Why Bad Writing is Killing Death – Part 2

Last week I was adamant that character death is not something to splash around or negate with resurrection. It should be respected. If you don’t lay down rules and keep them, your audience won’t trust you and you can’t maintain dramatic suspense. But…

Aren’t there exceptions?

Most exceptions to this rule deal with something called resuscitation. In real life, if a person dies, they can still be resuscitated within minutes. Someone can breathe into their mouth, electric charges can be put to their chest—you get the idea. Until brain necrosis occurs (when all the brain cells are dead—they can never regrow), that person has not really died.

In your plot, it is natural and perfectly acceptable to follow this rule. After all, the possibility of keeping someone from truly dying when they’ve flatlined only heightens dramatic suspense. So I would be fine with resuscitation because it still shows respect for death. Besides, if you think about it from a certain angle, a true death has not really occurred. Yes, the person’s heart has stopped beating, and they have stopped breathing—but until their brain cells are dead, they are not dead.

The same applies to a character preserving their consciousness somehow. Let’s say your character deposited his consciousness into a computer or something. In that case, we’re not really talking about resurrection—the character never really died to begin with. Yes, their body perished, but in the world of fantasy/sci-fi, death and bodily termination are two different things.

That being said, I would stay away from the whole spirit/ascension plot line. I find it to be very ambiguous rule-wise, and it has the same problem of removing dramatic suspense. If your character can become a spirit, how do spirits get harmed? Is your character now impervious to everything? Where’s the danger? Your character can’t die, but your dramatic suspense just did.

What about fake-outs (pretending someone died when they didn’t)?

Fake-outs have the exact same issues as dying and resurrecting: 1) they lose trust with the audience, 2) they confuse expectations so that the audience doesn’t know what to expect the next time someone “dies” and 3) they cheapen the idea of death.

A good example is the movie Black Panther. When the superhero was thrown over the waterfall, literally everyone in the audience knew he didn’t die. And yet the scene is still treated as if he did. (How stupid does Disney think we are?) A dramatic scene in which the main character “died” didn’t receive so much as a bat of the eyelash from its viewers. That is when you know you have failed as a storyteller.

I actually think fake-outs are some of the worst tropes in storytelling today. People think they can invest the audience by pretending that someone has died—but every time you do that, you lose the audience’s trust. And for the audience to have a relationship with your character, they need trust.

This is not to say that characters are never allowed to fake their death. Faking one’s death is a thing in real life—and sometimes, it’s a character’s best option. Furthermore, it may not always be in the author’s best interests to disclose that a character has faked their death.

However, I think this plot device should be used with extreme compunction. Every time your reader thinks someone died—and then it turns out that person hasn’t—you’ve lost trust. Trust is your most important currency with your reader—so I wouldn’t spend it lightly. I would recommend only faking someone’s death if they are a character the reader has barely had any contact with. That way when the character comes back, no trust is being broken and it is more a surprise and less a betrayal. (A good example would be Pierce Brosnan’s Goldeneye, where his friend fakes his death in the very beginning).

Conclusion

So there you have it. Keep your deaths real, and your fans will have real concern for your characters. Don’t overuse it, and it mean more when it happens. Keep death alive with good writing.

God bless!

–Ian

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