Everyone has a character death that scarred them for life. Mine is Mufasa. I still root for the lions in any nature documentary, and I never feel bad when they eat wildebeest.
From Shakespeare's tragedies to TV shows like Game of Thrones, an impactful death scene can leave a lasting impression on the audience and significantly alter the direction of the story.
I mean, the Red Wedding basically broke the internet and a streaming app for an entire evening.
However, writing a death scene that is both emotionally charged and logically constructed can be a challenging task. So, let's go through it together. Today, we'll explore various aspects of creating a powerful and convincing death scene in your screenplay using insights from multiple sources.
Beware, lots of spoilers for famous movies and TV shows below.
Develop a Strong Relationship Between the Audience and the Character
Before writing a death scene, it is crucial to establish a connection between the audience and the character. This can be achieved by creating an interesting and relatable character with a well-developed backstory, personality, and motivations.
The audience should be emotionally invested in the character's journey before their death scene is even considered. As seen in the death of Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) in Avengers: Endgameor Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson) in Spider-Man, a well-developed character with a strong connection to the audience can make their death scene all the more powerful and impactful.
'Avengers: Endgame'Credit: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Understand Your Character's Arc
A well-developed character arc is essential for creating a strong connection between the audience and the character. Explore the character's backstory, motivations, and relationships with other characters.
As the character's journey unfolds, their growth and development will create a deeper emotional connection with the audience, setting the stage for a powerful death scene.
Make Your Character Relatable
How much do you identify with the people on screen or on the page?
Creating a relatable character is key to establishing an emotional connection with the audience. To achieve this, ensure that your character exhibits traits, motivations, and struggles that the audience can identify with. This will make the character feel more real and human, allowing the audience to empathize with their journey and ultimately feel the impact of their death.
The more you love them, the more it will hurt.
Create an Antagonist That the Audience Hates With Passion
An effective death scene can also be achieved by developing an antagonist that the audience despises. Create a villain who has caused immense suffering to the protagonist and other characters, the audience will feel a sense of satisfaction and relief when the antagonist finally meets their end. You need to have a killer that makes people so mad they'll do anything to stop them.
This can be seen in the death of Samuel Norton (Bob Gunton) in The Shawshank Redemption or Joffrey Baratheon (Jack Gleeson) in Game of Thrones, where the audience's hatred for the character amplifies the impact of their death.
'Game of Thrones'Credit: HBO
Develop a Compelling Antagonist
This is easier said than done, but crafting a villain takes a lot of time and energy.
To create an antagonist that the audience despises, focus on developing a complex and well-rounded character with clear motivations and goals. This can be achieved by exploring their backstory, relationships with other characters, and the reasons behind their actions.
Understand the antagonist's motivations, you can create a multi-dimensional character that the audience can both despise and understand, making their eventual death all the more satisfying.
Show the Antagonist's Impact on the Protagonist
To further drive home the audience's hatred for the antagonist, showcase the impact of their actions on the protagonist and other characters. This can be achieved through direct confrontations, emotional turmoil, and the consequences of the antagonist's actions.
How is this done?
Demonstrate the antagonist's impact on the story and its characters, the audience will become emotionally invested in their eventual downfall.
Think about Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) in Breaking Bad. He was such an evil figure that his killing and eventual demise all changed Walter White (Bryan Cranston).
'Breaking Bad'Credit: AMC
Use Death Scenes to Advance the Story and Character Arcs
Deaths should not happen willy-nilly. They will have more impact if there's a point to them.
A death scene should not only be emotionally impactful but also serve as a catalyst for the story and character arcs. Whether it's the tragic death of a loved one or the demise of a villain, a well-executed death scene should have a unique effect on the audience and advance the story in a meaningful way.
This can be seen in the death of Ned Stark (Sean Bean) in Game of Thrones, which serves as a turning point for the series and drives the motivations of the remaining Stark characters.
Understand the Purpose of the Death Scene
Why are you killing off a character, and where can that take our protagonist?
Before writing a death scene, consider the purpose it serves within the context of the story and character arcs. Does the death scene provide closure for a character's journey, or does it serve as a catalyst for change in the story and other characters?
If you understand the purpose of the death scene, you can ensure that it is both emotionally impactful and logically consistent with the overall story.
