A few nights ago, I finished reading I’m Not Dying With You Tonight. It’s the first realistic-fiction novel I’ve read since graduating college, and one of the first of which I’ve read by choice in a very long time. You guys know me. I’m a fantasy nerd. But if you only study fantasy to write fantasy, the genre gets stale from old tropes and the same old story-beats. Read outside your comfort zone. I love fantasy because the stakes feel so high–magic and dragons and the like will do that–but Jones and Segal wrote a realistic fiction story so intense I decided I shouldn’t read it before bed like I normally do because it put me on edge along with the characters. Imagine being able to do that in a fantasy setting without relying inherently on magical elements.
And, of course, with books like these, I am just happy to support black authors and, on a personal level, step into these characters’ heads and learn what they have to teach me.
As for today’s study, I’m going to break down the plot elements of the story and explain how it works, what adds to the overall growing tension of the story, and why certain elements clashed with others. Warning: spoilers abound.
The novel is broken into five different parts of varying length, each one serving a different narrative function as specific things happen in each that ultimately propels the story forward. The over-arcing plot is as follows: Lena and Campbell find themselves stuck in each others’ company as they get caught in the middle of protests and race riots. They come from two different worlds, barely know one another, and yet, with no one else there to save them, they’re have to figure out how to work together in order to survive the night.
Part 1: Mass Disturbance
This serves as the set-up for the characters. In order to feel afraid for them, we as a reader have to understand that they can rely on no one but each other tonight. The majority of “Mass Disturbance” sets up the characters in a way that we 1) understand why we should feel for them and 2) explain why the two end up in each other’s company when everything falls apart.
For Campbell, the reasons are simple: her parents are split up and her mom went out of the country to follow a job. She’s stuck with her dad, who has not made many friends in the community, and Campbell herself, as a newcomer, doesn’t have any friends at school. In fact, since her father leaves her for his usual weekend trip to his lodge, she has to rely on a teacher to give her a ride home. Campbell is on school grounds manning the concession stand without the help of the other two that got wrangled into the job, and since one girl bounces early and the boy is on his phone the whole time, we automatically understand that Campbell is alone.
Lena is different. She’s lived in this community. She has friends, play-cousins, a boyfriend. Her best friend LaShunda is at the game with her tonight, but the two split early because Lena wants to see her boyfriend, nicknamed Black, and LaShunda doesn’t feel comfortable going with her.
Because Campbell is at a focal point on the school grounds–the concession stand, where everyone will congregate–it offers the two characters the opportunity to get stuck with one another. It also allows them to see what events lead up to the chaos. A rival school, one that comes from a better-off neighborhood that houses rich, ignorant kids, is playing against our characters’ McPherson High School. Racial slurs are tossed around, a fight breaks out, the police get involved, and a gun goes off.
The absolute rabid nature of all people involved in the fight instantly kicks off the tension as the two characters hunker down in what little shelter the concession stand provides. But when the gun goes off, they know they can’t stay there. It’s poorly made, and it certainly won’t keep out bullets. So begins the characters’ night of fleeing, temporarily safety, and then embarking out into the chaos once more. Their goal: to just get home in one piece. Their plan of attack: Get to Black and his friends, and have him give Lena and Campbell a ride home.
Part 2: All Call
Before things can grow too intense, the characters need some time to bond with one another, and “All Call” provides that opportunity. With the conflict blocking their safest routes home, the two characters have to take a detour down the bad part of town. The streets are empty of protesters, but both characters have been warned away from this part of town, and based on the descriptions and the characters’ own fears, it’s easy to understand why.
While “Mass Disturbance” already set the foundation for Black’s wily, untrustworthy nature, the beginning of “All Call” condemns him, at least in Campbell’s eyes. Black won’t come to the school to get Lena, but if the two girls can reach the studio on Seventh, he can get his friends to give them a ride home.
To get to him, they have to go through First, and Campbell and Lena are given their second bonding opportunity when a homeless man tries to chase them. Already, there’s been some tension between the two because of some ignorant comments on both of their parts, but Campbell pulls through and raises herself in Lena’s esteem when she braves the homeless man to get Lena free and clear.
And, although First Avenue is free of the protesters and the rioters, the sense of unease grows with every interaction our characters have with people on the street. First, Happy, who says the streets don’t smell right. Then, the homeless man. Then, Lena’s play-cousin Marcus, who seems like an alright guy who just wants to look out for Lena. Again, Marcus suggests that Black is not someone that our characters should be relying on, and the more we’re told by various people, the more we’re inclined to believe it. Only Lena, blinded by her own biases, refuses to agree. Finally, we see Mrs. Johnson, who says to take care because trouble’s brewing.
They make their way to Seventh, and it’s clear that the characters weren’t just saying these things to generate conflict. Their warnings are backed up by what our two characters find as soon as they reach Seventh.
Part 3: The First Brick
While “The First Brick” is the smallest part of the book, it functions as a way for the characters to dip their toes in the conflict that’s about to follow in “Fatal Funnel.” And while I say dip their toes, it’s unfortunately relatively speaking. It’s more than just people at school in an open brawl. People are looting stores, throwing bricks. It’s actually dangerous, life-threateningly so. The characters get swept up into conflict, but catch their last safety net before reaching Black, only to find that it’s not what they need or where they need to be.
