Saturday, May 7, 2011

Starting a Story with the Death of the MC

Sometime back, I was commissioned to write a short story for an anthology for children in the ten plus age group. After brainstorming for few days, I zeroed in upon a story about a ghost.

Thinking that it would be a unique idea I brainstormed some more and finally wrote the story and emailed it to my  editor.

‘Oh my God,’ the editor said on the phone. ‘You started the story with the death of the main character. Children just won’t like it. Please write another one. This story won’t do.’

All my reasoning that as the story is about a ghost, it had to have death,  met with a refusal. My main character was a ten year old boy who meets with an accident while on a school picnic and both the boy and his sister become ghosts. After that, starts their training as ghosts.

In this case I felt that the death of the main character had a strong reason behind it. But my editor was unwilling to accept the story. I even told her that children today are smart and are aware of death and accidents, but she was adamant that the story would not go down well with children because of the death factor. At the last minute I had to write another story for the anthology and send it.

The editor’s arguments made me think, that does starting a story or even a book with the death of a main character spell its doom. Do people shy away from such stories. I felt that the death in my story was justified. There was no flashback,  about what the boy was before he died. The story started from the boy’s death and how he turns into a ghost and is accepted  into the world of ghosts. I had to show death, as the boy just cannot turn into a ghost one fine morning.

Children read in papers about school buses meeting with accidents and children dying. They even see deaths in their own families: their grandparents, aunts and uncles. So it’s not as though they are not aware of death. I have heard small children say that so and so has gone to heaven, or is with God.

What do you all think? Was I justified in starting the story with the boy’s death? Do you think my editor was right? What would you have done in either place: my editors and mine?


  1. Hmmm...a thought provoking post. Agree with you that in your case the death of the small boy was justified. Else how could you show his transformation into a ghost. Would love to read that story of yours.

  2. I definitely disagree with your editor. Although the death isn't the MC, Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events starts out with a death.

    Two! Both of the parents die, that's how the story starts, and it was incredibly well received. (though I haven't read to the end, and there may have been some questions about the parents still being alive... but no one knows that in the beginning)

  3. I personally feel reading the stories with death of main character would arouse every kind of emotions in you...and stories which does that are always good.

  4. *pause* Rachna, I agree you needed a death to have a ghost, but. There have been some deaths in stories and novels for middle graders. But most of the time editors shy away. You said the MC was ten. If you would have made the character twelve. Do you think it would have made a difference?

    You want my advice, Rachna? Write the story as a novel. With an older protag. Boys love these stories and WE NEED MORE BOOKS FOR MG BOYS. You know I have blogged about this before. Sounds to me like this story is calling you. :-)

    Have a lovely weekend.

  5. @ Meera..I too felt that the death of the MC was absolutely justified.

    @ Ken...I have read the Lemony Snicket series and loved them. If there is a strong reason, then the death of an MC should not be a dampener. And its not that the MC was disappearing after dying, he was very much around as a ghost.

    @ Anu....agree with you that with death of the MC the sympathy factor works big time.

    @ Robyn..I loved the idea of writing the story as a novel. We do need more books for MG boys. Will surely give this more thought. editor was interested in me making a book from that story, but at that time I was working on another set of books, so I didn't give it much thought.

  6. Interesting problem. I've recently finished a novel that starts with the death of the antagonist on page one. But it has an adult audience.

    I wonder if your editor was talking more about an age group than a rule for all fiction. Kids that age may identify too much with characters to enjoy a story where their "self" character gets killed. If he was already a ghost, they probably would be fine with it. But it probably presents too much primal fear for the 7-10 year old to process.

  7. I don't think it is taboo so long as it's done well. And knowing that you're a good writer, I don't doubt that you'd do the story justice.

  8. Great article. I agree with Robyn

  9. Hmm, I think that you did the right thing. This story sounds great, by the way. And it's difficult to make hard and fast rules about how to start stories. If you're explaining a strong part of the plot, it seems fine!

