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The Write Stuff: Playing Poker with Your Readers

By David Flin

There are people who believe that poker is just a matter of bluff, and that there’s no real skill involved. I like playing poker with such people, and so does my bank account. When you’re playing poker, you have to know when you can bluff, and when you’ll have to follow through. Sometimes you can bluff, and sometimes you can’t. Some people paid a lot of money to have that demonstrated to them in various games of poker.

It’s the same when writing a story. For the vast majority of stories, you’ll want to build up tension. Readers expect that protagonists will generally reach the end of the story more-or-less unharmed, and that if you put your characters into a position of danger, the tension is very much reduced. They believe that any threat to the main characters is essentially a bluff. What you, as an author, have to do is decide whether or not to call that bluff.

There are some stories where it is not appropriate. Disney’s Frozen would have been a rather different tale had Anna died in order to save Elsa. Other stories would have been viable, but very different. For example, I can see a Casablanca film in which Rick dies in order that Victor and Ilsa can escape. There are also cases where a character death is pretty much essential. Macbeth just doesn’t work if Macbeth survives; Boromir in Lord of the Rings is a dead man walking the moment he tried to take the Ring; Danny Dravot can’t survive in the Man Who Would Be King.

You’ll have to decide whether the danger the character faces is real or illusory. In the end, if you want the reader to be aware that the danger is real, you have precisely one card in your hand. You can kill a character. Not just a peripheral character, but one that the readership is invested in. After that, readers will take the threat of danger seriously. A classic example of this is the death of Ned Stark in Game of Thrones. That death made the point that the danger the characters faced was real.

It needs to be of a character that matters. Redshirts don’t count. Characters introduced for the sole purpose of being killed off don’t count. If anything, killing off a redshirt simply reinforces the view that the real characters are safe.

You also need to avoid going to the other extreme, and kill off so many characters that it becomes parodic. The ending of some of Shakespeare’s tragedies end up losing impact because of the high death count that each death is diminished in importance.

Fans need characters to care about. If you’re constantly killing off characters, you’ll need to replace them, and the readers won’t have the time to get invested in them. If you keep killing off characters, the readers will start to become reluctant to bother to get invested in the character. When this happens, they’ll lose interest in the story.

If you get the balance right, you’ll create tension and uncertainty in the reader, and they’ll get drawn along. The emotional impact of the story will be enhanced.

Of course, killing off a character has consequences, and I’ll run through a few of these. First off, I should note that a death should have meaning. It needs to be relevant to the plot. If it isn’t, it’s just gratuitous.

Let’s run through a few reasons to kill off a character.

Firstly, and most obviously, to create a threat. Once characters start dying, the reader will realise that characters can die, and that maybe the character they are particularly invested in might die.

Secondly, it helps make consequences mean something. Stories aren’t just about success; they’re also about failure. A success has more meaning if it is accompanied with loss. Consequences also matter if you want to make the character choices meaningful.

Consequences that matter are very important when it comes to giving characters difficult decisions. If the main character has to choose between achieving critical goals and letting someone die, you have the opportunity to create a story with a lot of impact. In this case, it’s important that the character who is at risk of dying is a significant character, not just one that has been introduced for the sole purpose of dying.

If a character dies for what they believe in, it demonstrates their heroism far more clearly than if they overcome overwhelming odds without getting a scratch on themselves.

Thirdly, you might want to kill off a character in order to develop another. There is the obvious example of Obi-Wan Kenobi is Star Wars. Such a death can motivate a character, provide an opening, or both.

A fourth reason is for redemption. If a character has built up a lot of negative karma, it may well be that the only way they can redeem themselves is by dying to balance the scales. It’s quite simple. Characters can be redeemed, but it comes at a price. If it doesn’t cost, then it’s meaningless. Darth Vader gains redemption at the end of Return of the Jedi, but it can only come with him sacrificing himself.

Things to look out for. Don’t make it predictable. By all means foreshadow, and prepare the reader for the prospect, but if the moment is expected, it loses impact. An example of what not to do can be seen in the last few series of Spooks. This was a spy drama that was famous for being prepared to kill off central characters. At the start, this maintained tension. The deaths had impact. But then it became predictable and formulaic. A replacement character would be introduced who duplicated the role of one of the others and, lo and behold, within a couple of episodes, the now extraneous character was killed. It became a joke, a parody of itself.

Secondly, don’t bring them back to life. It’s hard enough getting the reader to accept that there is a danger. If you go to all the trouble of writing a convincing death, and bring them back, you’ve undone all the effort, and the reader won’t take it seriously in future.

I’ll give two examples where the story was destroyed by bringing a character back to life: Buffy at the end of Series 5 of Buffy, and Sylar at the end of Series 1 of Heroes. In both cases, the death was a narratively correct ending. There were reasons and justifications for how the character was brought back, but the first meant that the sacrifice was diminished, it contradicted previous aspects of the world building (and future world building), and it wrecked opportunities to develop the secondary characters, and the second rendered meaningless all the build-up with regard to “save the cheerleader, save the world.” Bah, humbug.

Thirdly, make it crystal clear that the character has died. If the reader is in the slightest doubt as to whether or not the character is dead, then the emotional impact will be lost as they wonder: “Are they? Aren’t they?”

And, most important of all: make the death meaningful and memorable. Boromir’s death in Lord of the Rings, Obi-Wan Kenobi’s in Star Wars, Ned Stark in Game of Thrones, Helen Flynn in Spooks, Series 1 all had deaths that resonated beyond the moment.

Killing and the art of poker. In many respects, there are strong similarities in playing poker and putting a character into a dangerous situation. The person on the other side, whether it is your poker opponent or the reader, will look at the threat you’ve created. The skill in both playing poker and creating tension in a story lies in not letting them know what is coming. If they know you are bluffing, you’re in trouble, and the only way to cast uncertainty is to make sure that sometimes, you’re not bluffing.

By the way, do let me know if you are aware of a poker player who always bluffs.

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David Flin is the author of the SLP books How to Write Alternate History, Six East End Boys, Tales from Section D, The Return of King Arthur and Other Alternate Myths, and Bring Me My Bow