It begins with a man running into a black woman with his car. Marcus, with the two girls, gets wrenched apart from them, and they have to leave him. They run away from the chaos, and Campbell sees the little shop she’d hoped to find a job in. The owners are letting in girls from a nearby bar, and one’s got a gun. Then they reach Mr. Wells’s shop, the only people Campbell’s father knows on the whole street, and Mr. Wells has a baseball bat.
This is the last time the characters really get time to pause and breathe, and Mr. Wells represents the chance that the characters have to let the adults take over and tell them what to do. But the way Mr. Wells reacts to Lena, and the conflict over the man’s son taking hardware from Campbell’s store to board up and protect their own store from the looting, shows that the adults don’t always know what to do.
Campbell bounces, fearing for her father’s store–his livelihood–and Lena follows.
Part 4: Fatal Funnel
“Fatal Funnel” is where things spike in intensity. Both characters reach their breaking point as the real-life costs of the situation hit them, and the streets get even more dangerous as police come in to quell the riots and looting. The characters hit a brief lull when Black finds them and they reach relative safety of his friend’s car, only to find that Black’s friends are more dangerous than they appear. Black’s true character is revealed at the most intense moment of the story.
“Fatal Funnel” begins with Campbell finding what little is left of her father’s store now that the looters had gotten to it. A blue car is noted to be outside, a passing mention that will pay off only a few chapters later. Campbell hits her breaking point as she sees her father’s entire livelihood crumbling around her. Lena wants to keep moving, Campbell wants to stay, and we finally reach the point where they as characters no longer want to be around each other.
It’s to be expected. They didn’t know each other before this, they were from two different walks of life. It wasn’t a matter of if but when. But we also know that these two characters are not out of danger yet, and thankfully, they do not stay apart for long–Lena still has Campbell’s phone. And she hadn’t gotten far, because she finds her own breaking point, one that even terrifies Campbell: the police in full-on riot gear, some on horseback.
Marcus meets up with them just as Black finally pulls through and finds the two girls, and there’s the confrontation Lena expected and feared. To some degree, this particular argument was petty and pointless, because we already see how these riots have brought characters together. But, in another way, it also shows why Campbell as a character had to be from out of town: she had a clean slate as far as expectations and assumptions were. There was already conflict between Marcus and Black, and in the high-stakes moment, that conflict broke open.
Marcus finds himself caught up in the crowd as the police descend, and the poor guy can’t catch a break. It makes the danger even more tangible to Lena, and also, surprisingly, Campbell, and all of them make a break for their blue getaway car. Black’s friends drive them all to Campbell’s house, where she eventually realizes that one of his friends was the one who looted her father’s store.
The conflict comes to a head as Peanut, one of Black’s friends and the one who looted, pulls out a gun and threatens all of them. Black gets the opportunity to show he’s not a complete loser as he stands up against his friends and Peanut and the rest leave him and the two girls at Campbell’s house, with Campbell reclaiming the stolen goods.
Part 5: Aftermath
The last part of the novel gives one final splutter of conflict before the characters find themselves safe at home. Campbell’s father returns home, and threatens Lena and her boyfriend, but rather than let her father go off on them, she stands up to him. The news of his store makes him sad, and Lena and Black make their exit.
Black gets what’s coming to him when Lena goes off on how angry she is that he had left her and Campbell to face everything on their own, though they don’t break up. When Lena gets home, her Pops yells at her for everything that happened, and she’s able to get off on a minimal explanation before he lets her go to bed. The story ends with Lena texting Campbell that she got home safe, a symbol that the two characters truly had formed a bond that night, one that didn’t end just because the chaos was over.
The plot score earns an 8/10.
The book excellently prepares its readers for the various conflicts that its characters are going to face, and despite the tension and the fear, the characters still say stupid things and believe they can trust people that are clearly untrustworthy. It keeps them feeling human and well-rounded.
Where I’m Not Dying With You Tonight stumbled was the conflict with Black. Firstly, however realistic that fight might have been, and no matter if Lena said such a fight would happen if Black and Marcus saw each other, the timing was inopportune. The police were bearing down on the crowd, people were running, and they did not have a particularly safe place to bunker down to have that conflict. It would have read better if Marcus had gone with the whole group and the fight had taken place at the Walmart, where they realized Black’s own car was not an option and they had to decide which direction to go from there.
Secondly, strangely enough, the conflict between Black and his friends was a mildly over-the-top. In a way, it felt as if the authors wanted Lena to get something out of Campbell’s presence, as Campbell had from Lena’s throughout most of the book, and so decided that she needed to be the spark that showed Black what kind of friends he was hanging out with. When Peanut pulled a gun on everyone, it didn’t feel warranted. Still, it did also give Black the chance to prove he wasn’t a useless human being–just a useless boyfriend–because he said he wasn’t willing to set his foundations as a thief just to make it big in the music industry.
Considering the book was so tense that I couldn’t even read it before bedtime without finding myself as on-edge as Lena and Campbell were, that suggests the authors did an otherwise stellar job at building the tension and writing it realistically enough that the dangers seemed very real.