We have discussed how to and how not to write a death scene over the last three blog posts. In the first of the three, we stressed that a death scene must have consequence for the rest of the narrative. With the exception of tragic deaths, we assessed the many different corollaries that a death can have on a story. In our final blog post on this (morbid) topic, we shall focus on death’s consequences; more specifically, on the unusual consequences of a death scene on the rest of the story.
Nevertheless, before we look at the different types of unusual consequences of a death scene, we shall first give one instance into what constitutes a usual consequence following a death.
Usual Consequence – When Death Forces The Main Character To Move And Pursue Justice
In a classic revenge-inspired story, the death of a character (normally a family member, a friend or a mentor) has the net effect making the main character realise that he/she cannot stay in the same place any longer. Indeed, the death forces the central protagonist to begin his/her journey in order to get justice for the loved one.
Example – Uncle Garrow’s Death in Eragon
In Eragon, shortly after the eponymous character’s dragon hatches, he returns home to find that uncle Garrow, his de facto father, has been murdered. It is then that Eragon decides to find those who killed his uncle and he goes in search of them.
Thus, uncle Garrow’s death sets Eragon on his quest to eventually bring the villainous King Galbatorix (who bears ultimate responsibility for Garrow’s death) to justice.
Unusual Consequences of A Death Scene
Now that we have discussed what constitutes a usual consequence for a death in a novel, we shall discuss what constitutes some of the more unusual consequences of a death scene, with examples for each.
When Death Inspires The Main Character To Change Course
Death can hurt a character and make him/her more determined to pursue justice against those responsible. That is an expected outcome.
But when a character has a 180-degree turn because of another character’s death, that is not expected. In fact, that is one of the many unusual consequences of a death scene in a novel. The character that dies must have touched a nerve with his words and/or actions for this to happen to the main character.
Example – Boromir
Boromir’s death in The Lord of the Rings is not just a pivotal moment for the character because it shows his heroism and redeems him in the eyes of the audience. His death impacts Aragorn as it makes him change course.
Throughout The Fellowship of the Ring (particularly in the extended edition of the movie adaptation), Boromir urges Aragorn to overcome his fears. He urges him to help save Gondor, rather than accompany Frodo via the marshes to Mordor. Aragorn rejects Boromir’s advances on the matter until the latter’s death. Subsequently, Aragorn has a complete turn around and chooses to save the world of men, including Gondor in The Return of the King.
When Death Exposes The Ruthlessness Of Certain Environments
Certain jobs are notorious for being dangerous, with the threat of violence and death being a daily occurrence for people within the industry. When a death occurs in the story within these particular industries, it highlight just how ruthless those industries are.
Example 1 – Manon
In the ballet, Manon, the eponymous main character is sold into prostitution by her brother, Lescaux, in 17th-century France at a young age to a rich pimp, Monsieur GM. Manon likes the life of diamonds and riches that her pimp gives her. But she soon falls in love with a pauper called Des Grieux, becomes conflicted as to whether she would rather remain a prostitute or marry her love.
When Manon and Des Grieux confess their love for one another, her pimp finds out. He arrives with the police, who arrest Manon for being a prostitute. A struggle ensues and her brother is shot in the melee.
Lescaux’s death highlights some of the nastiest elements of 17th-century, French prostitution. That Manon is then shipped off to a penal colony in New Orleans (which in those days was a French colony), as punishment for her ‘crimes,’ compounds the ruthlessness of the industry.
Example 2 – Angel’s Death in Scarface
Scarface is about Latin American drug lords and their dealings in Miami in the first half of the 1980s. Early in the film, Toni (Al Pacino), our central protagonist, is sent on a mission with three companions to buy cocaine from a Columbian drug dealer. But the deal goes awry, and one of his three companions (Angel) is dismembered by a chainsaw.
Angel’s death makes Toni suspect that he was set up by his superior. It is another of the unexpected consequences of a death scene, and kicks off Toni’s paranoia that is part of his undoing for the rest of the movie.
When Death Leaves The Main Character Vulnerable
When a powerful figure dies (whether naturally or otherwise), the main character is likely to be without a protector. Unusual consequences of a death scene like this can leave the central protagonist (and his friends and/or family) vulnerable to ambitious rivals that are politically more cunning.