Explore the Consequences of the Death Scene
Dying needs to mean something to the characters and to the audience.
A powerful death scene should have lasting consequences on the story and its characters. This can be achieved by exploring the emotional fallout of the death, as well as the impact on the remaining characters' motivations and relationships.
The lasting effects of the death scene can create a sense of realism and depth within your story, making the death all the more impactful.
'The Lion King'Credit: Disney
Avoid Clichés and Overused Tropes
When writing a death scene, it is essential to avoid clichés and overused tropes that can detract from the emotional impact of the scene.
This may include overly dramatic deathbed speeches, predictable plot twists, or excessive gore and violence. Instead, focus on crafting a unique and emotionally resonant death scene that is true to the character and the story.
What Are Some Death Scene Tropes?
Death scene tropes are common narrative devices or patterns used in storytelling to create a dramatic or emotional impact when a character dies. Here are some examples of death scene tropes:
- Heroic Sacrifice: A character willingly gives up their life to save others or achieve a greater goal. Their death is portrayed as noble and selfless.
- Dying Monologue: The dying character delivers a poignant speech or reveals important information before passing away. It allows for a final moment of reflection or resolution.
- Deathbed Reconciliation: Two characters, often estranged or at odds with each other, reconcile and make amends before one of them dies. It adds emotional weight to the scene and offers closure.
- Slow Motion Death: The character's death is depicted in slow motion, emphasizing the significance and impact of the moment. It can heighten the visual and emotional impact of the scene.
- Redemption Through Death: A character with a troubled past or who has done wrong finds redemption by sacrificing themselves. Their death serves as a final act of redemption and forgiveness.
- Last Words: The dying character utters profound or memorable last words that encapsulate their character arc or the theme of the story.
- Death Stare: The dying character's eyes remain open, staring into the distance, as a visual symbol of their passing.
- Peaceful Passing: The character's death is portrayed as serene and peaceful, often accompanied by soft lighting or gentle music. It contrasts with the violence or chaos of the surrounding events.
- Unexpected Death: A character dies suddenly and unexpectedly, shocking both the audience and the other characters. This trope can create a sense of realism or unpredictability in the story.
- Ghostly Goodbye: After the character dies, they return as a ghost or spirit to say a final farewell or offer guidance to the living characters.
These tropes are commonly used storytelling devices and their effectiveness can vary depending on the execution and context of the scene. Some of these are great in some movies and TV shows and bad in others.
It's all about how and when you use them.
Focus on Emotional Resonance
Rather than relying on shock value or excessive violence to create an impactful death scene, focus on the emotional resonance of the moment. This can be achieved by exploring the character's emotional journey, their relationships with other characters, and the consequences of their death on the story.
Prioritize emotional resonance over shock value and you can create a death scene that is both powerful and memorable.
'A Ghost Story' behind the scenesCredit: A24
Balance Buildup and Shock Value
An effective death scene should strike a balance between buildup and shock value. While a gradual buildup can create tension and anticipation, a sudden death can provide a shocking and unexpected twist. To achieve the perfect balance, consider the character's arc, the story's pacing, and the desired emotional impact of the death scene.
Build Tension and Anticipation
A well-crafted buildup can create tension and anticipation leading up to the death scene. This can be achieved through foreshadowing, character development, and plot twists that hint at the character's impending demise.
By gradually building tension and anticipation, you can create a sense of dread and unease that will make the death scene all the more impactful.
Utilize Shock Value Effectively
While shock value can be a powerful tool in creating an impactful death scene, it should be used sparingly and with purpose. A sudden death can provide a jarring and unexpected twist, but only if it is grounded in the context of the story and character arcs.
To effectively utilize shock value, consider the character's motivations, the story's pacing, and the desired emotional impact of the death scene.
'Game of Thrones'Credit: HBO
Consider the Pacing and Timing of the Death Scene
Why is your character dying at this moment? What does it add to the story? Does it slow things down or speed things up?
The pacing and timing of a death scene can significantly impact its effectiveness. A slow, drawn-out death may allow for emotional reflection and closure, while a quick, sudden death may provide a shocking and unexpected twist.
Consider the overall pacing of your story and the desired emotional impact of the death scene when determining the pacing and timing of the scene.
