I teach fiction writing to undergraduate college students, and one of the things they love to do is kill off their characters, often in the final sentence.
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I don't mean to imply that they're sadists or sociopaths; it's just that they wish their stories to contain drama. For them, there is nothing so dramatic as the finality of death.
The most common cause of death in their stories is the car accident: icy road, skidding semi, a strangled scream, the crunch of metal, and ... fin. They do not discriminate with their victims: children, teenagers, mothers of young children, priests.
And yet, I, along with their classmates, am often dry-eyed, unmoved, and not because I am heartless, but because death, by itself, isn't necessarily dramatic. Think of how many actual deaths we learn of each day and how few truly move us. In narrative, death takes on meaning only when we experience its impact on those left behind.
I remember reading "Bridge to Terabithia" by Katherine Paterson in grade school, identifying with the shy, sensitive Jesse, who is transformed by his friendship with new neighbor Leslie, who is smart, clever and the fastest runner in the grade. Leslie may have been my first crush.
When Leslie died, I remember bursting into tears. The action is off the page, and we come to know it when Jesse is told following a return from a special field trip with his teacher, a trip Jesse semi-purposefully excluded Leslie from. The remainder of the novel forces Jesse (and the novel's young readers) to confront the reality of Leslie's death.
Recently, there was a great uproar on the Internet over an episode of "Game of Thrones," the television series derived from George. R.R. Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire" novels. I have not read the novels or caught up to that portion of the series, but I know enough to know that Martin does not spare any of his characters the chance of meeting their own demise. Fans were literally outraged at the thought that they must continue engaging with the series without these characters being part of it.
They pledged to never return.
In Raymond Carver's classic "A Small Good Thing," a young boy is struck a glancing blow by a car on his birthday and initially seems fine only to later drop into a coma and then die in the hospital. The moment of the boy's death is unremarkable on the page. It's the aftermath that is emotionally devastating for the reader: the parents' numbness and then anger at a baker, oblivious to the events, who keeps calling, insisting that they come pick up the birthday cake ordered for their son. The final scene between the parents and the baker, a showdown that turns into something else, floors the reader with a sudden release of emotion.
The powerful emotion we are experiencing is grief, death's inevitable aftermath. Those "Game of Thrones" fans are angry from their grief over the loss of beloved characters. I felt the same thing in reading "Bridge to Terabithia." I could not imagine going on with the book, and yet I could not stop myself. Those "Thrones" fans will return as well.
Don't get me wrong, I am no fan of grief. Anyone who has experienced it in real life (and who hasn't?) knows it as something dark and overwhelming. But we cannot deny the transformative power of moving through it. My students believe death itself is most meaningful, but we all learn, eventually, that the drama is found in those left behind.
Biblioracle John Warner is the author of "The Funny Man." Follow him on Twitter @Biblioracle.
The Biblioracle offers his recommendations
1. "A Delicate Truth"
by John le Carré
2. "The Uncommon Appeal of Clouds"
by Alexander McCall Smith
3. "Mr. Penumbra's 24 Hour Bookstore" by Robin Sloan
4. "So Long, See You Tomorrow"
by William Maxwell
5. "The History of Love"
by Nicole Krauss
— Angie H., Chicago
In Angie's future I see her reading Vendela Vida's "Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name" — and telling one of her friends that she, too, should read it.
1. "Gone Girl"
by Gillian Flynn
2. "Amy and Isabelle"
by Elizabeth Strout
by Jim Crace
4. "Sweet Tooth"
by Ian McEwan
5. "A Good American"
by Eleanor Brown
— Cheryl B., Chicago
Cheryl is a previous recommendation requester, who — because I am just that good — had already read the book I chose for her, so this is a do-over. This time, I'm going to with "The Remains of the Day" by Kazuo Ishiguro.
1. "The Invisible Ones"
by Stef Penney
2. "The Tenderness of Wolves"
by Stef Penney
3. "The Cruelest Month"
by Louise Penny
4. "The View from Penthouse B"
by Elinor Lipman
5. "Out Stealing Horses"
by Per Petterson
— Marjorie M., Chicago
I'm going to feed Marjorie's appetite for mystery and intrigue: "The Keeper of Lost Causes" by Jussi Adler-Olsen.
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