The Kill Bell

Today TKZ is delighted to welcome guest blogger Brad Parks, whose latest release THE GIRL NEXT DOOR has been described as, “darkly humorous…a Sopranos-worthy ragout of high drama and low comedy,” by Publisher’s Weekly.

By Brad Parks

I hear it all the time, echoing in my head.It sounds like a ticking at first – high, soft and steady, like a baby bunny’s heartbeat. It’s there, but it’s not terribly insistent. At least not at first.

Then it starts getting louder. And more ominous. And harder to ignore. I begin feeling the reverberations in my chest.

Before long, it becomes absolutely incessant. And unrelenting. And undeniable. It’s down to my toes and in my ears and I can barely hear anything else.And then, brrrrrring! Off it goes:

The kill bell.

That malicious peeling noise that lets me know, as I’m drafting my latest book, that it’s time to drop a body.

That’s how it sounds to me, anyway. Maybe yours sounds different, but I’m guessing I’m not alone in having one. As a mystery/thriller writer, I know I have to kill, early and often. And since you’re on this blog – it is called The Kill Zone, for goodness sakes – you probably know it, too. Lord knows, no one here is writing cozies. I’m betting the Kill Zone authors alone traffic in more blood than your average Red Cross chapter.

But how much do we spill? And how do we know when the time is right?

That’s what the kill bell is for. I’ve come to value it, to know to listen for it, and even to anticipate it. It’s that little friend that tells me things have gotten a little too comfortable for the reader and I need to shake things up.

It’s not like it happens in predictable intervals – and thank goodness, since it would get a little too cookie-cutter if you whacked someone every 10,000 words. I can sometimes go 40,000 words without slashing so much as a single throat. Then I shoot someone and I think I’m okay for a while but, ding-a-ling, there’s the bell again. And, even if it’s a mere 2,000 words later, I’m puncturing someone’s temple with a nail gun.

I suspect every writer’s kill bell is set to a slightly different frequency, which is why we all write different books. The important thing is to respect it and, when you hear it ringing, to act. Even when it’s not clear how.

I’m thinking about one of the more recent times I heard my kill bell. I was in the midst of drafting my latest, the as-yet-unnamed Carter Ross No. 5 (No. 3, The Girl Next Door, is the one that hits next week). I was cruising along, roughly 70,000 words in, and I realized I hadn’t killed anyone since word 40,000. And that, suddenly, felt totally unacceptable.

So I gathered all my characters in a room – yes, I talk to my characters – and said, “Okay, which one of you am I going to kill?”

Naturally, they all started staring down at their feet, scuffing their shoes, shoving their hands in their pockets, that sort of thing. Can’t blame them. Who wants to die, even in spectacular literary fashion?

But at that point my kill bell was doing a full-on whoopwhoopwhoop. I knew someone had to go. So I started going through my characters one-by-one until I realized, wait a cotton-pickin’-frickin’ second, I couldn’t kill any of them! It was either someone integral to a later plot point; or people who were totally implausible to kill, because they weren’t a threat to anyone; or my protagonist, who I can’t kill (this is a series and my kids will need shoes next year, too); or my protagonist’s cat (the kill bell does not apply to animals – sorry, I just can’t deal with that much hate mail).

I was stuck. But the kill bell has to be heeded. So I went back and wrote a character into the plot at word 20,000 for the express purpose of killing her later. And it turned out be a good thing, because I actually went back and un-killed her – she had taken a double tap between the eyes, but no more! – and killed someone else instead (I burned him, if it matters). It ended up leading to a great plot twist at the end. And I had the kill bell to thank.

As I said, I know I’m not alone in this. So what about you? What tells you when to follow the impulse to kill? I look forward to a robust – if slightly disturbing – conversation on the topic…

Brad Parks is a winner of the Nero Award and the Shamus Award. His latest book, The Girl Next Door, releases from St. Martin’s Press/Minotaur Books on March 13. For more Brad, sign up for his newsletter, like him on Facebook, or follow @Brad_Parks on Twitter.