Slow, Emotional Deaths
We all have a favorite movie with a slow, emotional death. I harken back to Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) in Titanic, seeing him freeze to death to save Rose.
A slow, emotional death scene can provide a powerful and poignant moment for both the character and the audience. This type of death scene may be appropriate for a character who has undergone significant growth and development throughout the story, allowing for a sense of closure and resolution.
Quick, Shocking Deaths
A quick, shocking death can provide a jarring and unexpected twist that leaves the audience reeling. This type of death scene may be appropriate for a character whose death serves as a catalyst for change within the story or for other characters.
At the end of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) is quickly dispatched by Snape (Alan Rickman) to shock the audience and change the perspective of what was to come. Beth (Emily Kinney) in The Walking Dead was also a reminder that no one was really safe in this world.
'Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows'Credit: Warner Brothers
Use Symbolism and Imagery to Enhance the Impact of the Death Scene
Symbolism and imagery can be powerful tools in enhancing the impact of a death scene. Incorporating symbolic elements and vivid imagery can help you can create a death scene that is both visually striking and emotionally resonant.
This is a visual medium and you want to connect this stuff to the viewer. It could be as simple as the rat in The Departed or as complex as Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, where the death of Tom Robinson (Brock Peters) symbolizes the destruction of innocence in the face of prejudice.
Incorporate Visual Symbolism
Visual symbolism can be an effective way to convey the emotional weight of a death scene. This may involve the use of color, lighting, or specific objects that hold symbolic meaning within the context of the story.
For example, the sunset in the death scene of Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) in Black Pantheradds an additional layer of emotional depth to the scene. The death of a character can represent a transformative moment, marking a significant change or evolution in the story. In The Lord of the Rings, the death of Gandalf the Grey (Ian Mckellen) leads to his rebirth as Gandalf the White, symbolizing his ascension and increased power.
Use Imagery to Evoke Emotion
Vivid imagery can help to create a sense of immersion and emotional connection within a death scene. This may involve the use of descriptive language, sensory details, or imagery that directly relates to the character's experiences and journey.
Write those details into your screenplay.
'The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King'Credit: New Line Cinema
Create a Lasting Impact on the Story and Characters
A powerful death scene should have a lasting impact on the story and its characters. This can be achieved by exploring the emotional fallout of the death, as well as the impact on the remaining characters' motivations and relationships. Demonstrate the lasting effects of the death scene.
You can create a sense of realism and depth within your story, making death all the more impactful.
Is this something they'll carry with them for all time? What's the weight of it?
Explore the Emotional Fallout
How do people change when death happens? Is it a lingering effect for all time, like in Ordinary People? Or do they move on quickly like in Saving Private Ryan?
The emotional fallout of a death scene can significantly impact the story and its characters. This may involve exploring the grief, anger, and sadness experienced by the remaining characters, as well as the ways in which they cope with their loss.
Examine the Impact on Character Motivations and Relationships
The death of a character can have a profound impact on the motivations and relationships of the remaining characters. This may involve the formation of new alliances, the dissolution of old friendships, or the pursuit of revenge or justice.
The impact of a death scene on the story and its characters can create a sense of depth and complexity within your narrative.
'Breaking Bad'Credit: AMC
Choose the Appropriate Tone for the Death Scene
The last thing you want is someone laughing at the wrong time.
The tone of a death scene can significantly impact its effectiveness. A somber, reflective tone may be appropriate for a slow, emotional death, while a more intense, suspenseful tone may be better suited for a quick, shocking death.
Consider the overall tone of your story, as well as the character's journey and the desired emotional impact of the death scene when determining the appropriate tone for the scene.
Emotional and Reflective
An emotional and reflective tone can create a poignant and moving death scene that allows the audience to connect with the character on a deeper level. This type of tone may be appropriate for a character who has undergone significant growth and development throughout the story, allowing for a sense of closure and resolution.
Examples of emotional and reflective death scenes include the death of Tony Stark in Avengers: Endgame or the death of Maximus Decimus Meridius (Russell Crowe) in the film Gladiator signifies themes of honor, duty, and the pursuit of justice, as he embraces his own mortality to seek vengeance for his family.
