How NOT To Write A Death Scene

The recent blog pieces/videos covered the topics of how to write a death scene. We discussed the rules, the different kinds of deaths, and how to make the death scene emotionally impactful. Moreover, we looked at seven unusual consequences following a death scene. However, at this point, it is important to show how not to write a death scene. That way, writers won’t undermine a critical point in their narrative.

1 – A Death That Has No Consequence

The first point on how not to write a death scene is to give the death no narrative consequence. This is because a death is supposed to have consequence for the rest of the narrative.

In X-Men: First Class, if Dr Schmidt had not murdered Erik Lehnsherr’s mother, Erik would not have become hellbent on vengeance or become Magneto. Similarly, in Batman Begins, if Joe Chill had not shot Bruce Wayne’s parents, Bruce would not have become Batman. The deaths in these narratives had a significant bearing on the protagonist and on the plot. That is ideally what a death in a story is meant to do.

Yet, if the death does not urge the main character to change course and/or go on a life-changing journey, the death serves no narrative purpose. And if the death serves no narrative purpose, it has no consequence (and therefore should not have happened).

Example 1 – Ser Barristan Selmy’s Death in Game of Thrones

how not to write a death scene - ser barristan selmy's death
Ser Barristan Selmy’s death in Game of Thrones served no narrative purpose, and was therefore pointless.

Ser Barristan Selmy was Queen Daenerys Targaryen’s bodyguard. At the end of Season 5 episode 4, while strolling around the city of Meereen, Ser Barristan overhears a melee. Then, he notices that Greyworm and the Unsullied, who form part of Daenerys’ armies, are being attacked by the masked terrorists, known as the Sons of the Harpy. Ser Barristan enters the fray. He saves Greyworm, but dies in the process.

After he dies, Ser Barristan is mentioned in the next episode as Daenerys stands over his body. But that’s it. He is never mentioned again in the series. Indeed, Daenerys and those around her seem to forget that he ever lived.

Subsequently, Dan Weisz & Dave Benioff, the showrunners for Game of Thrones, said that Ser Barristan’s death showed the world that they were going their own way with the show. This is because Ser Barristan is still alive in the books. Yet, all Ser Barristan’s death really showed was how little they understood about how to write narrative fiction.

Example 2 – Eddie Dean’s Death in The Dark Tower

In The Dark Tower, the seventh volume of Stephen King’s Dark Tower saga, we are given an example of how not to write a death scene.

Around half-way through the novel, Eddie Dean, a reformed heroine junkie, is shot and dies slowly. As a reader, it is sad to see him fade away and die as we have known him since The Drawing Of The Three, the second volume in the series.

But apart from making the remaining major characters (Roland, Susannah and Jake) realise their own vulnerability, Eddie’s death doesn’t have narrative corollary. And the way Susannah’s story ends begs the question of why the author killed Eddie at all.

2 – A Death As A Shock Factor For The Sake Of It

A death that shocks the audience is initially great. It is one of the wonders of phenomenal storytelling, as the audience cannot foresee the death coming and so was not prepared for it. Lord Eddard Stark’s beheading springs to mind, here, as it comes just as the audience believes he is going to spared and sent to the Wall.

However, a death that uses the shock factor in and of itself is not enough and showcases how not to write a death scene. Again, the death must have narrative consequence. In the case of Ned Stark’s beheading, it does as his son, Robb Stark, becomes King in the North and ensures that the Northmen will never make peace with the Lannisters.

Thus, Ned Stark’s death meant something. If his beheading would merely have been for the shock factor, per se, the audience would have asked: what was the point in that? As once the shock subsides, the audience is left feeling empty and unsatisfied.

Example – Sévérine In Skyfall

how not to write a death scene - don't shock the audience for the sake of it
Sévérine’s death is shocking, but it adds nothing else to the film.

Skyfall (2012) was a thoroughly enjoyable Bond film. Yet, it has a death in it that is merely there for the shock factor.

After having Sévérine beaten for defecting to Bond, the villainous Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem) shoots her in the head. Other than to show how bad, nasty and ruthless he is, Sévérine’s death serves no other purpose. She is not mentioned again in the film.

