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Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Lessons from SiWC: The Case for the Dangling Villain

Writers, should you kill off your villain at the end of your novel? James Scott Bell recommends his own plotting system he calls LOCK (Lead, Objective, Confrontation, and Knockout). As he puts it:
I once asked an old sports writer why he thought boxing was so popular. He smacked his fist into his hand. "Pow!" he said, letting his arm fall like a sack of potatoes. People watch boxing for the knockout, he explained. They'll accept a decision, but they prefer to see one fighter kissing the canvas. What they hate is a draw. That doesn't satisfy anyone. Readers of commercial fiction want to see a knockout at the end ... So take your Lead through the journey to her objective, and then send the opposition to the mat.
Does this mean that you have to kill off your antagonist at the end of each novel (which would put an end to a second book with the same antagonist)?
Not necessarily.
One thing that struck me at the 2010 SiWC conference was the number of aspiring authors who were busy planning not just one book but a series. I listened to several who had plotted out three books (three seemed to be the favorite number) and were convinced that if they attracted a publisher, they would get the series published.
Perhaps this not all that surprising, given the huge success of the Harry Potter series.
Dan Brown, author of The Da Vinci Code and other blockbusters, has already planned TWELVE – that's right: 12 – novels featuring his hero Robert Langdon, according to Wikipedia. However, it is probably safe to say that the antagonists in each book are slammed to the mat – as James Scott Bell recommends – and do not resurface in future books.
During one of his presentations at SiWC Robert Dugoni was asked if you needed a conclusion (Bell's Knockout) at the end of Book One if you planned a three-book series. Dugoni was emphatic that you did: you never knew if there was going to be a second book, and in any case, readers of Book One wanted conclusion – a satisfactory end to the tension you have raised.
However, Dugoni pointed out that this did not mean that you had to dispatch the Villain at the end of your novel. Star Wars, for example, ended satisfactorily, but everyone knew that Darth Vader was still alive, and probably would come back in a sequel to create mayhem. And Harry Potter ended but the villain, Voldemort, lived on to terrorize again.

Darth Vader from Star Wars
So, writers, if you think you have a re-usable villain, and just might want to write a series after the enormous success of your first novel, consider how to give your villain the Knockout blow without terminating him with extreme prejudice ... send him to the mat but let him dangle. Alive.
You just might need him again.

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