Conflict: The Three Types of Death

binge watch.jpgWelcome to a weekend in the QE household.  It’s blistering hot outside (100 Fahrenheit) and with our baby boy not being impervious to the heat, we are trapped in the house.  Given our confinement, my wife and I have spent some time watching what I classify as, “terribly cheesy television shows.”  Truth be told, I have found myself guiltily enjoying them too.

These cheesy shows range in content, but they all feature “important” and distinct kinds of conflict.  The use of conflict is what causes the viewer to give a hoot about what is happening to those characters.  What is interesting to me, is each of these types of conflict revolve around a kind of death.

conflict and suspense.jpgThis bring me to James Scott Bell, an author who has written a number of very useful books on the craft of writing.  In his book, Conflict & Suspense, he implanted an idea in my head I can’t seem to shake (and that’s a good thing).  His premise is that, “There are three kinds of death: physical, professional, psychological” (p. 10).

It’s a basic concept, but one worth talking about.  Let’s take a day to break these three down.

Physical Death.  Call a florist and make arrangements because this is the grim reaper poking you with a bony finger.  In books and television the threat of a beloved character dying keeps us invested.  In many ways, this is the ultimate fodder for conflict.  Nothing could have higher stakes than being turned into worm food.

I would argue this is the most relatable kind of death.  Your opinion may vary depending on what has happened in your life.  With my military and police background, fear of death is something I was keenly aware of on a daily basis.  Despite living a cushy stay-at-home dad life now, that fear is something that has been hardwired into my brain.

Professional Death. I think many aspiring writers (myself included) deal with this conflict from time to time.  The professional death is a conflict that could destroy a career or calling.  In stories, this is where the occupation of a character is being threatened by external/internal forces.


This is the doctor facing a malpractice suit, the lawyer being disbarred, or the bank coming to close the family business.  For writers, this is the pile of rejection slips or email from an agent saying, “You need to work on your writing mechanics.”

Psychological Death.  “Like, Becky, you don’t even know.  If Jimmy takes Suzy to the prom…I will die!”  This type of death seems irrelevant in the grand scheme of things, but to the character, it’s earth shattering.  Many comedy and romance based television shows thrive on this.  Many books function much the same.

no soup for you.jpgI laughed as I read about Bell’s description of this, because as he explained the concept, I thought of the television show Seinfeld.  Wouldn’t you know it, he went on to talk about the same show.  Bell explains, “…take any episode of Seinfeld.  It’s always about how important something stupid is to the characters.  Like the soup in ‘The Soup Nazi’ episode.  Oh, the soup!  If Jerry doesn’t get this soup, he will die inside.  In fact, there comes a moment when Jerry must choose between his girlfriend, who has offended the soup Nazi, and the bowl of soup” (p. 12).

Blending the concepts.  In my opinion, a good book or story can use one of these concepts, or merge them together.  Regardless of what method the writer uses, they need to make the reader care.

I think we all have read a story or watched a show where the drama was so contrived we are left dizzy from the amount of eye-rolling it produces.  This is usually a failure in character or in buildup.  In the rush to get the conflict pot boiling, writers can forget how important it is the reader cares about your character.

example graphicIf the reader is indifferent to your character, that spells death for the character and for the book.  One way to help the reader care, is make sure the potential death would impact more than the fallen character.  I will do a post on subplots one of these days, but this is basically what we are talking about.  Here are some basic, and cheesy, examples.

Physical Death

  • If the hero dies, no one will be left to protect the land
  • If the character dies, his/her family will be left fatherless/motherless.
  • The character has important knowledge, if killed, the knowledge is gone.

Professional Death

  • The lawyer who is in danger of being disbarred may be involved in a very important case.  The death of their career could mean a client experiences a death of their own.
  • The doctor who loses his medical credentials won’t be able to save a key patient.
  • The family business going under will impact the entire community.  It could also usher in a new era of big business muscling out the little guy/gal.

Psychological Death

  • In the silly Seinfeld example above.  If Seinfeld doesn’t get his soup, his friends are at risk of losing their soup too.  Not to mention the girlfriend in the mix.  “No soup for you!”
  • If the man/woman doesn’t find their love interest, other aspects of their life will fall apart.  They become a recluse and no longer share valuable insights/knowledge/skills with the world.
  • If the boy/girl doesn’t win the game, pass the test, or accomplish some other task, they haven’t just failed themselves – they have failed their family.  Whether the failure is real or perceived, this is an added element.

netflix.pngThat’s it for today.  While this is a basic concept, I like it because it keeps my mind focused on the craft of storytelling.  Even if I’m two hours into a Netflix or die binge fest, I’m still analyzing storytelling concepts and thinking about how to apply them in my own work (at least that’s a justification for the time squandered).

