When do characters deserve to die?

Devin Faraci writes about the strange death of a certain character in Jurassic World (spoilers in the original article, but none here):

I would say it’s the most horrible death in the movie. It’s well-executed (oddly this could be the only set piece in the movie that is structured in a way to actually give weight and meaning to the action within it) but that execution only adds to how deeply disturbing it is. It’s possible that this is the most horrible death in the entire franchise, or at least that it is running neck and neck with the death of Richard Schiff in The Lost World. It’s gruesome and it’s painful and it’s protracted.

But, like, it’s a dinosaur movie! That’s what should happen, right? Sort of. Here’s what’s important to understand – and what Jurassic World does not understand – the deaths of your characters must be proportional, unless the unproportional nature of the death is, in and of itself, the point.

I saw Jurassic World over the weekend, and this one death also stuck out for me, because it didn’t feel deserved. Faraci tries to unpack what we mean by “deserved.”

Most often the character killed in these scenes brings about their own demise through their selfishness or cowardice. Evil characters also deserve it, and we find it truly satisfactory when they are destroyed – the bigger the bad guy, the more extravagant the death we want for them.

Death isn’t just for villains, obviously:

A good character can suffer a horrible death when saving other characters, or they can suffer a horrible death that is intended to illustrate just how bad the bad guy/monster really is. Predator is a great example of this, where characters we like get absolutely slaughtered. The key to all of these deaths, though, is that we feel something on some level. These aren’t slasher movie deaths, where the kids are glorified examples of background fodder getting offed – you will feel sad that the character died or proud that they stood their ground.

What makes this one death in Jurassic World so odd is that the character is neither hero nor villain. We’re not rooting for comeuppance, yet the sequence seems designed for exactly that — payback for a karmic debt owed.

I agree with Faraci that it feels like something got changed along the way. My hunch is that this death was originally intended for a villain — perhaps the same character, but with different scenes establishing gruesome-death-worthy motives — or that the sequence was originally designed to serve another purpose.

Or maybe it was always meant to be exactly how it plays in the movie, a giant WTF? On some level, I could respect that. The scene is noteworthy because it is so unexpected.

The movie I’m writing now has a considerable body count, so the question of who dies and how isn’t just theoretical.

Early deaths help establish the rules of the world. Late deaths create closure. It’s the middle deaths like this one in Jurassic World that are often the most challenging. Too mean-spirited, and you risk turning the audience against you. Too generic, and you’ve lessened the stakes for your hero.

Perhaps the key thing is that on-screen deaths should have an impact on the hero. When an established character dies just so the movie can kill someone, it feels hollow.


Really Short Stories

Daniel Wallace, who wrote the novel Big Fish, sent me the syllabus for the college writing class he’s teaching. I love the first week’s assignment:

Write a story as close to 100 words as possible, each and every word a single syllable.

Then write a story as close to 100 words as possible, a single syllable, but add this twist: no word can be used more than once.

For inspiration, he includes a link to 420 Characters.


Everyman vs. Superman

Scriptnotes: Ep. 202
Play

From Wolverine to The Rock, male action heroes have literally gotten bigger over the last decade. Craig and John look at how that impacts story. Is there hope for the the ordinary man in an extraordinary situation? Will we ever get back to Kurt and Keanu?

Then it’s time for three new Three Page Challenges, with entries ranging from campus riots to suburban detectives.

Links:

You can download the episode here: AAC | mp3.

UPDATE 6-22-15: The transcript of this episode can be found here.


How would this be a movie?

Scriptnotes: Ep. 201
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John and Craig look at three current news stories from a screenwriter’s perspective, discussing how each lends itself to becoming a movie.

Would FIFA’s Stepp Blatter make a better Coen Brothers hero or a Sorkin villain? Could the Large Hadron Collider lend itself to a romantic comedy? Is there even a movie to make about campus sexual politics and academic freedom?

Also discussed: the trap of “Do what you love.”

Links:

You can download the episode here: AAC | mp3.

UPDATE 6-12-15: The transcript of this episode can be found here.


The Automatic Gate

As a screenwriter, I’m always looking for ticking clocks to increase the tension in a story. One of my favorite sub-tropes is the Automatic Gate.

No matter what you do, it’s going to shut, and you’re either in or you’re out.

maze runner gif

At noon Friday LA time, Kickstarter’s automatic gate will slam shut on One Hit Kill. The backers will be inside, and the rest of the world will need to wait.

I think part of the appeal of Kickstarter is that it’s an Automatic Gate at heart. From the moment I launched the campaign, there was nothing I could do to speed up or slow down the closing gate. The deadline really is a deadline, and nothing can stop it.1

We’re more than triple funded, and will be shipping OHK to backers in September. Some will see it a lot sooner at playtests.2 Everyone else will need to wait.

If you want to get it on One Hit Kill, and you want it in September, now’s the last chance. The clock on the Kickstarter page is literally counting down.

ks last day

In just a few hours, it’s One Hit Kill or squish.

  1. One of my favorite Automatic Gates comes in The Abyss, where (mild spoiler) Ed Harris’s ring does in fact stop the gate. But I couldn’t find a good gif for that.
  2. We’re always looking for great playtest venues, so by all means reach out if you have a spot.

The 200th Episode Live Show

Scriptnotes: Ep. 200
Play

Craig, John, and Aline record the 200th episode of Scriptnotes live with a worldwide audience listening in — and chiming in — as they discuss TV showrunning and whether quality really counts at the box office.

Then it’s time for listener questions, ranging from presidential plagiarism to locked drafts.

Hard to believe it’s been 200 episodes. We wouldn’t and couldn’t have done it without you. Thanks to all our listeners, both for the live feed and all the weeks that came before.

Links:

You can download the episode here: AAC | mp3.

UPDATE 6-5-15: The transcript of this episode can be found here.