Is Our Writing Better Off Dead?


Do you remember that John Cusack movie from the 80s Better Off Dead?  It was a humorous take on a traumatic time in a teen boy’s life. His girl dumped him for the popular boy, and he was left rudderless trying to navigate high school life with a giant hole in his heart.  This hole was so giant that he actively attempted suicide several times throughout the movie. Each attempt went unnoticed by the adults in his life, and each was thwarted in some fashion. He attempted to jump off of a bridge at the precise moment an open garbage truck passed on the street below just in time to break his fall.  In another attempt he doused himself in gasoline at the dinner table at his neighbors’ house, just to have another dinner guest light a cigarette and accidentally set herself on fire.

But aside from Cusack’s failed attempts to end his existence, other aspects of life continued around him.  And that depiction of life going on was what made the construction of this story so brilliant. Normally a story about a depressed teen would be heart breaking.  But director John Hughes threw in ordinary suburban moments that made an otherwise tragic story hilarious. Enter the paper boy.

Throughout the movie, the neighborhood newspaper delivery boy demands to be paid two dollars for his services.  Several times this paper boy comes careening into a scene on his bike making his demands of Cusack and his family members in those moments where the last thing they need or care about is paying the paper boy.  “I WANT MY TWO DOLLARS!” he would scream. In one scene, Cusack is on a very difficult ski run trying to show up the popular boy on the ski team and win back the girl. The paper boy had his bike fitted out with skis, and was seen barreling down the face of the mountain beside Cusack on his skis and made his demand.

I’ve started calling these moments in my books my Better Off Dead moments.  It’s these moments that bring levity to otherwise dark moments. If you don’t want your story to be nonstop doom and gloom while your protagonist is making his or her way through the story arc, what Better Off Dead moments can you add to lighten it up?  Let me give you a few examples.

My book Beside the Music is the story of a couple, Brenda and Tim, that has a washed up 80s metal band move into their house while the band records their comeback album.  Of course, a house full of formerly famous musicians and their entourage has a negative impact on a marriage that is already in trouble. But what if Brenda’s snooty meddling mother in law shows up at the worst possible moments to hassle Brenda?  And a new character was born, and Portia—the mother in law—existed for the sole purpose of annoying Brenda when she least needed it. Portia is over the top in her wealth, her Chanel wardrobe, and her desire to perpetually renovate Brenda and Tim’s house.  She shows up when Brenda and Tim are arguing to insist they select swatches. Her disdain for Brenda is obvious; Brenda still feels the need to try to win her over. Of course Portia shows up in moments where it is impossible for Brenda to make even a half way decent impression.  Portia may as well be on a bicycle demanding her two dollars, and her over the top persona is what makes the readers laugh and dissipates the tension of Brenda and Tim having a marital spat.

In my current work, the prequel to Beside the Music called Before the Music, the story is told from bassist Keith Kutter’s point of view.  The story spans twenty years as the band rises and falls from fame. Over the course of this time period Keith must also guard a deep dark secret that would ruin him.  As you can imagine, the story gets heavy. To keep it from getting bogged down in the impending threat of ruin, I employ my Better Off Dead moments to lighten things up.  In this story, at the beginning of his career Keith models his look after Michael Hutchence, the lead singer from pop sensation INXS. Throughout the story, Keith’s ego is assaulted by getting confused with Michael Hutchence in the moments where he needs it least.  It’s to the point where after Hutchence died, strangers would say to Keith, “Dude, I thought you were dead” as he’s dealing with his own faltering musical career.

The Better off Dead moments don’t have to be silly or over the top, as they are in the movie Better off Dead or in Beside the Music; they can be realistic things that will snap the protagonist back from spiraling into a dark corner of the story.  As an author, sporadically employing these moments will also serve as a device to keep you in control of your plot and keep it from heading into an unexpected direction.