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Starting a novel with a death? (Question)

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Sat Jul 17, 2010 1:31 pm
Swottielottie says...

I was thinking of beginning my novel with the death of the main character's best friend. What would you say are the good and bad points of this decision? Also, what should I avoid when I do this?

I'm worried that the death will be pointless because the reader doesn't know the character at all, so they won't care that he/she is dead. The death is going to be a traffic accident if that helps with tips.

Thanks in advance.

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Sat Jul 17, 2010 1:46 pm
Jetpack says...

Is it a prologue? I get the idea that it isn't, but if it is, I'll re-address this.

Lots of books start with the death of a major character, e.g. Watchmen, Wolf Brother and Stormbreaker. The key with all of those is how the death affects the main character, rather than how the death affects the audience. If you can show, through the MC's reactions, how important his best friend was to him, then the reader will immediately understand the gravity of the situation. The problem comes when his reaction is overdone or too flat and we don't get the sense of grief that comes after a death.

The other problem I see often with death scenes around here is the blandly written scene. Your writing has to be up to the gravity of the scene, so don't just tell it to us. Choice of language is often key in these events, especially if your reader is going to feel that this isn't just another version of an opening they've read before.

If you're worried, I'd advise just writing it out as best you can and posting it on here for critique. It's much easier to advise when you have a concrete basis to work with and we can see your style and the context of the situation. Don't worry about it being perfect; death scenes are actually quite difficult and it'll have to start somewhere, so just get the scene that's building in your head down on paper. First drafts are never perfect anyway.

- Jet.

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Sat Jul 17, 2010 2:32 pm
Rosendorn says...

Too continue with what Jet said, remember the main character's reaction to this death. You've got to have a pretty good idea of the character's personality before the death, and their relationship with their friend. Do a lot of backstory work, character sketches, and maybe even go as far as to figure out how much time they spend together in a day/week/month and how they spend that time. All of that information will make the MC's reaction feel much more alive.

And please do not have the repercussions of the death only last a few thousand words. I doubt even the intense grief would be wrapped up so quickly. There should be tension caused by the death going on for a long, long time. To give one example of how long grief can last, I have my MC still thinking about her friends who died two years later. In other novels I've read, death repercussions can last for the whole novel, which sometimes span a year.

Because death is such a powerful thing, especially when it's a best friend, you really have to make the MC hurt, on multiple levels, for a very long time. The MC gets to feel like they're made of stone (or ice) if they don't hurt for a long time.

Hope this helps!

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Sat Jul 17, 2010 3:14 pm
Swottielottie says...

Thanks Jet and Rosey, that really helped, I'll try and take all that into account. (Now I remember why I love YWS)

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Wed Jul 28, 2010 8:14 pm
Fishr says...

Done it.

Not sure if the OP is still looking for advice, but if anyone is still wondering, my new novella, "Garrick's Christmas," touches precisely on the question was asked. I have the main setting in a cemetery, and right off the bat, I show the main character grieving.

To further up on the question, since the "best friend," is deceased, you as the author now have the arduous task of showing us the bond. How I've so far managed to accomplish this problem, throughout the story I've created tension between the two characters. The main char, Garrick, is a gruff, hateful person. He does not like people because he has been betrayed countless times, and being a survivor of domestic abuse, he has little reason to befriend anyone. Samuel is the antagonist, and is the "best friend," and the one attempting to befriend Garrick. With a lantern flying towards his skull, pressure around the neck, chest, and a noose, these are just a few examples of the tension Samuel has underwent to try and gain Garrick's trust. Of course, all failures. It's only further in the story, that the men start to find some common ground. In this case, the Bible. ;)

That is what I would suggest. Create some sort of tension between your two chars, and slowly build up to a breaking point such as a major fight or some other catastrophe. Drama, even if a tad overblown, is fun to read about. Hee hee. Then, try and find some common ground where they can relate to each other. By doing as I did, you allow your readers to form some attachments to each. (Apparently, Writersdomain has formed a strong attachments to Samuel, haha).

As Rosie pointed out, definitely do NOT degrade the remorse. Death affects so many people in hundreds of ways, and sometimes to the point of suicide. You must keep plucking away at the intense sadness, depression, anger, all and every emotion a real person will experience upon death of a close friend. For me, I definitely feel losing a friend is so much harder than a family member. With family, you still have ties to help you recover eventually. With a friend, in some cases, you can lose all ties to the friend's family depending the circumstances. The feeling is just more... cutting.

Feel free to skim through "Garrick's Christmas," so you can see how I've presented the bond between the deceased and the main character. Maybe that'll actually make better sense of what I've suggested.
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Thu Jul 29, 2010 3:09 am
tori1234 says...

In my opinion, I think it's overdone, but it all depends on how you write it and if you can pull it off.

It also depends on what the POV is. When it comes to death scenes, especially at the very beginning of a book, they're normally better written in third person.

