Death is really popular in movies these days. Or at least, pretending someone’s dead is. Then they get resurrected somehow—twenty seconds later (Maleficent II), later in the same movie (almost any Marvel movie), in the next movie (Pirates of the Caribbean II), in the last installment of the franchise (Ep. IX of Star Wars), etc. You get the idea. Resurrection is everywhere.
But this trend is killing writing. Specifically, it’s killing dramatic suspense. Nowadays when someone dies in a movie, the audience thinks, “But they’re coming back, right? Why should I cry?” You can’t feel suspense that someone might die when you know they’re just coming back later. Why cry over spilt milk? They’ll be back soon, right? Resurrection has become a trope that cheapens death and removes all attachment and dramatic suspense from the plot. It replaces everything intense about the plot with a giant “who cares?”
Cheapening an effective tactic
The worst part is, I don’t think most Hollywood elites or writers are even aware of this. They’ve been taught that death is good for business. After all, Superman was a dying franchise before DC decided to release an issue in which Superman died. That issue sold so well that it revived the entire Superman storyline—we wouldn’t have Superman movies today without it. Then there’s Sherlock Holmes, who famously “died” against his arch nemesis Moriarty. That caused quite a stir. Death is good for business.
But what happens when you imitate something without understanding the fundamental principles which made it work in the first place? It stops working—because it’s employed wrong and lacks the elements that made it successful to begin with.
Imagine I notice that romance is good for a book. So I have my main protagonist fall in love with a rock and take the rock out to dinner. Then he’s afraid the rock might be cheating on him, so he hires a PI. What a blockbuster plot! Romantic drama always makes money, right?
Except I never understood what made romantic drama successful in the first place. I thought it was just “having romance.” No; it’s the principle behind romance—relationships between two human beings, by which the writer forges a relationship with the reader—that works. Kissing a rock doesn’t forge that relationship. So my cheap imitation will fail.
That’s how people are with death. Oh, just add some death—that’ll make your book better. Like death is a magical charm that somehow increases appeal.
The problem is…you’re cheapening death by doing this. Abuse it and reuse it enough—or whitewash it with resurrections—and eventually death as a plot point becomes meaningless. Your audience becomes jaded to it (Game of Thrones) or expects that it won’t last (especially in any Marvel movie). Why should people care anymore?
The reason death “works” is because it means something. That’s the underlying principle. Your audience has a connection with the character, and they feel pain when the character dies. Remember, it’s about a relationship with your reader.
Take that “it means something” away and death no longer works.
Set your rules and keep them
This is why it’s very important for us as authors to set rules at the beginning of our story. Set rules! And stick by them! Otherwise nothing in your plot means anything. If you can break the rules at any time, your audience can no longer trust you or have any expectations. And expectations are what drive dramatic suspense—what will happen next? Expectations are also a necessary part of trust, which drives relationships—and the characters in your book are no exception. If your audience can’t trust you, they can’t connect. If they can’t connect, they’ll cease to care.
Imagine this: you’ve set up a world where character 1 cannot do B, but must defeat character 2—who can only be beaten by doing B, as you’ve made clear. Then in the final scene character 1 suddenly does B without any explanation for how he/she can suddenly do B. Your reader might feel cheated (I would). What was the point of all that suspense if character 1 could simply do B the whole time? There was no point to the plot! What a waste of time!
Keep your rules. The plot is built upon them.
Keep death real
Death is the most important rule in any plot involving action. Without it, your action plot is dead. Floating facedown in the water. And unlike your lovely protagonist, it’s not getting resurrected. Because no one cares anymore.
Let’s imagine your protagonist is crossing a giant chasm. He looks down into the void and thinks, “what a terrifying fall.” But the reader thinks, “If you fall, you’ll just get resurrected anyway. So who cares.”
See what I’m saying? If death is not a reliable penalty, danger means nothing. And since danger is the primary driving factor behind suspense in many plots, you’ve just lost the reader. After all, what’s the worst that could happen? You could die—oh wait, that doesn’t matter.
I’m going to challenge my readers here who also happen to be writers: keep your deaths real. If you overuse, abuse or cancel death, people will become desensitized to it (kind of like what’s happened in many movies). You need to respect death.
Overall, the best writing principles to keep in mind here are this:
- Don’t devalue the stakes. If death is at stake, respect it throughout your writing, not just when you want your reader to care (because then they won’t).
- Lay down rules clearly and keep them. This will keep your audience’s trust and have them come back for more.
But aren’t there exceptions—and what about fake-outs (pretending to have a character killed off when they secretly survive)? You’ll just have to find out in part 2 (next week).