by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)
WARNING: DUE TO THE NATURE OF THIS SUBJECT, THERE WILL BE SPOILERS
There are several films in theaters right now where the protagonist dies before the story concludes. This can be a risky move for a writer to execute. It can make for a powerful moment of catharsis in the audience but it can also leave them confused or unsatisfied. Traditional story wisdom has told us that killing off your main character can be upsetting to the audience, causing them not to like the story. However, as new storytelling mediums have arisen, such as video games and virtual reality experiences, where a viewer is the protagonist on a journey who may be killed off, having the central character die has become more common. If you feel that killing your protagonist is the right narrative move in the story you are telling, here are three cautionary steps to consider in order to make sure you don’t lose the people with the greatest investment in the story — your audience.
Build a Support Team
Ensemble stories have used this practice for a long time when a central character is killed off. In the recently released Flatliners, Ellen Page’s character is presented as the central protagonist who initiates decisions that her cohorts follow. However, time is spent developing each supporting character as well. When Page’s character dies near the end of the second act, there has been enough narrative constructed around the support team to complete the mission that she began. The closing image insinuates that she is with them in spirit, though not in body. The audience only feels a sense of resolution because the supporting characters have completed their journeys and arcs as well.
Saving Private Ryan and The Royal Tannenbaums both build the journeys of their supporting characters in such a way that when the protagonist dies, the audience isn’t left unfulfilled.
Wait Until the End
Stories based around the journey of a single character are usually narratively over when that character dies. This can become stifling if your story is based on actual events and there are narrative beats that remain significant after the death of the protagonist. Moving the character’s death as close to the story’s conclusion as possible is often a wise move, leaving only the absolute necessities of resolution or reaction to the protagonist’s death to play out. Rogue One, American Beauty, and Braveheart all execute this well.
In Tom Cruise’s most recent film, American Made, the protagonist is killed a few moments before the credits roll, reflecting the actual events that occurred. The filmmakers are then quick to give us a few lines of text that explain what happened to each of the supporting characters. A video recording that the protagonist had been making throughout the film allows him to have the final words in resolving his own story.
Use the Death to Transform Other Characters
The death of a protagonist can be powerful because of the impact it has on others. Demonstrating a legacy through a supporting character can be tricky, but will resonate with the audience if we too feel as though we’ve been transformed along the way. In Titanic, Jack’s death has lasting impact on Rose, and thus on us, as the audience. In Pay It Forward, Trevor’s death has impact on his mother and his teacher initially, but ends up impacting the entire community. In Leaving Las Vegas, Ben’s death has a transformational impact on Sera, his romantic partner, in somewhat the way that Jack’s death functioned in Titanic.
However, this is only one way to use the death of a protagonist to have impact on another character. In Million Dollar Baby, Maggie’s death has tremendous impact on Frankie, even though she died by his hands and they were never romantic partners.
John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and Master of the Cinematic Universe: The Secret Code to Writing in the New World of Media. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to U.S. Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his site, tellingabetterstory.com.