The End

By Boyd Morrison

It’s time. Sometimes you just know it. I’ve had a great twelve months being part of this Kill Zone crew of stellar writers, but I’ve decided to cede my spot to another blogger. I’ll still be following the fascinating blogs by my colleagues, so you won’t see the end of me around here.

Naturally, moving on like this has me thinking about endings in novels, particularly the ends of characters. Death is constant companion for us thriller writers. My wife is a doctor, so we often say that she saves people for a living, and I kill people for a living. In my stories I’ve slain many characters, and not just the bad guys.

In my book ROGUE WAVE, which is a disaster thriller, a key character dies at the end of the story. My editor strenuously argued for me to save the character, and we had an hour-long discussion about the ramifications of this death. In the end I convinced her that the character had to die, and I think the ending is more poignant for it. I’ve gotten many emails from readers who cried over the death. To me that was a compliment because it meant that the character had become real for them. Even if they hated that it happened, the readers almost unfailingly felt that the death fit within the story’s themes of love and selfless sacrifice.

I take great care in the decision of whether or not to kill off one of the good guys. I don’t think you can cavalierly flout the trust a reader has invested in you to deliver a satisfying story. On the other hand, to build suspense there has to be real jeopardy for the characters. If readers believe you’ll never kill off someone they’ve come to care for, where’s the tension in the story?

In my Tyler Locke series I do kill off someone who becomes a major character in one of the novels. It has a major impact on the other characters, even into subsequent installments of the series. Again, some readers didn’t like this death, but it also made them worry for all the other characters in future novels. If Boyd killed that person off, they might wonder, he’s just crazy enough to whack anyone. The tension level is automatically raised.

Obviously I didn’t kill Tyler Locke. He’s the star of the series. He can’t be killed off unless I’m doing away with the series altogether (Lee Child has proposed this very idea at several conferences when he has talked about someday ending the Jack Reacher series). For instance, no one even considers that James Bond is going to die at the end of the movie, so how can there possibly be any suspense?

If the writer might dispatch someone the main character loves or cares about, that concern is transferred to the reader. It conveys a personal stake in the outcome, which a reader will care about more than the end of the world as we know it. And if the reader knows you’ve done it before, an ending where all the good guys survive can be even sweeter, the relief more palpable.

A death of this kind can also make the story more believable. If every single good guy survives when bullets are spraying at him like they’re coming from a lawn sprinkler, while every single bad guy dies with a well-aimed headshot, the story becomes ridiculous. That kind of spectacular luck in a novel only emphasizes that you’re reading fiction. A key death, I think, confers some plausibility, even in an over-the-top action adventure. Movies have been doing this more commonly in the last few years. Think of The Dark Knight or Skyfall. Both of them were praised for a grittier, more realistic treatment of comic book and Bondian adventures, and both featured tragic deaths that had severe consequences for the plot and main characters.

Where I think authors get into trouble is when they make the deaths meaningless. As a reader, if I’ve spent hours getting to know a character, it’s deeply unsatisfying for him to die for no reason. It just seems like a mean or thoughtless gesture by the author, as if it were done for no other reason than to provoke shock. Some readers may appreciate that it makes the story seem more like real life, but unless it’s incredibly well-done, I find it off-putting.

Like my decision to move on from The Kill Zone, how you handle the characters has to come from your gut. I don’t take the decision to kill one of the good guys lightly, but when the end feels right, I know it.

Even though I won’t be a regular contributor, I’ll still be hanging out in the comments section from time to time. Thanks to all my fellow KillZoners for giving me this opportunity and to all of you who taken the time to read and comment on my blogs. Take care.

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Have Gun? Won’t Travel.

Films and TV shows have been getting grittier and more nuanced in the last decade. Even superhero films like The Dark Knight have taken the plunge. Campiness is over. We want to feel like what we’re watching could really happen. However, in many of these stories, there are plot holes both minor and major that are glossed over by viewers and critics alike. I understand what a challenge it can be to balance the realism with storytelling momentum. The question is, when does it reaching the breaking point?