What types of death threaten your characters?  Do you find one type of death more sinister than the others?  I’d love to hear about it.  Until tomorrow, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!

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38 responses

  1. Great post, concise but meaty, and a new way of looking at conflict I hadn’t seen before. Now that I think about it, the conflict in my upcoming NaNo project isn’t very strong. So thanks for the tips!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m glad you found some meat to sink your teeth into!

      Thanks for reading and leaving some thoughts. Best of luck finding creative solutions to sharpen up your conflict.


  2. I love the three types. I have followed them in the reverse order for one character and made it a total downward spiral of demise. Starting with the simple loss of something important. That leading to the job loss and then their life being snuffed out in a spectacular, yet related way.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Everyone enjoys a spiral of demise. From the sound of it you have it mastered! Thanks for leaving an example of merging them together and thanks for reading. Happy writing!


  3. I took something very important from this. I won’t say what, but I did. In terms of other things though, I do agree Death is hard to care about if you don’t care about a character dying.

    I like how you went over the different types of death and used some examples as to what each one could represent in a show or scenario. I was planning on bringing on NetFlix shortly. I do that probably too much so I relate to that last photo as well.

    There is just so much to watch on NetFlix! Xp

    Liked by 2 people

    • I appreciate you coming by and reading. The old reaper is always lingering about it seems. You would think he was too busy to be loitering around in fields.


  4. Really insightful post! I’ve now realised why I haven’t liked some characters when I couldn’t put my finger on the reason; it’s all because their death (in either of the three ways) had no real consequences, or the consequences weren’t explained properly.


    • Glad you found some decent information here today! It can either be their death has no real impact on their world, or the author hasn’t made us care about the character yet. A lot of books on writing talk about how conflicts and characters are what drives a good story. What can happen is the author focuses purely on conflict, but doesn’t give us enough context to really bond us with the character.

      Thanks for leaving some thoughts and taking the time to read. Happy writing and reading!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. It helps most to blend. I’d also recommend switching it up. Fantasy books are big into physical death. Elantris found a different path, the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms blended well, but fantasy as a whole has the overused go to of “If hero fails, the world ends.” This is something I want to work on. Thanks for the breakdown, Corey.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks for taking the time to read and leave some thoughts Matt. I would agree with the whole world ending deal being played out. Not that it can’t be done, and done well, it just needs a solid twist.

      Twisting old concepts makes me think of Sanderson and Writing Excuses. When he talks about how he came up with the idea for Mistborn. The idea was simple, instead of having a chosen hero save the world – what if the hero of prophesy fails? I know you love Sanderson so you know exactly what I’m talking about.

      In a way, this is why I like post-apocalyptic fiction. The world has already ended. Trying to say, “The world will end again,” just doesn’t seem to have as much impact when the world is already devastated. It forces you to focus on different conflicts and assign values of different types to characters. Of course, I’m biased by my current pursuits.

      Enough rambling from me! Thanks again for swinging by today.

      Liked by 2 people

      • I disagree a little. Tropes like “if the hero fails, the world ends” are tropes because enough people love them. There are certain tropes I’ll read over and over, as long as the characters matter to me. Let’s see, how many apocalypses have I watched Sam and Dean fend off? 😉

        Liked by 1 person

  6. This was a fun post. And I love how you bind it all together with the importance of caring about the character. Once I care, I’ll be on the edge of my seat when any of these three types of death threaten. Even the most shallow. (Jerry, oh no! How will you ever choose between this woman and the soup?)


    • I loved your Supernatural comment. I agree with you, old concepts with a twist, can make an old concept sing. As long as the twist is able to make me look at the old concept with new eyes – I’m invested.

      For me, Supernatural is less about the threat of a world ending and more about two brothers (and my favorite angel) being able to keep each other “quasi-alive” while ganking various creatures. For instance…

      *SUPERNATURAL SPOILER ALERT – don’t continue reading if you haven’t binge watched at least until Season 10*

      …I think of the last scene of Season 10 when the darkness exploded out of the ground and consumed the Impala. While I thought it was interesting, I wasn’t the least bit concerned about if this would end the world. Honestly, in the context of that show, I don’t really care about the world. I was wondering how Sam and Dean would be affected by this new presence and how they would deal with this new threat. In this way, the state of the world is almost a subplot for me. That’s just my two cents though.

