Sunday, December 8, 2013

Killing Them Kindly

Okay, I have a confession to make. (A new year is quickly approaching, so I can make an early resolution if I want to, right?)

I tend to laugh during movie death scenes.

There, I said it. (My resolution will be to try and stop laughing during death scenes.)

Last week, I joined some friends in viewing a film that was kind of 'meh' for me, but what really got me was the storyline. It was neatly tied in a bow and everyone lived happily ever after. Oh, except for the one guy who got shot by the drug cartel and died a slow, chatty death. And I couldn't help but laugh.

After watching the film, a friend who'd been sniffling behind me during the death scene called me out on my inappropriate behavior during such a poignant scene. Oh, for shame! He had leftover tears in his eyes, but a smile on his face when he asked, so I knew he wasn't really angry at me. But, I did have a moment of "Oh, I'm a horrible person!" And I hadn't realized I'd laughed. I guess it's become second nature when it comes to certain scenes I watch (by "certain" I mean unbelievable scenes that make the story seem cheesy).

So, why did I laugh?

Well, it goes back to that chatty character shot through with a bullet. He just wouldn't stop talking and die already. Maybe that sounds callous, but in reality, chatty deaths are not the way to take your character out of the story. It prolongs the scene as your character stands on his/her soapbox one last time, when you're almost sure he/she would be dead by now. It boils down to suspension of disbelief for the viewer or reader.

Then the question may be -- "What is the best way to kill off a character?"

Well, that depends on your genre. Even in the murder mystery realm there's a difference of opinion as to how to knock someone off right. A hardboiled crime novel will have no qualms of shooting things up as a character walks down the street. No one bats an eye when the body count rises. And the more expendable characters, the better. But, then you get into your cozy mysteries and the blood and gore is left off the page. Characters tend to "happen upon" the murder victim, and from there clues are meticulously sought out while the body is quietly removed from the scene. Literary tends to go either way. There could be a very public, gory display of death, or it could be a story centered around a mother slowly dying of cancer throughout the length of the novel. It all depends on genre and what the audience is expecting.

But, here are five things you don't want. These will leave your readers rolling their eyes:

  • Chatty Cathy Deaths -- As I mentioned above, nobody enjoys a chatty corpse. These are death scenes where it's obvious the victim is on death's door, but for whatever reason the author has decided that a long, lengthy soliloquy is needed. Unless you're Shakespeare, a drawn out, more than "merely a flesh wound" death is unnecessary. Don't let the character keep pulling his own string!
  • The Incredibly Overworked Death -- In these deaths, characters are fatally wounded, but they flail and carry on. They just won't die. A 1973 Turkish film, Kareteci Kiz, was voted in 2012 to have the worst death scene ever. (You're intrigued now, aren't you?) I didn't add the clip, but you're more than welcome to hop on over to YouTube and check it out. You'll see a useless bystander, some tragically horrible karate and knife action, about five random shots fired, lots of badly placed fake blood, and death in slow-mo. Sounds believable, right? You'll get a good laugh!

Look at all that fake blood!
And I thought the bullet wound was
 somewhere else!
  • The "No, He's Not Really Dead! It Was Just a Dream!" -- One great television show comes to mind when I think of this one:  Newhart. This show pulls off what could be seen as a death that didn't really happen (I was never really sure if Dick was supposed to have died in that final scene). After Dick is struck on the head by a golfball and the scene fades to black, we see that Newhart was nothing more than a dream during The Bob Newhart Show. Sound trippy? It kind of is if you've ever watched it. Although Newhart pulled this off beautifully, deaths that end up becoming dream sequences just don't work anymore. They've become clichéd and are seen as an easy out for the writers. Nobody likes to bid adieu to a favorite show, so why not make it seem like it was all a dream? Just ask the folks over at Roseanne. They tried to pull off something similar, only they didn't fare as well in their final episode.

One of the best season finales ever,
only, I wouldn't try this in your
own writing.
  • Fatal Cliffhangers That Fall Flat -- Arguably one of the best "will he or won't he die" cliffhangers ever comes from Dallas (the 1980s version, not the more recent one). During one hot, feverish summer in 1980, fans of the show barely slept because one question nagged their thoughts:  "Who shot J.R.?" Although J.R.'s life hanging in the balance at the end of Season 2 is one for the record books, chances are many of you can't even name his revealed shooter. As spectacular as the shooting may have been, it's best if a main character goes out at the hands of someone important, someone who holds a lot of meaning in that character's life. It took the show two months to reveal who-done-it, and it turned out to be a jealous mistress shooting him in a fit of anger. Hmm...With so many other characters out for J.R.'s blood was this the best move? That one is up for debate! Oh, and the shooter's name was Kristin Shepard.

Fascinating show, but I'm not so
sure about the shooter's reveal.
What do you think?
  • Killing the Most Beloved of All Characters -- This final point pertains more to who you take out and not how you take them out. We've all read a book or two where a beloved character gets killed off in the end. Mainly, these are stand alone novels, ones where the stakes are high and you know there is potential for death for the MC. But what happens with a series? For instance, in Catching Fire, the second book in The Hunger Games trilogy, I was pleasantly (but also horribly) surprised when Cinna, Katniss's much-loved stylist, gets killed right before she's scheduled to enter the arena. I was pleasantly surprised because Collins pulled that one off very well. (Sad, because, you know, it's Cinna.) But, let's say you take your readers through the entire trilogy and then BAM! You take out the MC? Not many series do this, but those that do tend to get angry reactions. Why? Because of the investment the reader has made. They are connected to this particular character and they want to see the best for them in the end...not death. How would you have felt if Katniss had met a random death at the end of Mockingjay? My point exactly.

