The fourth season of Netflix's Stranger Thingsintroduced many new characters that we quickly learned to love or despise. While many side characters feel like archetypes rather than fully formed characters, one stands above the rest because of how impactful her story and death were.
Although Chrissy Cunningham’s (Grace Van Dien) story is incredibly short, lasting only a single episode, her impact on the main characters and viewers was undeniable. In five scenes, the audience empathized with Chrissy’s trauma and hardships and even swooned over her blossoming friendship with Eddie (Joseph Quinn), all to watch her die a horrific death.
How did the writers maximize Chrissy’s story to get such a high emotional payoff with her death scene? Schnee breaks down what to focus on when writing an early death scene that has a lingering effect on the rest of the main story, and how you can approach an early death in your next project.
1. Prioritize hooks, problems, and promises
The writers only have one shot to get the character right, and they do this by hooking the audience in with questions surrounding the emotional state of the character.
We are introduced to Chrissy as a happy cheerleader who is dating the star of Hawkins High’s basketball team. Everything about her is quintessential girl-next-door, so it’s strange to see her in distress after the pep rally.
She is leaving the counselor's offices in a state of shame and despair which contradicts her previous deposition. With our curiosity piqued, the writers are setting up the promise that we will learn about what is impacting this typically cheerful character.
2. Take us on an emotional journey
In the four scenes before her death, Chrissy goes through an emotional rollercoaster, and we are there for the ride.
Chrissy goes from happy to shameful to angry to fearful to desperate to happy again in a short time to convey her mental state to the audience, which pulls at our heartstrings. By taking the audience on an emotional journey with Chrissy, the writers create an empathetic bond that is based on the audience’s concern for the fate of the character.
3. Start late, end early
You don’t have a lot of time with a character, so don’t start at the beginning of their conflict. Instead, start late, near the climax of their story. Show that the problem has been ongoing for a while through the character’s emotional state. Don’t waste any time getting to the climax of the character’s storyline.
Grace Van Dien as Chrissy Cunningham in 'Stranger Things'Credit: Netflix
4. Play into archetypes
As I said, you don’t have a lot of time to flesh out the character, so rely on archetypes to fill in the gaps about who the character is. Chrissy is a cheerleader with an eating disorder caused by emotional and physically abusive parents. It’s a story the audience knows, allowing us to understand Chrissy without having to show or explain to us what her issues are.
Condense the narrative without saying anything by relying on tropes and archetypes. You don’t have time to start the story from scratch, so work with what is universally known. The pre-determined emotional connection the audience has with these archetypes frees up space for you to build the rest of their story.
5. Create dynamics to play with
The bathroom scene’s primary goal in Stranger Things is to introduce the big bad of the season—Vecna (Jamie Campbell Bower).
Vecna is a creature that uses the trauma and internal fears of his victims to get to his goal. Chrissy, hunched over the toilet, yells at Max (Sadie Sink) to leave her alone and repeats this same sentiment when Vecna disguised as Chrissy’s mother asks Chrissy to open the door. Chrissy pushes people away, isolating herself in her shame.
Eddie becomes a perfect character to mess with Chrissy’s character. He tells her that she is not alone in her experience, and they create a bond. Chrissy wants to escape herself, and Eddie offers her that escape, allowing Chrissy to find relief through a new bond.
This creates a dynamic that feels fresh and cathartic for a character that we have watched go through so much in a short time.
6. Start a story that you will not finish
So you want to kill a character off early? The best way to make this death impactful is by setting up a future that will not happen. Stranger Things does this a few times throughout the show to convey hope in the bleakest moments.
The writers do this with Chrissy by having her agree to see Eddie’s band perform the following week. Their blossoming relationship and plans to continue that friendship creates a sense of hope that Chrissy will survive to see Eddie perform, and then crush that immediately with her death, leaving us longing for what could have been.
7. Make it the most interesting story at that the moment
Chrissy’s storyline is the most important story that is happening in the episode. As the other main characters are being reintroduced, Chrissy’s plot pushes the story forward to introduce the big bad.
Since it is important to her story, the audience immediately pays close attention when Chrissy appears on screen and strengthens that bond the viewers have with her.
8. Prevent your audience from disengaging
Now, it’s time to kill your character. Everything you’ve written builds up to this moment, so make sure your audience can’t look away from the screen.
Stranger Things does this by making Chrissy’s death a visual and audio nightmare that is truly disturbing. That fleeting moment of happiness is gone as we watch in terror with Eddie as Chrissy’s limbs break in inhuman ways. It’s an impactful and memorable death that leaves us wishing for a different ending for the character we loved.
I should remind you that two other characters had a similar amount of screen time and the same death as Chrissy, yet they were not as impactful because of the main storyline dominating the episode or the lack of an emotional bond with the character.
The Duffer Brothers admit that they regretted killing Chrissy’s character, but it was one of the most memorable deaths since Bob (Sean Astin) in season two. The emotional impact of Chrissy’s death lingers throughout the series because of how intentional the writing of her story and character is. Empathy is a strong tool, so make sure to use it to create an emotional bond that will ultimately be destroyed for an impactful death scene.
What other early death scenes impacted you the most? Let us know in the comments below!