Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The Art of Death Scenes – 5 Thoughts on Their… Um… Execution.

And I’m not talking the red shirts. I’m talking the characters you care about. The ones that made half the audience mad that they died. Here are the things I have learned - so far - on storydeath.

1.      1. LEAD UP TO IT. As the reader, I have got to care. I don’t care how I am brought to the place where I care, (a page or a chapter or the whole book up to that point) but I have to care or the scene will fall flat. Or worse… fall humorous. So please… make me love the character, even though I don’t want to because I can see the foreshadowing you’ve subtly left telling me what’s coming. Make me beg you, the writer, not to let them die. 
      2. SINCERETY AND ORIGINALITY. There is a very fine line between cliché and humanity. As humans, we tend to say and do similar things over and over. It’s the way we are. In fiction… this steps dangerously close to the mostly unpardonable - cliché. So the writer’s job is to make me, the reader, get one without the other – humanity displayed in it’s familiarity, while at the same time eliminating cliché. The secret to this? I think it’s in the characters involved For example, in lots of death scenes, people say ‘No, please don’t die’ or some variation of those words. We’ve seen it again and again. Cliché? Perhaps. But the feeling expressed - denial and grief at parting – is not cliché, it’s humanity. How to express but avoid cliché? I think... and I'm still learning about this... honesty of character. If the words, the pacing, and the actions are true to the character, if they feel like a real person with real pain, and if there is specificity involved (and by specificity, I mean making it THIS death scene... unique in some way) then you won’t be using cliché. It will just ring true… and it will be all right that it’s familiar.    
      3. PURPOSE. The death must be meaningful. Now, I’m not saying that every important person who dies should do it taking a bullet for the one he/she loves… but I am saying that the death should be informed by and impact the story. If we kill a character just because we decided it was time to... not so good. I watched some of a poorly written movie where they started out with a huge cast of characters, and one by one the characters were killed off in random and meaningless ways. No timing. Little reasoning. And it never contributed to the story. I don’t remember how the movie ended. It didn’t matter enough to me. It made me bored and tired. Sad! What a waste of characters! 
4.      4. FOLLOW THROUGH. There must be impact on the other characters who go on. Don’t overdo it. But there is always a ripple effect. Let the collateral damage occur. It always unsettles me when I'm reading a story, someone dies, and everyone else just goes on, maybe expressing a little grief, but not in a way to suggest it had a real effect in their lives when it maybe should have. To me, it makes me feel like the writer didn't really care, either.  
5.      5. PLEASE, LET ‘EM BE DEAD. Or if you bring them back, make it dang plausible and meaningful. I always feel disappointed when a character who has apparently died is allowed to come back without a decent explanation. This happens all the time in Disney movies. It annoys the crap out of me. It feels cheap.  Please, don’t do this. It’s true; dark places make the light ones brighter. But a cheap death is the false, easy route to this. There are other ways to get the reader down in that dark place so you can bring them back up again.       

       Later, I'll post a list of books and movies with good death scenes. :) And my reason for 'Later' is... I haven't got it put together yet. If you have one in mind that you thought was well done, leave it in the comments and I'll tack it on to the forthcoming list.

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