Intense and Suspenseful
An intense and suspenseful tone can create a thrilling and unexpected death scene that leaves the audience on the edge of their seats.
This type of tone may be appropriate for a character whose death serves as a catalyst for change within the story or for other characters.
Examples of intense and suspenseful death scenes include the death of Chrissy Cunningham (Grace Van Dien) in Stranger Things and Quint (Robert Shaw) in Jaws.
'Jaws'Credit: Universal Pictures
Show the Character's Legacy and Impact on the Story
Finally, an impactful death scene should show the character's legacy and the impact of their death on the story and its characters. This can be achieved by exploring the ways in which the character's actions and decisions continue to influence the story, even after their death.
By demonstrating the character's lasting impact on the narrative, you can create a powerful and memorable death scene that resonates with the audience.
Who mourns them, and what did they do that changed the characters involved in the story?
Consider the Character's Impact on Others
In addition to their influence on the story, the character's impact on other characters can be a powerful way to demonstrate their legacy and the impact of their death.
This may involve exploring the ways in which their relationships with other characters continue to evolve and change, even after their death.
The death of Brooks Hatlen (James Whitmore) in The Shawshank Redemption, an institutionalized character, explores the theme of institutionalization and the struggles faced by individuals reintegrating into society after long periods of incarceration.
'The Shawshank Redemption'Credit: Columbia Pictures
What Are the Best Movie and TV Death Scenes?
The perception of the "best" movie and TV death scenes can vary greatly depending on personal taste and individual experiences. However, there are several death scenes that have been widely acclaimed for their emotional impact, storytelling, and cinematic quality.
Here are a few examples of movie and TV death scenes that are often praised and that I enjoyed:
- Bambi (1942): The death of Bambi's mother in this classic Disney film is considered one of the most impactful and emotionally charged moments in animation history. The scene effectively conveys loss and grief, leaving a lasting impression on audiences.
- Saving Private Ryan (1998): The death of Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) in the final battle sequence is a powerful and poignant moment in this war film. The scene highlights sacrifice and the cost of war, showcasing the emotional toll it takes on soldiers and their comrades.
- Game of Thrones - "The Rains of Castamere" (Season 3, Episode 9): The shocking and brutal deaths of multiple major characters during the Red Wedding sequence stunned viewers worldwide. The scene is known for its unexpected twists, emotional intensity, and the ruthless nature of the show's narrative.
- The Departed (2006): The surprise death of a major character near the end of the film exemplifies the unpredictability and consequences of the criminal world depicted in this crime drama. The suddenness of the death leaves audiences shocked and emotionally invested.
- The Lion King (1994): The demise of Mufasa, Simba's father, in a stampede orchestrated by his treacherous brother Scar, is a deeply impactful and tragic moment. The scene explores themes of loss, responsibility, and the challenges of coming of age.
- Gladiator (2000): Maximus Decimus Meridius's death in the final moments of the film, as he embraces his own mortality while seeking revenge, is a powerful and satisfying conclusion to his character arc. The scene symbolizes sacrifice, honor, and the pursuit of justice.
- Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 2" (2011): The death of Severus Snape, revealed through a series of memories, unveils the true depth of his character and his sacrifices. The scene is emotionally charged, showcasing themes of love, redemption, and the complexities of morality.
- The Green Mile (1999): The execution of John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan), a gentle giant with extraordinary powers, is a profoundly moving and tragic moment in this film. The scene explores themes of injustice, compassion, and the weight of human suffering.
- Titanic (1997): The death of Jack Dawson in the icy waters of the Atlantic Ocean is a heart-wrenching and iconic movie death. The scene captures themes of love, sacrifice, and the tragedy of the ill-fated ship.
- Breaking Bad - "Ozymandias" (Season 5, Episode 14): The death of a major character in this intense and dramatic episode is regarded as one of the most impactful moments in the entire series. The scene showcases the consequences of the character's choices and has a lasting emotional impact.
'Bambi'Credit: RKO Radio Pictures
Summing Up How To Write a Death Scene In Your Screenplay
Writing a powerful and convincing death scene in your screenplay requires careful consideration of the character's development, the story's pacing, and the emotional impact on the audience.
Follow these tips and create something memorable and impactful for the audience.
Happy writing... wait... sad writing?
Just go do it.
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