When I was a young lady, I read a lot of horror, but most of it was YA horror in the R.L. Stine vein. Now, I love R.L. Stine. That man wrote my childhood. I read my first Stephen King when I was in 3rd grade (Misery, and for the record it took me more than 12 months and a brand new dictionary to finish it. My dad had no idea what the book was about when I asked him for it from the convenience store book rack.) but R.L. Stine was my BFF. I owned almost 200 Fear Street books before I stopped collecting them. So believe me when I say no girl was a bigger fan.
That being said, R.L. Stine had this thing he did with his books where every chapter ended on some crazy cliffhanger. The heroine’s alone in her school’s theater and she hears someone on the catwalk above her. There’s a snap! And she looks up to see a sand bag falling for her head! OH NO! The murderer is coming after her next!!!
Turn the page to Chapter 8 and ….the sandbag stops a few feet from her head and the theater tech geek looks sheepishly over the side of the cat walk and apologizes for letting it slip. No harm, no foul.
Now, when I was young enough, I fell for the cliffhanger every time. Of course, as you read more of his books and discover his pattern, they become less worrisome. You just know the footsteps behind the heroine in the alley are really her best friend trying to catch up with her. The sound coming from her kitchen is really a window left open. In R.L. Stine books, there aren’t many real stakes.
Stakes are one of the most important things we can give our books. I’ve only known one book to kill the main character close to the end (and it was FANTASTIC, surprisingly) so you rarely ever go into a book thinking the main character is going to die. But if the character can’t die, everything he/she cares about has to be up for possible execution. If the hero loses everything, the heart of the character can be lost and that is sometimes even more devestating than their actual death.
When readers turn the page, there has to be this ribbon of tension that threads from beginning to end that something terrible might happen on the very next page, the next chapter. There must be a reason for the reader to worry for the hero.
I think nothing demonstrates this more than The Death and Return of Superman. When DC Comics decided to kill Superman in 1992, it was a beautiful and gutsy move. The world was shocked, but they were also ready for beautifully written, emotionally satisfying storyline that gave a gratifying and well earned end to America’s favorite hero. We were going to be made sad in a way that only happens when someone in literature dies.
There was something fulfilling about finally coming to The End. Superman’s was a life well lived.
Until, practically the next day, they brought him back from the dead.
It felt like a money move – nothing sold as well as the death of Superman arc. It breathed a new life into a questionable market. The unintentional aftermath, however, rocked comic book world forever. DC Comics introduced the “fake” death of a character, and the fake death card was pulled for everyone from that moment after. And at first, we fell for it. I was one of the first people in line to buy the Funeral for a Freak comics when Deadpool supposedly died. Others have also fallen victim to the fake death and always they come back. We don’t get too worked about about the death of a comic book character anymore because if Superman can come back, so can anyone else. DC Comics, with that one event, took the stakes away from the story forever. We’ll never be completely sold on a character death. Ever.
And that’s a problem. If the reader doesn’t believe you’ll follow through with your threat, your story loses its guts. There’s nothing sadder than a gutless story. There’s also nothing less worth reading. If a character loses their family, they have to be changed by it. If their heart is broken irreparably, it shouldn’t be easily repaired. Raise your hand if you called shenanigans when Willow hooked up with Kennedy less than half a season after Tara’s death. I rest my case.
In the wake of the new Chronicle movie (which I will talk about at length in 2 weeks during SUPER WEEK here on Tell Great Stories!!) a wonderful YouTube video hit the streets detailing the trouble The Death and Return of Superman brought to comic book storytelling. This video is what originally gave me the idea for the post. I hope you enjoy it. It’s kind of long but WELL WORTH the insight into the analysis of a story and its stakes. It also talks a little bit about BAD plot devices and why you should avoid them (told with great humor.)
(Warning: There’s some swearing and some dark humor involved in this analysis. If you don’t like to laugh, don’t watch this video. You have been warned!!!)