      I haven’t watched any of Season 11 yet. I will be “patiently” waiting until it pops up on Netflix in October.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Okay, you have a point. Whichever apocalypse is happening at the moment isn’t the real stakes in Supernatural. (Well, it might have been with the very first one, back in season 5. But not since then.) The real stakes are either the physical deaths of non-starring characters–Kevin! Charlie!–or the psychological deaths of Sam, Dean and Cas.

        That might be why I’ll read the same tropes over and over, actually. (And I don’t even require a brilliant twist. I’m game for a well done, straight-up version.) Because with anything I read or watch, I’m really in it for the characters.

        Huh. Okay, wait. But I still look for my fave tropes! So tropes still matter!

        No spoilers: Season 11 of Supernatural is fun! I can nitpick plenty, but it’s a good time overall. Some nice character growth and two outstanding eps: “Baby” and “Don’t Call Me Shurley.” (Robbie Thompson wrote both–sadly he left the show for other projects at the end of the season.) Also watch for Misha Collins looking like he’s having way too much fun with one of the plot twists!

        Liked by 2 people

      • I can’t wait to watch it! I’m a mishamigo, so I have a feeling I’m going to have some good fun 🙂


    • Thanks for sharing an example from your work. I like how you ensured the death would impact more than just the person who kicked the can. Is your novel finished? I’m always looking to add WordPress writers to my reading list!

      Thanks for reading today and leaving some thoughts. Happy writing.


  7. I really like that you brought this up because I feel like more often than not the motivation for the character is avoiding physical death. Which, while fantastic for motivation, is… well, boring. It lacks ingenuity. It lacks originality. Not to mention, half the worlds that this motivation is placed in, makes ‘death’ more present and common than it is in current society (depending on where you live, of course.) What I’m saying is, physical death in an apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic society is much more common and likely than a futuristic society. Yet, death is the character’s motivation. Personally, it doesn’t feel strong enough and I think more writers need to read this post to find other motivations for their characters. After all, good, interesting characters are complex. Therefore, shouldn’t they also have multiple different forms of motivation?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree on some points. I will always care if the character is in physical jeopardy as long as the writer has made me love that character. What makes it fail is when the author hasn’t made me care at all, and this happens too often.

      I agree with you on merging the concepts. Just like we avoid stereotypes by building multi-dimensional archetypes, we should strive to build multi-dimensional conflicts (potential deaths). This will help, as you mentioned, to allow our characters to have diverse motivations in their actions.

      Awesome comment! Thank you so much for reading and leaving these thoughts.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Oh yes! Feeling something for the character is half the battle with physical deaths. Though, half the time the suspense isn’t there for me because very few, and I mean like… 1 or 2, authors actually kill off the MC. So, I guess it’s not as… believable in that sense. :/

        Liked by 1 person

  8. I like looking at what my characters are comfortable with and giving them the exact opposite which in a lot of cases tends to fall into the psychological death. It lends the character to figure out how to resurrect themselves after dealing with whats happened to them. Also, I have yet to hear about the three types of death,l and I found this post really thought provoking! Thank you!

    Also, what are you binging?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m really excited to hear you found something useful in the posting today. I love the example you used from you own work. That’s a really smart way of tackling conflict. I think the Writing Excuses pod series really keyed me into the idea of dragging characters through the mud (that’s a brilliant place to snag short 15 minutes pod casts if you haven’t heard of it before).

      As for Netflix…hah. Well a couple weeks ago I burned through Stranger Things. Before that the list is lengthy: Sherlock, Breaking Bad, Jessica Jones, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Supernatural, Firefly, and the list goes on and on. I wonder how many hours of my life have been sacrificed to the Netflix gods? Do you have some you have loved? The Netflix gods are demanding more sacrifice.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Recently, we devoured Stranger Things (So good!) Currently we are watching Dead of Summer, which is a fun, slightly cheesy, horror suspense show on Free Form and we’re watching Sex And The City, which I always forget how good that show is. Scream season one was actually really, really good!

        Liked by 1 person

      • Cheesy horror is right up my alley! Sounds like I need to check out Dead of Summer. I’m not familiar with Scream Season, I will check into it. I don’t think I’ve tried Sex in the City. I know my wife enjoyed it but watched it all a while ago. Maybe we will have a re-binge. Thanks for the suggestions!

        Liked by 1 person

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