by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)
(SPOILERS AHEAD! Big ones for The Danish Girl and Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, and some very minor ones [nothing will be spoiled if you saw the trailers] for Joy and The Revenant)
No one gets out of here alive. While it sounds like a line from the latest Tarantino film, it’s a universal truth that every person must come to terms with. We will all die. There are no exceptions. Dealing with death is one of the most difficult tasks our humanity requires of us. It’s no surprise that we use art to deal with this difficulty. While physical death is a bridge every person will cross, there are other deaths that only a select few will experience.
1. DEATH OF DESIRES
One of the most classic methods in scriptwriting is forcing a character to give up what she wants for what she needs. It’s important to establish a character’s wants early in the story. In fact, it’s essential if we are to care about the character we are watching. Throughout the course of the second act, we should see that character fight for what they want. We should see others try to take it from them. We should see them come close to getting what they want only to have it slip between their fingers. In the third act, we may see them actually get what they want. But we may not. We may see them let their desire for what they want die in order to receive something much greater – what they need.
The death of desire is rarely about giving up. Instead, it is about coming to a greater realization about their desires. Perhaps the desire was selfish. Perhaps the desire was petty. Perhaps it just wasn’t worth the cost. In The 40 Year Old Virgin, Steve Carrel’s character lets his desire to lose his virginity die in order to truly get to know the woman he is dating. In the end, his desire is resurrected and he gets both what he wants and what he needs. The same arc occurs in Knocked Up with Seth Rogen’s character.
2. DEATH OF PRIDE
Many times, the death that a character must face will occur inside them. Aside from being one of the seven deadly sins, pride can be an Achilles heel for even the most likable character. We are forgiving of pride, since we all deal with it, as long as a character eventually lets it die in the third act of the story. There is something very cathartic about seeing a character let their pride die. It gives us permission and assurance about letting our own pride perish.
Laying down one’s pride is always a process. The same is true for our characters. We can’t see them give this up too easily. Characters must fight for their pride. They should only give it up when all other options have been explored. It should hurt and perhaps nearly kill them in the process. Michael B. Jordan fights with his own pride throughout Creed. It’s only after he manages to give it up that he gets the things he truly needs. Lindsay Lohan faces the same battle inside a high school, rather than a boxing ring, in Mean Girls. Overcoming her pride not only solves the key battle raging within her, but also brings peace to all those around her.
3. DEATH OF DREAMS
While in films such as Les Miserables, we see Anne Hathaway’s character suffer the final death of her dreams, other stories allow a character’s dreams to die and later be resurrected. Structurally, if a dream is to be resurrected, it should die in the first act so it can rise again in the third. Occasionally, we will see a dream die at the end of the second act to rise again in the third. This does have less punch and works better for secondary characters. It can also work in a comedy if the character’s dream is not the central external goal in the story.
In Joy, Jennifer Lawrence sees her dreams crushed at a young age. They are later resurrected and become her salvation. Jason Schwartzman’s dreams die when he is kicked out of his beloved Rushmore. However, we see them resuscitated in a new environment by the story’s conclusion. Field of Dreams, The Shawshank Redemption, and Slumdog Millionaire all base their central conflicts around the death of dreams.
4. DEATH OF LOVED ONES
While many of us can come to terms with our own demise, it’s the death of those we love that we struggle with most intensely. We can live cautiously, eat healthy, and avoid all danger for ourselves. But we have no control over the fate of those we care most about. Watching a character wrestle with the loss of a loved one or even the potential loss of a loved one can bring even the strongest hero to their knees.
Tom Cruise’s character in Magnolia is one of the most arrogant and disgusting people we could ever encounter until he comes face to face with his dying father in a moment that completely humanizes him. In The Revenant, Leonardo DiCaprio’s loss of his son breaks him. He spends the entire story surviving only to avenge this death. Ordinary People, Good Will Hunting, and Ray all feature characters trying to come to terms with the death of loved ones.
5. DEATH OF BODY
It’s a dangerous proposition to have a main character die in a story. It can be highly effective or it can cause you to lose your audience. If a main character does die, it becomes important to have other central characters survive, at least for a short time, in order to deal with the death of the main character. In The Danish Girl, Eddie Redmayne risks his very life to become who his character knows she is inside. In the end, the character dies a triumphant death, having sacrificed everything for her truth. Alicia Vikander provides us the perspective of life after the death of our hero. The Iron Giant sacrifices his metal body in order to save the people he has come to care about. Their reaction to his sacrifice tells us a great deal about the impact of his life. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl uses a similar method of storytelling.
Death is a given in life. It’s one of the most universal subjects we can explore in our storytelling. If we can be truthful about its effects, its meaning, and those it leaves behind, we will touch the audience in a way that few subjects can.
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 the upcoming Secrets of Short Visual Storytelling. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to International 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 blog, welcometothesideshow.org.