I watched a movie on DVD last night (I won't tell you what movie - you'll see why soon) and had an amazing thought as I watched the drama unfold. I could have written the book for this movie! Not only did the drama revolve around a feature I've actually used in one of my upcoming books, but the action and conflict escalated exactly in the way it would have if I had written it myself. I don't just mean that when writing one has to set up a series of mini conflicts until reaching the climax of the story, but that the movie followed the storyline exactly as I would have written it, and in fact used the same features that I have written into various of my stories.
It was pretty cool actually, to watch it and think how familiar it was, even though I had never seen it before. I'm either on the right track when it comes to story structure, or I'm writing tired old storylines that have been done a million times before. I think I prefer the first option there.
The ending of the movie though, that was a different matter. I would never in a million years have written an ending like that. Everyone died. The babysitter died. The schoolteacher died. The policeman died. Then the hero of the story and his daughter whom he was trying to save died! But wait, that's not all. Hero's young son, a small and helpless boy of seven, was killed too. What's with that?
The best sort of book (and this goes for movies as well) has characters in it whom we come to care for. We follow them through the pages or on-screen, rooting for them all the way. We yell for them to watch out when they're in danger, we shake our heads when they take a wrong turn, we cheer when they act heroically; every inch of the way we're urging them on. We invest a little bit of ourselves in them, and we want them to triumph. If we do all that, only to have them killed off at the end, we're left stunned. ‘Hey,' we say. ‘That's not fair! I cared about that guy and you killed him?'
Readers can cope with a death or two along the way. It ups the stakes, heightens the conflict, makes us want the hero to come out on top even more. To kill off our hero shows little thought for the reader. What did their emotional investment in our story mean, if we destroy everything we wanted them to care about? Most of us would choose not to read more by a writer who kills off our beloved characters.