I don’t have a problem with unlikely events or million-to-one chance occurrences. Those can actually happen. Just look at Captain Sullenberger’s miracle landing on the Hudson. I’m talking about more mundane and prosaic details that don’t fit in the real world as we understand it. As an author I spend a lot of time thinking how important it is to maintain realism in thrillers.

Adhering to realism may be less a problem if you’re writing a mystery or police procedural. I don’t think Michael Connelly has any trouble keeping the story elements close to what detectives actually do for their jobs. But I write big adventures with huge action set pieces and world-threatening stakes. I strive to keep my plots in the realm of plausibility, though the combination of events would be extremely unlikely. To me, that’s what makes a story worth telling: a scenario that would almost never happen.

Yet I still want to believe the story—that if these people were thrust into this situation, it might actually turn out the way the story is told. That’s true whether I’m the creator or consumer of the tale. It should feel real.

Realism for its own sake, however, can be super boring. Shows like CSI, NCIS, and Castle would take forever if the police had to wait for DNA testing to come back in the amount of time it takes in the real world (months) instead of TV time (hours). On TV, captains get impatient if it takes more than two days to bring in the killer, but in the real world it can take weeks or months to gather enough evidence to make an arrest, if they ever do. And the DNA evidence on TV is always exact and decisive, to the point that actual prosecutors now have to routinely remind juries that such evidence is rarely definitive. Many viewers don’t understand that we simply accept these unrealistic accelerated timetables so that we can get to the good parts of the story.

The blockbuster action-adventure movies seem to get away with bigger plot hand-waving. You won’t find a bigger James Bond fan than I am, but I’m perplexed that for fifty years Bond has flown around the world with his trusty Walther PPK pistol. How? It’s never explained why he can breeze through airport security carrying a loaded weapon in his luggage. Is it plastic? Does he have diplomatic immunity? Does he pay off the TSA agents? Never mind that he’s a member of the British Secret Service who tells just about everyone he meets what his real name is. The real secret is how he isn’t nabbed by authorities the minute he gets off the plane.

In The Dark Knight,the Joker stuffs two ferries with hundreds of drums of explosives. When did he find time for that? How did the crew overlook them? And how does the Joker roam around Gotham City with that hideous makeup on and no one ever notices him?

In Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol, Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt finds a large cache of weapons and technology in a railcar outside of Moscow. Every law enforcement agency on the planet is looking for him and his team for blowing up the Kremlin, yet he shows up in Dubai a day later with the full load of guns and ammo in a hotel suite. The audience is just expected to accept that Hunt has a way to smuggle all of that contraband thousands of miles while on the run from the authorities.

I wonder whether novels are held to a higher standard than other media when it comes to suspension of disbelief. I don’t think a novelist could get away with those kinds of plot holes without being called on them by readers. I think the difference is in how the media are consumed. When you’re watching a movie, it doesn’t give you time to think about the plot holes until it’s finished, and by then you’ve already formed your opinion about whether or not you liked it. But it takes six to ten hours or more to read a book, sometimes over the course of weeks. The reader has plenty of time to think about potential plot holes, and if they’re glaring they may even make the reader put the book down for good. On the other hand, a movie has to be pretty bad for me to stop watching halfway through (I’m looking at you, Batman and Robin).

The acceptance of plot holes may also have to do with how we use our imaginations in the different media. With TV and movies, the visuals and sounds are supplied for you in a constant stream, and we accept them as the reality of the story. However, with novels we generate all of the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes in our minds. Creating all of them from scratch requires effort on our part, and if they don’t fit into the logic of the story, it becomes much more noticeable. Would Raiders of the Lost Ark have been able to convince readers that Indiana Jones rode on top of a submarine for two days to that island where the Ark was taken if it were a book? In the movie we see a diving montage and a map sequence showing a 500-mile trip, but due to selective editing Indy is ready to beat up Nazis as soon as they come into port—starvation, thirst, and hypothermia be damned (not to mention holding his breath for two days).

Without those quick cuts in a novel, readers would have the time and imagination to realize Indy isn’t Aquaman. That’s why I put plenty of thought into potential plot holes. I may not eliminate all of them, but I try to make them as tiny as possible. The process takes up a good chunk of my writing time, and my beta readers still bring many to my attention. So if you’re a writer, I highly recommend that you have a few people read through your book as a logic consultant. You may be surprised at how many plot holes they find that you thought you’d plugged.