16 thoughts on “The Kill Bell

  1. Brad, welcome! You pose an excellent question. I would say that in the thriller/mystery genre the Kill Bell (I love that) rings within the first few pages (if not paragraphs).

  2. It’s a good thing you turned into a writer, Brad. Things could’ve twisted in a whole different direction for your Kill Bell. Great to have you here. So happy to see your success too. I’m with my colleague Joe H that bodies drop early for me, but I also am partial to decaying bones & sneaking up on someone who thinks they got away with murder.

  3. Hmmm…not sure about the ringing, but if it does there’s always a plan. Every time I think of a cool way to kil someone I write it out on a little note and pin it to a corkboard in my office. I’ve got quite the collection of death options. Now if law enforcement or a mental health professional were to walk in and take a look at that board I might be in trouble…

  4. @Joe — Oh, don’t get me wrong, I think in the modern era of short attention spans, you pretty much *have* to kill someone in the first couple of pages. There’s no question every manuscrupt starts off with a loud jangalangalang. It’s just a question of how often it rings thereafter…

  5. @Jordan – Who says they didn’t? Muhahahahaha! (Okay… I can’t carry off evil… it’s gotta be the button-down shirts).

  6. @Catfriend — I’ve often thought my Google search history alone would be enough to get me indicted. (“Undectable poisons”… “untracable firearms”… “temperature where DNA breaks down”… etc. etc.).

  7. Hrm, throat slashes and nail guns! Sounds like I need to check these out. If you’re ever looking for a narrator, drop me a line, they sound right up my alley.

    I like that phrase “The Kill Bell”. Has a nice ring to it. In some of my books the bell tolls within the first chapter, in others not until the third or fourth, but one thing about writing military/espionage fiction once the dying starts it tends to grow exponentially until the bodies are falling and limbs dropping off like ripe fruit in an orchard of carnage trees.

    My newest work, just banged out the first 3000 words last night, didn’t have a death until word 2400. The rope for my kill bell is apparently manned by a hyper-active Quasimodo with a nervous twitch. Because when the first casualty came on the wings of fighter jets strafing traffic in a major US city, a fast moving bloodbath ensued.

    Ah…like music to the ears of a madman.

    Violence, guns, chicks, fast vehicles its all there in my new book trailer for 65 Below Check it out if you dare.

  8. Great post, Brad, and thanks for joining us! I actually had the novel experience in my last book of killing no one off until the very end of the story (well, no one who had a single line of dialogue in the book, at least). Lots of injuries leading up to that, though. And usually the hammer drops early and hard in my novels 🙂

  9. Hi Brad, welcome to TKZ from down under. I don’t have a bell that goes off in my head but I do know when I hit a certain point in the book that someone else has to go:) In my first book it was a shock when I realized it had to be a major character and even I hadn’t seen it coming! Best to heed the bell when it does toll, as I strongly believe in listening to your writer’s instinct.

  10. Yes, sometimes there is a strange scratching at the back of the brain that works its way down to the fingers. Sometimes the pendulum swings to death, sometimes it swings to smackdown.

  11. Brad, your intro is so Poe-esque!
    Well delivered. I got shivers reading it and was relieved to learn it was just a kill bell and not some pounding dead heart haunting you.

    Truth is, I get queasy just thinking about killing someone in books. No. No. No. Can not do very easily. I truly admire you folks who can twist that knife, pull that trigger, or bomb the heck out of someone.

    Heather Graham dared me to write zombie horror short story once and darn it all if I didn’t have a good time chewing up a few folks. But, zombies aren’t real.

    You crime folk. Yep. You have talent. I’m completely in awe. And, really. Truth be told? I don’t want to be left alone with a single one of you. I’m just sayin’.

  12. Awesome post, I hope the bosses have you drop by TKZ again. It’ll actually be the second act before I drop the hammer on some bad guys and they are really red shirts. The tale revolves around a death penalty appeal, so, in a way, the dead chick is a character (and it wasn’t pretty).

    ::Off to check out Brad’s books::


  13. Great post! Love your writing style. Just might have to pick up your new book.

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