Example 1 – Marcus Aurelius’ Death in Gladiator
In Gladiator, the death of Emperor Marcus Aurelius has terrible consequences for General Maximus Decimus Meridius (Russell Crowe). Marcus’ son, Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), was always envious of how much his father loved Maximus over him. This is made worse when Marcus Aurelius tells him that he is unfit to rule and he would rather Maximus succeeds him.
Unsurprisingly, Commodus does not take well. He murders his father, seizes power, arrests Maximus, and gives the order to kill Maximus’ wife and son. Maximus slays those guarding him and flees to save his family, but he is too late. The next thing Maximus knows, he has been enslaved and is sold to be a gladiator.
Thus, Emperor Marcus Aurelius’ death effectively results in General Maximus being bound into slavery and his family being murdered. That Maximus rises from enslavement to become a gladiator who defies an emperor is testament to his character.
Example 2 – Robert Baratheon’s Death for Ned Stark
In A Game of Thrones, King Robert Baratheon’s death in a hunting ‘accident’ leaves his friend and loyal advisor, Lord Eddard Sark, susceptible to the low cunning of Cersei Lannister.
When the honourable Lord Eddard refuses to bend the knee and swear fealty to King Joffrey (as he is not the rightful heir), Lord Eddard is imprisoned and later beheaded for treason.
Example 3 – Dumbledore’s Death for Harry, Hermione & Ron
A death of a character does not necessarily need to have such drastic and/or severe consequences for the central protagonist as per the previous two examples; especially, if the writer is catering for a younger audience.
In Harry Potter & The Half-Blood Prince, the sixth instalment in the series, the Headmaster of Hogwarts, Professor Albus Dumbledore, is slain by his longtime ally, Professor Snape (seemingly in a shocking act of betrayal). Throughout the series, Dumbledore is the bulwark against the dark forces trying to take over Hogwarts. This leaves the school and Harry, Hermione and Ron, in particular, in a vulnerable situation as they cannot stay in Hogwarts any longer.
So, throughout the next instalment, they are on the run and searching for help. This is all in order to reclaim the school from the Dark Lord and defeat him once and for all.
Example 4 – Cinderella
In Cinderella, the death of the titular character’s father at the start of the story means that she is without a guardian against her (evil) stepmother and (brattish) stepsisters. The stepmother turns Cinderella into a maid, despite her high birth and her being her father’s only heiress.
Despite this injustice, Cinderella’s fortitude and spirit entails that she remains kind-hearted. Therefore, when the Prince chooses her to be his bride, audiences are left with a good feeling and a sense of justice at the end.
When Death Enables Others To Become More Powerful
Gladiator is an example where the death of a powerful figure results in another seizing power quickly, as if it were a coup. Yet, someone need not arrogate power swiftly in a novel. Sometimes, one of the more unusual consequences of a death scene is that the death of a powerful person results in a power vacuum that leaves others jockeying to fill it.
Example – Lord Tywin’s Death
At the end of A Storm of Swords, the third in instalment of the ASOIAF series, Tyrion Lannister ignominiously murders his father, Lord Tywin, while the latter sits on the privy. Lord Tywin Lannister was the most powerful (and feared) man in the Seven Kingdoms and his death opens up a power vacuum.
His daughter, Cersei Lannister, as Queen Regent to the boy king, Tommen I, tries to fill the vacuum herself. But she is not the only one who believes that his/her time has come. The Tyrells, the House that Queen Margaery comes from, sniff the same scent of opportunity (and believe, with some justification, that Cersei is unfit to rule). The same is true for the Sparrows, a band of religious fanatics, who are led by the High Sparrow. It is to Cersei’s shame that she turns to these fanatics to try and rid herself of her perceived enemies during A Feast For Crows.
Still, the Sparrows would never have risen to prominence had Lord Tywin lived. He would have crushed them without a moment’s hesitation. Therefore, his death is crucial in their ascent to power.
When Death Causes Uncertainty & New Alliances
Unusual consequences of a death scene often occur around powerful figures, as we have already discussed. Another corollary of a death of a powerful figure is uncertainty. This, in turn, can result in some brow-raising new alliances that can shape the rest of the story in ways viewers could not have previously imagined.
