How to Plot a Story Without Killing Characters
There are many ways to die in fiction, and I think my students have thought of them all. Zombie paintball gone wrong, poison matzoh balls, splintered pens, too much air...
“No one has to die,” I tell my students on the first day of class.
When I say “no one has to die,” I mean only that death should not be a plot device, or a way to end a story. Rather, death should be organic. If the character is supposed to die, then let them.
But don’t take the idea of death out of the sky and put it upon an otherwise healthy character.
Despite my protests, death pervades the classroom. And when it cannot, disease takes over. Besides cornflake melanomas, reverse intestines and “hairskin,” mental illness is the most popular affliction. Symptoms of mental illness are not especially fiction-worthy, are often repetitive and "textbook" and similar to each other. They are not the sole characteristic of a person who is mentally ill, yet making a character solely their disease is a mistake of many new writers.
Drugs, sex, abuse, hoarding, overeating, undereating are all vices: they are the result of the problem. The problem is what is interesting. What each thing means to each person is part of what makes people so together or alone.
How do two people communicate (or not communicate) through sex? What is the result of the abuse, and what is the reason for it in the first place?
What is the turning point: why does one become a drug addict? How is food used as a comfort, as a punishment, as a control? Why?
I often give my students the example of the now (tragically) canceled television show Intervention. The narrative of this show uses vices as a peephole into the larger psychological world of the subject.
When it begins, we see the drug addict. She is at her lowest. She looks older than she is. She is skinny, her jeans held up by the belt she takes on and off. She goes behind a tree with an older man where the cameras can’t go, and comes back happier. These scenes are interspersed with family members and friends at a loss: how can they help their child, their friend?
Then we cut to “once.” Once, there was a beautiful child. She was born into this world to ‘70s-pretty parents with bright smiles. She had school pictures with bad teeth and a tiny gold cross around her neck. She did ballet and sang. She was a child for only a short time, but there are pictures to prove it.
Then: the abuse, the divorce, the rape, the death, the car accident, the illness...
And then: we are back at her dirty apartment, a mattress on the floor, clothes all over the place, a boyfriend with a baseball cap sitting in a chair, hardly moving.
The rest of the show the family tries to get the girl to go to rehab. If she does, we see her months later, plumped and pretty, regretful, wanting to help others now that she is clean. Or else we see a black screen, and find out that she is missing or unreachable or no longer wants to be on the show.
When the show is over, we have had a glimpse of her life. Hopefully, things have turned. Probably, her life will go on, difficult and sad and wonderful, just like people in life; just like people in stories.