Writing With Death Overhanging At The Ranch Pen

Kit Carson's gravestone Taos, New Mexico

A few years ago, Gramps and I visited the graveyard in a park in Taos, New Mexico where Kit Carson and his wife, Josefina, are buried.

One of our closest neighbors died this week. Statistically speaking, one out of one people dies, so there was nothing strange in her death. At over eighty years of age, our neighbor may have lived through one of the most radical periods of change in the history of mankind. She was an old-style Okie lady–tough, opinionated, a staunch Democrat, super friendly, and big-hearted. I liked her even though we couldn’t agree on politics. For years, she manned a spot at the polling booth in a local church where she tried–not always successfully–not to voice her opinions to the voters. Last Tuesday when Gramps and I went to vote, I missed her a lot.

Maybe her death and the deaths of many of our elderly farm neighbors in the past few years–along with writing a difficult book–is what set me to thinking about a quote from the writing craft book by James Scott Bell, Revision and Self Editing. 

“A gripping plot involves the overhanging possibility of death.”

~James Scott Bell~


What Mr. Bell meant was the stakes have to be so high for the character that if he or she doesn’t get what they need, they will not be okay. The character doesn’t necessarily have to get what they want, but their most basic need must be met or they will die…either physically, psychologically/spiritually, or professionally.

For instance, consider physical death. Every morning I want a cup of hot tea. I think I will probably die if I don’t get it. I will do almost anything to get tea in the morning. However, if the situation is distilled to basics, it turns out the only thing I actually need is just a boring cup of water to sustain my life.

Now, I can decide water is absolutely unacceptable. I must have my greatest desire–tea. Unfortunately, I don’t want to get dressed and drive to town. Do I:

  • Throw a wall-eyed fit and make Gramps miserable so he’ll stop drinking his coffee and go buy me some tea, or do I drink some of his coffee?

Gramps won’t share his coffee, I decide on the fit. Does Gramps:

  • Lay back his ears, refuse to go to town for tea, or offer me water?

I shrilly declare I’d rather drink gasoline and die than drink a cup of water. Does Gramps:

  • Say go ahead, see if I care, or try to distract me with a glass of apple juice?

I don’t want apple juice, either. He obviously doesn’t believe me about the gas. I feel honor bound to follow through, show him he has pushed me too far this time. Do I:

  • Show him a thing or two by drinking the gasoline and end up sputtering to an inglorious stop, or ditch my ridiculous pride and have some water-based apple juice?

All those scenarios (completely fictional) (except I must have tea) are where my story lies–what I want, what I think I need, what I’ll do to get my desire, and finally, what I truly need in order to avoid shuffling off my mortal coil.

If we think about it, the same things hold true as we write the stories of our real lives, too, so while we wrestle with our mortality and make decisions about the pieces of us we want to pass through time, let’s live so the preacher doesn’t have to lie at our funeral and let’s write like there is death overhanging.

Thanks so much for reading and until next time, God bless all y’all and enjoy Justin Hines and the Canadian Tenors singing Say What You Will.


*These artists don’t necessarily endorse my blog, I just love ’em.



4 thoughts on “Writing With Death Overhanging At The Ranch Pen

  1. I love this post, Danni, and agree that the “stakes” for characters always need to be clear in our stories or there really isn’t any point for people to keep reading. Sometimes the stakes are impending death, and sometimes they’re even more serious, like a tea shortage. 🙂

    • Hi, Anna! I hope you are keeping well, with plenty of tea at your house. Surely the Scots drink tea? Please don’t spoil my picture of all y’all sitting around drinking tea and eating oatmeal. In your kilts. Playing bagpipes. 😀
      I hate it when I read a story where the author has been like an overly indulgent parent held hostage by spoiled characters with a lot of wants, but no real needs. The best books, to me, are the ones where the author dives right in until they hit the true stakes somewhere.

  2. Danni,
    As I read your great piece of writing I was sipping a cup of Kansas made and blended orange clove tea. Most mornings, I think of it as a legitimate NEED!!!!!
    Can’t get past this!!!! And I wonder what your tea preference is????? Perhaps Lipton!!!!!?????
    By the way I have been privileged to meet one of Kit Carson’s great grandsons, John Carson. He is a very remarkable fellow and on the staff at Bent’s Fort out in Colorado.
    Thanks so much for your wonderful blogs. God bless you!!!!
    Bee Lanning

    • Hi, Bee! It’s always good to see you on the blog and I’m so happy you know your morning tea is a legitimate need, too. Orange clove tea from Kansas sounds SO good. My morning preference is loose leaf Tetley tea, which I steep in my bottom dispensing teapot and then drink from my favorite pottery mug. Ah, bliss. I like Lipton, too. The only kinds I don’t like are store brands or Farmer Bros. They all taste like stuff swept off the feed shed floor at the farmers co-op. (Don’t ask me how I know what that tastes like :D)
      When Gramps and I toured Kit Carson’s house in Taos they showed a documentary in which one of Kit’s great-grandsons played the man himself. Even though I can’t remember his name for sure, I bet it was John. Very cool.
      Thank you for reading the blogs, and God bless you, too. 🙂

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