A couple of posts ago, in Nothing but the truth, I found myself saying
new writers and unconfident writers, paradoxically, seem to gravitate towards... well at one evening of short fiction readings, nine out of the ten stories read were centrally, chiefly, about death. And competitions sifters say the same. I used to think crossly that it was just a cheap thrill - some instant gravitas - but I'm a slightly nicer person these days.
and a blog reader got in touch, because she's neither new nor unconfident, but often writes about death. Is it really such a Bad Idea? Such a marker of a writer who doesn't (yet) know what he or she is doing?
So I raised my head from the sum I was doing, about how old my main (orphaned!) character's long-dead beloved would be if he'd lived, to say the following:
Of course death comes into most of our work in one story or another – mine included - and of course that includes beginners. I think the inexperienced writer is drawn to it because it’s also such an easy way to trigger off action – to animate the characters – or provide a very complete resolution, because of course death can’t help but change things.
If the original drive to write the story was the characters with their backstory and personalities, then you do need to go looking for something to turn characters into characters-in-action. Death animates them because (as every crime writer knows) something has to happen in and around the death of a human being. If what you need is an irresistible instability (as I was discussing here), then it's hard to beat an opening scene round a grave, with the wife and children sobbing publicly in the arms of the family, and the bereaved mistress lurking in the undergrowth clutching the positive pregnancy test.
And then there’s the story which isn’t actually saying anything terribly subtle or interesting about death and what it does to those left behind. I’ve read lots of stories which amount to saying, "Death makes people sad", or "Suicide resolves things" just as I’ve read stories which were said to be "about" adultery, which added up to "adultery makes people miserable". To which in my grumpier moments my response is, "Well, yes. Tell me something I didn’t know." It's not that every story has to be a major contribution to philosophy, to be worth writing. But spending a whole story saying, "Death makes people sad" isn't actually more worth doing than spending a whole story making the equally true statement that the smell of frying bacon makes people hungry.
So perhaps it’s precisely because death such an easy way make a story seem important and dramatic, that it can mean the writer doesn’t realise that they’re not flexing their writerly muscles as well as they might. I’d always suggest that, if you're tempted to use death to get things going, or keep them going, or resolve them, it’s very good practice to try to at least try doing it some other way: to find the real, painful – or hilarious – character-in-action and emotional truth in other scenarios. Frying bacon, for example.