I love gripping stories. I love reading a book I can’t put down, where I have to know what happens. A good tense story is often better than most movies. That’s something I talk about in 137 Books in One Year—the value of knowing what you love and pursing it as a reader.
So as a writer, one of the things that heightens the tension in a story and makes it so gripping is when you’re willing to make characters expendable.
Yes, killing off characters makes for better stories.
As you can imagine, this post is going to be full of spoilers. So get used to it.
I experience this recently in the zombie thriller Feed by Mira Grant. She created a post-zombie uprising world that hasn’t descended into the post-apocalyptic. Instead, people find ways to live with zombies, which mostly involves fear, lots of blood tests and guns. More than a story about zombies, Feed is the story of a trio of bloggers following a presidential campaign and uncovering a massive conspiracy.
Sidebar: In the post-zombie world bloggers come in a few stripes: Newsies who are your typical factual reporters, Fictionals who create fictional stories, and Irwins who pursue first-hand encounters with zombies. The Steve-O award is bestowed on deserving Irwins. Took me three-fourths of the way through Feed before I realized what Irwins was referring to. Get it? Brilliant.
As the tension rises in Feed, people start dying. That’s pretty typical for a zombie story. But when one of the three primary bloggers in the story is killed, you know the stakes are high. At this point in the story, killing Buffy was pretty intense. It shook up the world for our two remaining bloggers, siblings Georgia and Shaun. But we still had those two. The story really gets intense when one of them dies. Killing two of your three main characters? Whoa. That puts the tension through the roof.
What’s perhaps more interesting is that writer Mira Grant chose to kill of Georgia, who had served as the story’s narrator. Not only did she kill off a main character with 75-some pages to go, but she killed off the freakin’ narrator.
That might seem like taking things too far. In Feed, it worked. Grant also turned the story into a trilogy that continues without two of her three main characters, or the primary narrator for the first book. That’s bold. I’ll let you know if it works.
Other Spoiler-Filled Examples
This strategy of killing off characters is put to work beautifully by Joss Whedon. In his Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV series he employed it to a minor degree [BUFFY SPOILER ALERT] by readily killing off supporting characters (Jenny Calendar, Joyce Summers, Tara, Anya) or moving characters off the show (Angel, Cordelia, Oz, Riley, Giles). While he never completely kills one of his three primary characters, Buffy does die twice, Willow becomes evil and Xander loses an eye.
Whedon takes it up a notch in Serenity, the theatrical finale to his canceled Firefly TV series [here come the SERENITY/FIREFLY SPOILERS]. As the movie approaches the climax he kills off Shepherd Book, one of the nine original crew. That’s big, but Book also wasn’t on the ship at the beginning of the movie. You know the stakes are high, but the core crew of the movie still seems safe, right? Wrong. When pilot Wash is killed moments after a successful crash landing, suddenly all bets are off. As the climax reaches its crescendo and our heroes are fighting for their lives, nobody is safe. Injuries pile up, characters are shot and we have no sense that anybody is going to make it.
Serenity is possibly the best example ever of killing your characters to heighten the tension.
Unlike the original Star Trek series where the main characters were never in any real danger (the “redshirt” phenomena, lampooned brilliantly by John Scalzi), this approach makes danger real and the outcome unknown. Tension heightened.
If you want your readers to be on edge, prove how high the stakes are.