Moreover, her death has no impact on Bond’s character. So, what was the point in the scene? In fact, what was Sévérine even doing in the movie?

3 – A Death That Subverts Expectations For The Sake Of It

Similar to a death that shocks the audience, a death that subverts the audience’s expectations is great as well… provided it is done correctly.

To subvert the audience’s expectations (correctly), the writer has to leave hints. That way, upon reading/viewing the story for a second time, the audience can pick up on the hints. This is a hard feat to achieve as the subversion must be carefully planned. As George RR Martin once expertly put it at a Q&A in Edinburgh University in 2014: “I’ve been planting all these clues that the butler did it. Then, you’re halfway through a series and suddenly thousands of people have figured out that the butler did it. And then you say the chambermaid did it? No, you can’t do that.”

In short, writers cannot create a situation where Character A commits the murder and all the clues point toward him, only for it to have been Character B all along. This kind of subversion is a cheap ‘fooled yah’ sort of trick. It’s also dreadful storytelling, lazy, and leaves the audience unsatisfied, even angry.

Example – Arya Stark Kills The Night King

Arya killing the Night King was one of the worst instances of ‘subversion of expectations’ as it just made fans angry.

Sadly, the showrunners of Game of Thrones, Dan & Dave, did not take heed of their master’s words. In Season 8 Episode 3, titled The Long Night, the Night King attacks Winterfell in the much-anticipated battle between fire and ice.

Since Season 5 Episode 8 (Hardhome), the showrunners had been building up for Jon Snow to have an epic showdown with the Night King. This would have made for a terrific sword fight, and an emotionally logical and satisfying confrontation. But, instead, the showrunners ‘subverted’ the audience’s expectations and had Arya come out of nowhere to stab the Night King. The result was wide-eyed disbelief, the ruination of eight years of build-up, and the lowering of expectations for the rest of the series.

In addition, in Inside The Episode, the showrunners claimed they had Arya kill the Night King because “it didn’t seem right” for Jon to do it. Many fans (including myself) tried to work out how they came to this (baffling) conclusion.

4 – A Death That Makes The Protagonist Cry Solely

The fourth way on how not to write a death scene is to solely make the protagonist cry over the fallen one, and that’s it.

Seeing a character cry over the loss of a friend can be beautiful to read or watch. (It is better still if the audience can feel the same emotion as the crying character, but that is another matter.) When a character cries over the loss of a loved one, it shows that the dead person meant something to him. And that the dead person will be missed going forwards. Nevertheless, that is the point: going forwards (for the narrative).

When Boromir dies in The Lord of the Rings, Aragorn cries. Boromir’s death is a terrific death scene in so many ways. But what makes it narratively significant is that Aragorn changes because of it. He decides to no longer follow Frodo. Rather, he goes the other way and saves the kingdoms of Rohan and Gondor; to become the King he was always supposed to be.

If Boromir’s death had merely made Aragorn cry (before following Frodo to Mount Doom and living the rest of his life as Strider the Ranger) that would not have been enough. Those tears meant something. They profoundly changed him and ensure that Boromir’s death has consequence for the rest of the trilogy.

Example – Daenerys Cries Over Ser Jorah Mormont

During the aforementioned episode of Game of Thrones, The Long Night, Ser Jorah Mormont dies protecting Queen Daenerys from a dozen (two dozen?) Wight Walkers. His death might have been exactly how he would have wanted to bow out. Some may even call his death heroic as he sacrifices himself for another.

However, Ser Jorah’s death has no consequence on the remaining three episodes of the series. In the next episode, Daenerys cries before she burns his body. And that’s it!

The above-mentioned (and much maligned) showrunners later claimed in Inside The Episode for Season 8 Episode 5 that Ser Jorah’s death (along with Missandei’s) enraged Daenerys so much that she burned King’s Landing. But there is no obvious causal link between Ser Jorah’s death and Daenerys going mad and burning the Westerosi capital. Indeed, the fact that Dan & Dave made this point in the behind the scenes footage hints at lazy script writing on their behalf, and at them trying to cover their tracks.

how not to write a death scene - Daenerys cries over Ser Jorah
Daenerys cries over Ser Jorah’s death. But that’s it. Nothing else comes of it.

