Friday Speak Out!: In Death there is Life

Friday, April 25, 2014
by Susanne Brent

I was first introduced to death by my older sister who took me to see the movie Bambi when I was a little girl. I’d barely dried my tears over the death of Bambi’s mother, when I was crying again while reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s book By the Shores of Silver Lake. Not only did Laura’s sister Mary go blind, but their loyal bull dog, Jack, died. In high school I reached for the tissue again when Scarlet O’Hara’s elderly father dies in Gone with the Wind.

Even then, I wondered why did writers let people and beloved animals die? I didn’t think it was too much to ask those with the power of make believe to keep everyone alive.

Then death stepped from the movie screen and pages into my life. When I was 19 year’s old my mother, who I adored, died from cancer, a most unwelcome plot twist. I felt as if I was now a little deer, abandoned all alone in the big forest of life. Death, I learned at an early age, was painful in real life, too.

Many years have passed, and like everyone, I’ve experienced losses of loved ones, people I’ve met in books, and those I’ve met on the road of life. I know that as long as I’m on earth, I will say goodbye to people, until finally it’s my final chapter. I don’t like it, but I have no choice in the matter.

Writing is different. I do have control. I struggle when it’s time to kill people. I don’t want the characters I created to die. Even the nasty characters feel like my children. Why would I want to harm them? Sure they can suffer, get in car accidents, break a leg, grow old and ugly, but death is so cruel.

My subconscious must know what I need to be a storyteller, and thankfully it overrides my need to protect my characters. I know this because I started my novel with that old nemesis of mine, death.

In my novel’s first chapter, Genevieve’s best friend, Darcy, has died in a mysterious fashion.( I still haven’t decided whether Darcy will drown or be found hanging from a balcony.) When I first started the novel, I wasn’t as attached to my characters. The more chapters I complete, the more I wish Darcy was alive. Genevieve mourns her best friend. Then why don’t I act God-like and bring Darcy back to life?

Because I know Darcy is dead, as much as I know that my mother is dead. As writers we know what we must do to make the story real, and make our readers care enough to keep reading.

Looking back at my mother’s passing forty years ago, I see how her death created conflict, change, and propelled my life forward in ways I never expected. These are the main ingredients necessary for a compelling story.

Death makes our stories come alive. Maybe crying isn’t so bad after all if it makes our readers feel.

* * *
Twenty some years ago, (has it been that long!) I earned a journalism degree from Metropolitan State University in Denver, and moved to Arizona to work as a small town newspaper reporter. When the eight to five reporting routine became to restrictive for my free spirit, (or some may say lack of discipline) I left the newspaper and have since worked as a freelance writer. 

I’m currently writing/revising a novel involving secrets we keep even from the best of friends. 

Here’s my blog:

Would you like to participate in Friday "Speak Out!"? Email your short posts (under 500 words) about women and writing to: marcia[at]wow-womenonwriting[dot]com for consideration. We look forward to hearing from you!


Sioux Roslawski said...

Susanne--Have you seen the movie "Stranger Than Fiction" with Will Farrell and Emma Thompson? You might enjoy it, considering the issues you're mulling over right now.

And yes. If we can make our readers cry...and laugh...and think--well, we have a good story if we can move them emotionally.

Thanks for the post.

Margo Dill said...

After my mom read my first book, her biggest comment was: WHY DID THE MOM HAVE TO DIE? And my answer: If she wouldn't have died, there would have been no story. My main character (13 years old) would have just kept going on as she was. I also didn't have the heart to tell her that in my newest book--it starts out and the mom is already dead. . .okay, so the two novels I'm currently working on--mom's are alive and well. :)

Rita A. said...

After spending the day at a mystery writers' conference I feel like death is on my doorstep. It is part of life and we all learn. Sometimes the hard way.
Great article.

SunsetCindi said...

I'm also of the persuasion that I don't want my characters to die, not even suffer. But that would be a boring story. I remember a writer telling me once, "You need to let your characters suffer, so your readers don't." How true. Your thoughts are always a good reflection of the human spirit.

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