A Modest Proposal About Death…

All right then, fellow writers, let’s call this meeting to order. Put down the chocolate biscuits, we have something important to talk about. No, don’t look at me like that. You know exactly what I mean.

This trend for killing characters and bringing them back thirty seconds later.

Now, I concede that bringing the dead back to life is a longstanding cinematic tradition. Everyone loves a victory over the Grim Reaper. At first, it was the sole province of the fantasy and science-fiction writer, who have unique excuses to ignore the laws of biology and physics. The more ’realistic’ writer had to settle for an occasional mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, or the cheaty  “Everyone thought I was dead, but in fact I wasn’t even in the car when it blew up”  approach.

But now everyone seems to be at it. Characters used to die occasionally, powerfully, and permanently. Now they die and come back for want of a better plot point, or to fill up a few minutes with a subplot. It’s getting silly, people.

So why don’t we establish some ground rules here? Here’s what I propose.

– A character who dies has to stay dead for five minutes of screen time in a TV episode, or one sequence (approx. fifteen minutes) of a movie. If it takes longer to send a text message than to bring someone back from the dead, you’re not treating it seriously enough.

The only exceptions are deaths in the final minutes or sequence. In the climactic scenes, the pace is faster and events are bound to progress more quickly, so we’ll cut you some slack there.

– If the status quo is not changed, to however small a degree, by the death and resurrection, then it’s pointless. Everything that happens in a movie changes the way the characters look at life, and therefore who they are. That’s what action is for. And if someone they care about – or even themselves – dying and coming back to life doesn’t affect your hero, they really aren’t paying enough attention to the situation.

– You can kill as many people as you like, but you’d better be picky about whom you bring back. Cheating death undermines the stakes for your characters. If people come back to life every five minutes, then why would we care whether they get killed or not?

– The resurrection had better be intricately connected to your characters and your plot. “I happen to know a magic spell”  or  “Here’s my all-purpose piece of technology”  is not good enough.

Consider, for instance, the end of Mission: Impossible 3. Ethan Hunt knows the killer device he’s been injected with, he’s seen it work before, he knows a massive electrical shock will neutralise it – and his wife, who’ll have to bring him back afterwards, is an ER doctor!  Yup, given all of that, I believe his plan would work…

Are we all agreed on that? Excellent. Next on the agenda, cliches, elimination of…

Advertisements

2 comments on “A Modest Proposal About Death…

  1. Shaula Evans says:

    Hurray! May I rent a van with a speaker on top, like they use for elections in Japan, and drive around the streets reading your post out loud? Thank you for this, Debbie!

    My favorite semi-recent of a show that handles death well: Spooks (or MI-5 as it’s known on this side of the pond). In the early episodes of season 1 there is a death that is not telegraphed in any way, it is true to the story world, and it is utterly shocking–and it had repercussions within the story world and emotional consequences for the characters. You know, the way death does. My hat goes off to the writers.

    (On the other hand, in later seasons, I felt like characters were dying willy nilly in a way that wasn’t consistent with the story world–and it taught me it wasn’t safe to care about them so my emotional investment in the show plummeted.)

    I’d love to see writers take your advice, here. Death isn’t a cheap trick: it’s final and it’s disruptive.

    Let’s have more truth around death and violence, not less.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s