The relationships?

Well, in the Pride and Prejudice example, they’re all now completely derailed. Sure, the dinner might have been a little boring. But now the tone is different (someone is dead, there may be a murderer, etc), the plot is rushing in a completely different direction, and most of the set-up for the story up to this sudden change is most likely going to be discarded and set aside.

And well … that’s bad. It means that all that development of plot and character from before the mysterious death is now off of the table. You almost might as well have not had it, save as perhaps to be the occasional lens for everything that takes place afterward.

This is what I mean about this being good and bad advice: The act of killing a character suddenly does a lot to introduce important questions and momentum to a story. Who? Why? How? What now? But … if those questions were already in motion within the story, killing a character basically overrides them.

Effectively, what it comes down to is that the advice of “Just kill a character” is great advice in the right scenario, to the right person. A novice writer, for instance, often has trouble keeping track of or even inserting “questions” for the narrative to answer like “Who? How? What? Why?” So telling them to kill a character? Well, it inserts those questions quite cleanly to work toward answering. Hooray!

But what if they’re already answering questions and just have gotten sort of tangled up? Well … then this bit of advice isn’t nearly so useful. While it may help them get past their “tangle” that’s got them stuck, it won’t actually solve the tangle. It more or less hijacks the story, setting the tangle and most of what came before it aside in favor of new questions and goals.

Yeah, the latter one isn’t good. It hasn’t actually solved anything. It’s just shoved the problem aside in favor of an easier set of questions. And that isn’t very helpful to a young writer trying to fix something. They may “complete” their story, but there’s a bit right-angle turn in it.

Worse, even more advanced writers who are smart enough to work the questions into the narrative or make the sudden death a little less obtrusive still run into a lot of issues. Since the death wasn’t planned for or prepared for in any way, it still derails a good chunk of the story. I myself have seen writers try to explain it away as “well, life is like that” and use the death as a form of dramatic catalyst for the rest of their characters …

… and fail. Badly. Again, this has to do with planning. Often a lot of reworks can save something like this, but just having random death for “drama” or a change of pace is in the long run a pretty bad move. Quite often, it just spirals into melodrama, or drama for the sake of drama (so sad!), both of which just drag a story down and shouldn’t be something we aim for.

All right, so I’ve said this is both good and bad, so now I need to tell you what the difference here is.

It’s in the audience.

Look, to an experienced writer, even only somewhat, this isn’t really good advice. Not straight, anyway. The meaning behind it? That’s solid. You’re stuck? Okay, take a few steps back to earlier in your chapter or story and change something. See about getting it unstuck. Maybe your character is sitting alone at a bar because of a conversation that went a different direction than expected and ended badly? Maybe that conversation needs to end a different way? Or someone can approach them at the bar?

The meaning behind this saying isn’t really “Just kill a character.” It’s “Well, try going back and changing something.” What that something is only the author can know, since they’re the one writing that story. It may have been what breakfast was. Or who the character met with a chapter previous.

Think of how earlier I called the stoppage, the dead point, a “tangle.” A snarl in a line of interconnected plots.

Well, you can simply back up and cut the snarl out. Or you can “kill a character” and shove the snarl aside altogether. Or … you could just backtrack a bit until you find the bit where everything got so tangled, and pull that loop out, unraveling the whole snarl.

That’s what this advice is! “Go back and change something” to try and get the stoppage to come apart and flow once more! To find where the misstep was and correct it so that the plot can continue forward. “Stuck? Work your way back and change something!” is a pretty solid bit of advice for any author. While “Just kill a character” really isn’t.

So then … how did “Just kill a character” take over and become what it did if it’s not nearly such useful advice?

Well, where it’s not good advice for experienced writers … it can be good advice for novice writers. Novices who may not have much in the way of plot to snarl  up, their problems being more of “I don’t know what I’m doing” and not knowing what questions to ask than ‘I have a character.”

See, that’s not even a question. But telling a novice writer to kill a character? Most of the time, it’s not even a derailing of what they had, because what they had lacked direction anyway. Killing a character gives them those questions, questions in need of answers. It helps give them something to work toward. Goals. Objectives.

Really flashy ones.

That’s the strength of “Kill a character.” As I’ve said before on this site, killing a character is a powerful plot tool, one that can be mishandled or used well to great effect because it brings massive implications. However, those implications demand attention and focus, making them perfect for a novice writer who isn’t sure what to do. And since their story was probably directionless or lacking a lot of questions in the first place, well … Let’s be frank here, it probably still won’t be an amazing story by the end, but it will have an end.

Telling a novice writer to “kill a character” gives them a large, impactful, flashy, set of goals to work toward. And even if it’s rough and not perfect, it’s easily identifiable and to follow along with. Someone’s now dead! What now?

But the goal isn’t to have them “kill a character.” That’s not the bit that’s important. What’s important is that the writer learn what sort of goals and objectives that death can bring, and then keep goals and objectives like that in mind for their next story.

All of this makes sense as something you’d want to get a new writer to have experience with. As I said, “kill a character” is flashy. Attention-getting. Bombastic. Gripping and easy to focus on.

But as they experiment with it, they’ll start to see major paths, and then down those, fine-tuning of questions, goals, and objectives. So that when they start their next story, they’ll remember the “drive” or “thrust” of some of those parts even if they don’t kill a character, thus helping them make their next story a bit more straightforward and directed.

Okay, so then … what’s the final takeaway here? Is “Stuck? Just kill a character!” good advice or bad advice then?

Well … it’s both. Leaning more towards “bad.”

Look, if someone is talking about having trouble with something in a story, just don’t throw this advice at them. It’s not helpful, as pointed out, for someone who is already pretty familiar with writing. Instead, take the roots of it. “Have you tried backing up until the problem stops?” Something like that. Sure, it’s not as catchy, but it’s actually useful.

This said … there is a time and place for “Kill a character.” When you’re working with true novices of the craft and they’re stuck, “Kill a character” is a pretty good bit of advice for the reasons we’ve already stated.

However … you’d probably best follow it up after they’ve gotten rolling again by explaining why it works. What the real focus of it is.

And I think that’s how it entered into popular lexicon so easily. It’s attention grabbing and flashy, and worked for new writers, and so they carry it on. Not realizing that they’re ready for so much more.

So, good advice? Bad advice? I’m going to go with “Good for novices, bad for anyone else.” You can use it to help guide a young writer, but outside of that, you’re better off being more in depth.

Good luck. Now go get writing.

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