  10. Rachna, as a mother of 4 young kids, I have to side with your editor, I am sorry to say that. They would be so traumatized by the death that they would start crying and never pick the book up again. Yes, it is real life as someone in my family died when his back pack caught in the bus and was run over.

    I would turn this story into YA. That is more like it... UNLESS you start the story off as him being a ghost already like the movie Casper.

    What do you think?

    YA Paranormal Romance Darkspell coming soon!


  11. @ I started the story with the bus crashing down a mountain, the kids just did not get the time or the opportunity to bond with the Main character. All the bonding happens when the boy turns into a ghost.I agree with the primal fear part, that kids of 7 to 10 will find it difficult to handle.

    @ Lydia...thanks for your confidence in my writing ability. I feel you over rate me as a writer.I am still struggling to write gripping stories.

    @ Sytiva....I too am in sync with Robyn :)

    @ Saumya...I don't show the actual death, there is just a brief mention of it, thats just to show the newly formed ghosts.

    @ Elizabeth...thanks for contributing to the discussion. I think it would be great if I start the story with the boy becoming a ghost.I would hate to traumatize a kid by making him or her face things they would be unable to tolerate.

  12. I agree with Robyn's statement--turn it into a book! Sounds great as a book :)

  13. As long as death murder and mayhem is not glorified, there is no harm in ghost stories. Perhaps the Editor was trying to play safe. Ten plus are smart kids and they can distinguish between fact and fiction

  14. A thought-provoking post. I don't think starting a story with the death of a MC is wrong but perhaps the editor felt it was too much for the age-group? Having said that, I haven't written anything for that age group so I've got no idea if it is or isn't okay!

    Ellie Garratt

  15. Good question. What about 'The Lovely Bones'?
    Can you juggle the chapters so that you foreshadow or hint at the death that comes later? :O)

  16. I think it's tricky when telling of the death of your main character. Relatives of the MC, yes; friends, even. A young reader identifies with the MC, so it could be hard for them to deal the actual death, once they meet the MC. But I love your story's premise: ghost training! What an original idea. I do think that you really COULD just start with the ghost training. And then refer back to the death. By then the reader is identifying with the ghost as a main character, and learning about how he died wouln't seem as threatening. Don't give up on the story, because I think you have a winner here.

  17. Death of an can happen. Maybe starting the book the second after he is accepted into the ghost world would have been a tad more subtle? Or the very first sentence being his denial? You have to remember though, what one editor doesn't like may be anothers gold :)

  18. I think it'd work great for YA!

  19. For adults, yes. I think of the book Lovely Bones. But being a mom--sorry, your editor was right. This time:)

  20. I think your story sounds great! I have a story where the MC's best friend dies, but I think that's more aceptable and it's for older children anyway.
    I think perhaps beginning the story when he is already a ghost may be a safer option as some have suggested, then the reader is just plunged straight into the exciting ghost world with the MC.
    I suppose it all depends on the age of the MC and the intended reader!

  21. I just noticed my comment has a lot of 'I think' s in it, hehe. Really, I try not to as a rule :)

  22. I do think it depends on the editor's personal preferences, the targeted readership and numerous other issues, too. I do agree, there's a time and a place for this sort of story. Children traumatized by early death NEED stories like this to help them cope.

  23. I agree with Robyn C...and too, I think there will be different answers from different editors.

  24. Hmm... it's tricky... I think that even though children understand death on some level, it isn't something pleasant to read. And because it isn't pleasant, they'd avoid it.

    In your situation, I would probably have started with the boy already as a ghost.


  25. I think your editor was too scared to take a risk which is a shame because within the context of that story it was totally logical to have the MC die.


  26. The story may not have been right for the project the editor was working on. But I don't think the story sounds bad. Kids love ghost stories. And they are (or at least should be) aware of death. It's a natural part of life.

  27. Kids can be pretty morbid, so I think they could handle it. If the death was not gruesome I think it could work. I even read a picture book that started with the death of the MC's husband, Chin Yu Min and the Ginger Cat. It was kind of humorous, something like "One day, Mr. So and So fell out of his boat and sank to the bottom of the lake. That was the end of him..."