5 – Having A Character Die And Then Bringing Him Back To Life

Tempting as it might be to bring a great character back from the dead, it is the biggest instance of how not to write a death scene. This is because death is not a temporary absence.

The death of a character should be absolute and final, with narrative consequence. Bringing a character back from the dead renders the consequence of the death pointless. And if the death is pointless, it shouldn’t have been in the story in the first place.

Example – Optimus Prime In Transformers II

In Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, the leader of the Autobots, Optimus Prime, is killed by the Decepticons. Leaving aside that he is a robot for a moment, Optimus is brought back to life before the conclusion of the film. Subsequently, in the climactic battle, he defeats the Decepticons and forces out his nemesis, Megatron, and Megatron’s sidekick, Starscream.

Thus, Optimus’ death adds nothing to the movie. Optimus Prime might as well have been lying on a beach throughout the film and it would have made no difference. And if it made no difference, why was his death there in the first place?

EXCEPTION – When You Can Bring A Character Back From The Dead

There is an exception to the above-mentioned tip. You can bring a character back from the dead, with death still having narrative purpose. This occurs when a character comes back from the dead changed.

Example 1 – Gandalf

In The Fellowship of the Ring, Gandalf the Grey falls into the abyss in Moria and dies. Yet, he is brought back to life in The Two Towers as Gandalf the White, a stronger and more powerful wizard.

His increase in strength/power is demonstrated in The Return of the King when he faces down his former master, Saruman. In The Fellowship of the Ring, Gandalf had lost to him in a wizarding duel. Now, Gandalf defeats Saruman once and for all. Saurman’s defeat ends the threat posed by Isengard, thereby enabling the major characters to focus on the threat facing Gondor.

how now to write a death scene - gandalf the grey turns into gandalf the white following his resurrection
Gandalf the Grey dies and gets resurrected as Gandalf the White.

Example 2 – Lady Stoneheart

In A Storm of Swords, the third instalment in A Song of Ice & Fire, Lady Catelyn Stark is resurrected from the dead. Where once she had been a multifaceted and compassionate woman, now she is unrecognisable, both physically and in terms of her character. Indeed, she is no longer known by her old name, but as Lady Stoneheart: a cold-hearted, vengeance-seeking creature that cannot speak.

In A Feast For Crows, she captures Brienne of Tarth; and in A Dance With Dragons, she uses Brienne to find Ser Jaime Lannister and lead him somewhere (presumably into a trap). It remains to be seen what will become of them, and how Lady Stoneheart will affect the series. (After-all, we are still waiting, patiently or otherwise, for The Winds of Winter.)

WARNING – Why It Is Not A Good Idea To Resurrect A Character

how not to write a death scene - what charlotte hope said on Thronecast underlines why you don't resurrect a character
The actress Charlotte Hope made a brilliant point on Thronecast, highlighting the problem of bringing a character back from the dead.

If, writers, you are tempted to bring a character back from the dead (even changed), it comes with a massive warning. This is because it undermines every other death in the story.

After Jon Snow is resurrected in Game of Thrones Season 6 Episode 2, Charlotte Hope (the actress who played Ramsey Bolton’s psychotic bedwarmer, Myranda) appeared on Thronecast, the after-show to Game of Thrones in the UK. When the presenter asked her what she thought of the episode, she essentially responded: “bring my character back.” Charlotte hit the nail on the head. Once one character has been resurrected, the audience can legitimately ask: “why did the writer resurrect Character A, but not Characters B, C or D?”

Once the audience begins asking this question, they are distracted from the narrative. This is never good as it means:

  1. The story is not engaging enough or is (deeply) flawed; and
  2. The question makes the audience justifiably believe that death is just a temporary absence. (Basically, it has no serious consequence for the plot.)

Thus, I would advise writers against bringing characters back from the dead as it is the biggest case of how not to write a death scene. It is best for the narrative if the character stays dead, or if he doesn’t die in the first place.

Thank You

Thank you for reading this blog piece and/or watching the video on how not to write a death scene. I hope it makes the writing process a little easier for you as well.

What do you think of my tips? What do you think when a character is brought back from the dead?

Paul

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