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Summer Movie Wrap-Up

Business first: congrats to Lexi, who won a signed edition of THE TUNNELS last week! Afraid I’ve got nothing for you today, but stay tuned: next week, we here at The Kill Zone will be giving away a slew of freebies…

Obviously the summer blockbuster season has not yet drawn to a close, so this post is slightly premature. However, I just returned from a week’s stay at my parent’s house (read: free babysitting). My parents live in a town where everything closes around 8PM (seriously, there’s practically a curfew) and I was jet-lagged enough that a 10PM showtime was within the realm of possibility. So I’m proud to say that I broke my own record for most films seen in a single week (and mind you, this was around the same time all those Olympic records were being broken in Beijing. Coincidence?)

Since I wrote posts earlier this summer on worst blockbusters I’ve ever seen and films I’ve enjoyed so far, I thought I’d post a round-up of the latest offerings. So grab your popcorn and pull up a chair for…

MICHELLE’S EXTREMELY BIASED AND JUDGEMENTAL MOVIE REVIEWS

With any luck, this will become a regular thing (but no promises—do you have any idea what movie tickets cost in San Francisco?!)

WALL-E
Loved this one. Sweet story told with all the wry humor and killer cinematography that Pixar is known for. Nice little save-the-planet-and-beware-corporate-monoliths message tucked in
between nods to classics like 2001: A Space Odyssey. I love it when G-rated films factor in adult audiences. Definitely worth seeing on the big screen, the animation is phenomenal.

The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor
I liked Rachel Weisz before, and my respect for her went up exponentially after seeing this film—brilliantly, she decided against participating in it. Smart career move. Brendan Fraser tends to be a lot of fun to watch, but even he couldn’t save this mess. Maria Bello stumbles along with a barely-passable accent and a bewildered expression on her face throughout, as if she’s not quite sure how she landed in this role (a question I harbored myself). And the son from the last film has morphed from a cute little British boy to a man that now (inexplicably) has a Southie accent and is way too old to be the child of Bello and Fraser. Who cast this dreck? Jet Li has the best part, and he barely speaks and spends most of the film as a CGI clay figurine.
Even if you’re trapped on a plane and the choice is between watching this or staring at the seat in front of you, stare at the seat. Seriously, it’s that bad.

Hellboy II: The Golden Army
I was leery of this one, but had foolishly allowed my husband to choose the night’s entertainment. I thought the first installment was just silly, despite Ron Perlman’s likeable performance as the main character. But I buckled down, gritted my teeth…and was pleasantly surprised. The story was much darker and more based on myth than traditional comic book tales, and director Guillermo Del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth) brought just as many quirky characters to play here. I also liked that the CGI was involved but didn’t dominate, and even though the story was light on substance, the settings were incredible and visually astonishing. Much better than the first (although I still find Selma Blair annoying).

Hancock
I was also not that excited for this one, despite the fact that Will Smith is a reliable summer movie action star. But again, I’m happy to report that I was pleasantly surprised. This film presented an interesting twist on traditional superhero fare, which gave it more depth than you generally see in these films. Though it was short (about 90 minutes, by my reckoning) it felt like the perfect length for the story it had to tell. Not a must-see, but definitely worth renting.

The Dark Knight
I snuck into a matinee of this a few weeks ago when I should have been working—and man, am I happy I did. I loved this movie—for me it’s neck and neck with Ironman for my favorite of the summer (although with Tropic Thunder on the horizon, all bets are off). Christian Bales was great, poor Heath Ledger did an incredible job with his incarnation of The Joker, and it was such a relief to see Maggie Gyllenhaal in the role that Katie Holmes almost ruined in Batman Begins. Critics have complained that it was dark for a blockbuster, but that was precisely what I liked, that it didn’t shy away from that. Highly recommended.

So I’d love to hear what you’ve seen this summer, and whether you agree/disagree with my assessment. As always, questions/comments/unwavering support are welcome.

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