(Spoiler alert: If you haven’t caught up with The Good Wife’s latest episode, and don’t want to know what happened, don’t read on…)
The number one rule of writing: ‘Kill the baby.’
Yes. Kill the baby. Or in this case, Will Gardner.
Of all the lessons I’ve learned through writing, reader reactions, classes, and forums, the best advice to come my way, without question, is: ‘kill the baby.’ The exercise went like this:
The assignment: Once upon a time, there was a village in the forest. It was a happy village. Everyone was loving and healthy and the village was a wonderful place to live. Until one day, people started to get sick and die. The people were devastated by their losses, and began to fear for themselves as the sickness ravaged their friends and family. Finally, the wise ones of the village decided to break the law of the forbidden land and cross the river to ask the evil one for help. The evil one agrees to help, but the price is high. The cost is one baby…. Finish the story….
It is remarkable how many ways there are to cheat death. We did everything we could to save the child. Some of us had a plan to get the baby back. Some would somehow use a second boat to fool the evil one. Others would give him a sickly child who would die anyway. We could go with the ‘it was a dream’ plan. How about negotiating for three old people. We were prepared to do anything but give up that baby.
In the end, our instructor shook his head in pity at us. We’d done exactly as he expected. Not one of us gave up the baby.
His advice? Kill the baby.
Bad things happen in real life. Bad things happen in stories. Let the bad happen. Type through your tears. The tragedy must be respected. To lessen the loss is to cheapen the story. You, the writer, are responsible for the plot. You owe it to your reader to tell the best story possible. And the readers will remember your story longer, the stronger the feelings they’re left with. In the end, you’ll be able to pay for therapy with all the money you’ll make from the sales of your book.
We all went back and killed the baby. It was difficult. But we certainly understood the point of the lesson.
Think about endings that have left you feeling like you just wasted hours reading a good story – or watching a movie – only to have the ending ruin the entire experience. Or better yet, offer up ‘alternate endings.’
Not every story has to end in tragedy. But every story needs its fair share of emotion – good and bad. Protecting your characters makes them bland
and uninteresting. Challenge them and let them tell their story.
Robert and Michelle King, writers of The Good Wife know this. And, risking the wrath of loyal fans everywhere, killed Will last night. They have their reasons.
But in the end, it all boils down to good writing.