Rewrite this ending:
Katniss dies.
So, there are a few pointers for you as you muddle through the decisions you must make when it comes to thinning the herd of characters in your book. At the very least, try to let your characters go out with a little dignity. Keep in mind that anything cheesy will induce eye rolling and possibly make your reader or viewer laugh!

Are there any death scenes from either books or films that just send you rolling on the floor? Are there any other pointers that come to mind for you? Share with us!


  1. I have a character in the novel I'm working on now who I originally intended to kill off at the end, but my critique partner said it would be a huge mistake. But I still had to get rid of him. I sent him away on a foreign trip instead. :P

    But it's true that we get invested in these characters as readers/viewers. The maddest I've ever gotten at a writer so far was at George RR Martin when he killed Ned Stark. I mean, Stark was the main protagonist in the first book of the Game of Thrones series!! Or so I thought. That one really hurt. And as we know now, anyone can die in the Game of Thrones.

    1. It can be so difficult sometimes what to do best with a character. It's good that you followed your crit partner's advice. Chances are you would have gotten similar feedback with more readers.

      I've never read Game of Thrones, but, yeah, I've heard many disgruntled groans over his decisions to kill of certain characters. It's hard to understand why a writer feels he/she must kill off loved characters!

  2. I vaguely remember a Mark Twain story in which all the characters wandered by turns out into the back yard and fell down a well. One of my favorite fictional catastrophes.

    1. This actually sounds kind of trippy, and now I want to read it! Do you happen to know what story it was?

    2. It was a piece entitled "Those Extraordinary Twins" and I was able to find it at the Gutenberg Project, which you may highlight and install in your top-bar as,

      Part under discussion appears in a preface over Chapter One.

  3. Brad Pitt's death in Meet Joe Black is stinkin' hilarious. When I went, the entire audience (like me, all really there for the premier of the Phantom Menace trailer) laughed.

    1. Ha! Have to agree on that Meet Joe Black death! I think just about everybody who saw that movie thought the ending was ridiculous. And it was entirely too long to sit through.

  4. Ooh, no spoiler alert about Catching Fire?? I'm amazed nobody has yelled at you yet. ;-) One death trend I've noticed in fiction is "Kill Everyone But the MC in the Final Book of the Series." Harry Potter is one example; the Katniss trilogy is another. Those final books are bloodbaths! And lots of beloved characters get the axe.

    I don't come across too many laughable death scenes in books, but the chatty-cathy death scene sure is rampant in film, I agree. One recent example is the movie I Am Number Four, which I struggled to watch with my tween recently. A father-figure dies and it's just too wretchedly done to even find amusing. He's just all blah-blah-blah *coff* *coff* blah-blah-blah, croak.

    On TV shows, you sometimes have weird random deaths (um, Downton Abbey, anyone?) when a character decides to leave the show. In some ways, this best mimics real life: death doesn't arrive in real life when it's appropriate for the story. It just happens. I sort of appreciate this realism, though it can be very jarring.

    Great topic, MM! I hadn't ever put much thought into death scenes. Very intriguing.

    1. Oh, I don't believe in spoiler alerts! How can anything be much of a shock in literature when it's all been written? ;)

      I've not seen I Am Number Four and I bet it wouldn't really hold my interest much, but thanks for the great example! Nothing like a character who just blabs on and on when they have a fatal wound.

      As to weird random deaths on tv shows, I like them too. They're unexpected, just like in real life, just like you said. Some people like the comfort food of knowing what happens next, but the unexpected is what makes you think, "What the heck!"

  5. Excellent post, Sister Mary. Now I'm a bit self conscious about a dying scene in my first novel. I don't know if you remember it--she had a lot to say! But do tell: did you laugh in Love Story? :((((

    I've read that death and romantic/sex scenes are the hardest to write and I agree. There's such a fine between cheesiness vs. expressing true emotion. Not to mention how easy it is to fall into cliches.

    Breaking Bad is one of those shows were the majority of the cast dies. I actually think they handled all the fight and death scenes pretty well. There is one death toward the end of the show that is absolutely heartbreaking!

    1. I actually don't remember if I laughed at the end of Love Story, but I do remember rolling my eyes throughout most of that film. As you know, it's not one of my favorites! :) The death in that film is a little different though. Jenny doesn't have what should be an instantaneous death, so it's okay that it's drawn out in the end. Have you ever seen the film Evening with Claire Danes? It's about an old woman on her death bed telling a story about one night long ago in her youth. Again, the whole prolonged death that seems to work for the film.

      I've heard nothing but positive things about the season finale of Breaking Bad, so it seems they handled it very well!

  6. You've got company: I laugh during Chatty Kathy scenes, too. They're so corny, I can't help it. But "Downton Abby" got a roll of the eyeballs. That car accident was too obvious (and poorly acted) for words!

  7. I think Downton Abbey was either hit or miss for viewers. I actually knew what was going to happen because I watched that final episode after all the hub-bub. I don't think it would have been overly cheesy if they hadn't played it up with all the wistful driving and then switching to the imminent danger of an oncoming truck. Plus the family getting all proud about how great the future would be. If it had been a WHAM! out of the blue kind of thing, I think it would have played out better.


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