Example – King Renly’s Death On The Tyrells
After King Robert Baratheon dies in A Game of Thrones, the War of the Five Kings breaks out. One of the claimants for the Iron Throne is Robert’s youngest brother, Renly, who is backed by House Tyrell, one of the most powerful families in the Seven Kingdoms.
But the middle of the three Baratheon boys, Stannis, is furious that Renly has betrayed him. In his eyes (and those of the law) his own brother has taken away his right to be King. Via dark magic and a shadow, Stannis murders Renly.
Renly’s death leaves the Tyrells in an awkward situation. They will not side with Stannis as he murdered Renly, and they seem to have no interest in an alliance with the North. That means their only options are either to stay neutral for the rest of the war, or beg the Crown (Lord Tywin Lannister) to forgive them.
The negotiations between the Lannisters and the Tyrells happen off page. Therefore, when the Tyrells appear at the Battle of Blackwater Bay alongside the Lannisters to help them beat Stannis and get revenge for Renly, it is a great surprise. It also highlights how a crisis for someone or a family can end up improving his/her/their situation. Following the Battle of Blackwater Bay, King Joffrey Baratheon pledges to marry Margaery Tyrell, meaning that the Tyrells are now part of the royal family.
When Death Reveals A New Side To The Fallen Character
After a character dies, the protagonist and the audience may subsequently learn something new about the dead character. This is another of the unusual consequences of a death scene. The death can have the effect of changing the perspective of how that character is viewed by the protagonists (and, by extension, the audience).
Example – Professor Snape
A great example of this is Professor Severus Snape from the Harry Potter series. For pretty much the entirety of the series, Harry believes Snape to be a villain; more precisely, a mole in Hogwarts, in league with the Dark Lord.
But in Harry Potter & The Deathly Hallows, Harry learns in the Pensieve after Snape dies that Snape was actually on Dumbledore’s side the whole time; that he had been protecting Harry all along; and that Snape had only killed Dumbledore because Dumbledore had told him to do so. This changes the way Harry (and the audience) views Snape.
When The Death Of Another Shows A Different Side To The Protagonist
The death of a character can tell us a lot about the protagonist. When the audience considers the circumstances surrounding the death, viewers can learn a very different side to the POV character.
Example 1 – The Mad King’s Death for Jaime Lannister
In ASOIAF, we learn soon into the story that Ser Jaime Lannister earned his nickname ‘the Kingslayer’ because he stabbed King Aerys II, also known as the Mad King, in the back. This leads many to draw the conclusion (with good reason) that Ser Jaime is dishonourable and treacherous.
But in the third instalment, A Storm of Swords, we find out that Jaime did not kill Aerys II out of dishonour or treachery. Rather, because the Mad King was going to set the capital on fire, burning everyone within it, including thousands of innocent women and children. This makes the reader realise that Jaime is a more complex character than he/she presumed.
Moreover, the explanation for his most notorious deed shows him to be a conscientious man. That he desired to save people when he killed the Mad King turns him from a villain into an anti-hero.
Example 2 – Jake’s Death for Roland Deschain
Conversely, the death of another character can also reveal a darker side to a protagonist. Towards the end of The Gunslinger, the first instalment in Stephen King’s seven-part Dark Tower saga, Roland Deschain faces a conundrum.
Jake, a boy he is looking after, is falling off a crumbling bridge and crying for help. Roland wants to go back to save him. But if he does, Walter, the Man in Black and Roland’s foe, will not give him the answers he needs in order to reach the Dark Tower, Roland’s ultimate objective.
Roland decides that the Dark Tower means more to him than Jake, and he lets Jake fall to his death. One of the unusual consequences of a death scene here is that it confirms to the reader (with chilling realisation) that Roland is a determined sociopath. So long as he breathes, no-one and nothing will come between him and the Dark Tower; that he will sacrifice anyone for it.
This blog piece on the unusual consequences of a death scene concludes our mini-series. Thank you for reading this article and the others on death scenes. I hope you have enjoyed them and found them thought-provoking.
Out of interest, which of the unusual consequences of a death scene listed in this article did you find the most interesting? And why?
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