With first person, there are basically two general emotions you can describe. Pain, relief, or a mixture of those two. Plus, if the death hits the MC hard and they were close to the dead person, they probably won't be able to feel anything, trust me, I've been there. How boring would it be to describe numbness? And if the MC is in complete turmoil, I doubt they would be paying close attention to their surroundings and what other people are doing because they're so wrapped up in their own grief. So you can cut scenery and a lot of minor character interaction out of the picture.

If I had to, I would choose to write a death scene in third person, because each person has their own way of reacting and coping with death. So if you go with third person you can delve into all of your character's minds and get a good taste of what each one is like.

Though I would steer clear of death scenes in the first chapter. The first chapter is supposed to set the whole tone of your book. If you're book is focused around death and you have a unique writing style to pull off a beginning death scene, then go ahead.

Good luck with your story. :)
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Thu Oct 21, 2010 3:07 am
xXMafuyuHinasakiXx says...

I know this may be late, but still, This is a great question. I think that this would be interesting, it would be a real eye-catcher to someone who is curious. So, Do with that what you will. Go crazy with your ideas, my teacher once told me. :D

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Sat May 07, 2011 8:32 am
Jashael says...

I personally don't think it would be a turn-off or such. It might actually be cool. My suggestions would be: avoid info dump. Like you said, we have no idea who the character is yet. If you're gonna start a novel with a death, make sure you put more action to than info dumping.


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Fri Jun 10, 2011 12:49 pm
Bromthebard says...

I've always loved the idea of a death at the beginning of a book. I recently started one of my books where the main character dies immediately. I made him come back later. When you do that it gets the reader hooked immediately, I suggest introducing the character a little, make it seem as if they will be the main character, then, kill them. That's just how I would do it. Another suggestion would be put it in first person, describe their emotions and their surroundings, then lead up to the death and have the reader suddenly cut off in the middle of a sentence as the narrator (a.k.a. the person that dies that you just set up as the main character) Just another suggestion.
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Sun Jun 12, 2011 12:45 pm
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Name2533 says...

Its okay to start a story with death There is nothin wrong with doing that....especiallyif u put someone strong emotion and how they feel .well thats wat I think and I have written many stories startin with a death my friends who always read the stories loved how it starts!! Its okay to start

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Mon Jun 13, 2011 4:08 pm
Dynamo says...

You can start off a story anyway you like. Of course, if you plan of killing an important character right off the bat then you'll have to spend a chapter or two building up that character and his/her relationship with the protagonist. If the death of this charact is the axis on which the story turns then it's important that his/her death carries weight, especially if the main character decides to go after the person who killed his friend. Otherwise, the rest of the story will feel hollow and under-developed. If you give the readers a solid framework with the two characters' relationship, they'll understand why the main character would choose to scour the earth in search of the killer.

At the same time, though, it's important that the death of the protagonist's best friend isn't his only motivation. If you spend the entire story having him mourn over the death of his friend and swear vengance on the killer, sooner or later your audience is going to start saying, "Okay, we get it. You're friend was killed, get over it." It's important that the reader can empathize with the main character. A common misconseption with this is that empathy means feeling sorry for someone, which is untrue. That's what sympathy is. Empathy means being able to understand someone's feelings, to be able to relate to them. If the reader has some sort of emotional connection to the main character, the death of his friend will have a much greater impact on them.

Reading this thread reminded me of something I dug up a little while ago called Christopher Volger's chart of "The Hero's Journey." Basically it's an act-based story arc that outlines the events of a hero's journey that defines his/her story. The death of the protaginist's friend would be defined as crossing the threshold, the transition from Act I (the beginning of the story in which the characters and setting are established) to Act II (the hero's call to adventure). It's a useful resource to look at when planning out a story. ... -plot.html
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Thu Jun 23, 2011 12:35 am
Gahks says...

Pretty much everything that's already been said on the subject of opening a novel with a death is what I wanted to say, so instead I offer an alternative.

Instead of killing off a significant character at the start of the book, kill them off halfway through. Set them up so that it looks as though they will be the main character when in fact they are a dummy protagonist and then the real story is revealed after the death scene occurs. It has to be said, though, that this works best if you're writing a crime or mystery novel. Where did I get this idea from?


The trope I have just outlined - the dummy protagonist who is killed halfway through a story - is best exemplified by Robert Bloch's novella "Psycho", or more famously, the Hitchcock film of the same name. Marion Crane, who ostensibly is the main character, steals from her employer and goes on the run. She winds up at an isolated motel and then is murdered suddenly in the shower. The twist shocked cinemagoers when Hitchcock's film was released in 1960 because of the way it so cleverly manipulated audience expectations and kept viewers on a knife-edge right up until the climax.

Another example of this is the original end of the pilot episode of "Lost". Originally the character of Jack (played by Matthew Fox) was going to be killed in the first episode in a twist ending, but they liked Fox's performance so much they let him stay.
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