They Can’t Die!

 I overheard a conversation recently about the TV program Endeavour. Someone was complaining that the show had reached a point where the lead character was in danger.

“And we knew he wouldn’t die,” they complained, “because this show was a prequel. We know that Endeavour lives, he was seen as an older man in the TV show Morse.”

I’ve heard this sort of thing before, and it’s wrong. It misses the point. It’s not how stories work.

No one expects James Bond to die. No one ever expected Charlie Brown to ever kick the football. And surely no one expected Voldemort to be triumphant…

In most stories, the reader knows that the hero isn’t going to be killed, but that doesn’t matter. A journey is no less entertaining for knowing what the destination is going to be. Not every trip has to be a mystery tour.

There’s something almost reassuring in this, in following a story where you know what’s going to happen. This is what children in particular find pleasing in fairy stories and nursery tales, the repetition in the tale as Goldilocks tries the chairs, the porridge and then the beds and each time it’s the last choice that’s just right

A writer follows a curve and takes the reader with them. Some writers complain that people don’t want true innovation, that their stories are rejected because they’re too original. They may be right. But as I’ve written on this blog in the past, that’s the way the market works and the market is always right.

But there’s something else, too. Knowing when to repeat, knowing when to follow the conventions, that’s part of a writer’s craft. It makes peeling off into unknown territory so much more satisfying…


  1. There’s another side to this though; if you’re not in a position to rely on the uncertain and the unknown, then cliffhangers and suspense take on a different form. You can’t just play out the pattern of a suspenseful moment if there isn’t any reason for it to be there. It’s possible for someone to be in danger, and you sympathise with them without being worried for them, but writers will sometimes try to pull out the usual bad of thriller tools when they want something closer to (like you say) a fairy tale or historical novel; pattern and sense or interiority or something.

    What you’ll normally want, to my mind, is for the emotions of the reader/viewer and the mood of depiction to move in step, unless for some reason you are creating intentional tension there. But that tension exists because people don’t just react to scary music or sharp edged paranoid dialog, they also react to the events in the story and the broader knowledge they have. If you start creating that kind of dissonance apparently by accident, trying to drum up worry and fear for someone who’s not going to die, beyond some natural point of people playing along, then it just ends up being weird.

  2. Very true! And of course, there doesn’t have to be danger to have suspense. There is no danger at the end of a Romance, but there will be suspense whilst we wait for one character to finally explain their feelings to the object of their affections…

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