A death scene, if done well, shows how the person involved reacts to their own mortality.
There is something deeply moving about good, well-written death scenes in a movie, book, or television show. It is something that I have always been fascinated by, even when I was a child and my understanding of death was limited. When I wrote my first story when I was nine years old, all of the main characters in the story died at some point.
Someone could write this off as simply the typical childish sadism that everyone usually experiences at one point or another, but I believe that death scenes, the non-refundable kind, in stories have a purpose.
But, before I try to explain my thoughts on the purpose of these scenes, I will try to explain the purpose of stories as a whole. It seems to me there are two types of stories: those that are meant to depict reality and those that are not. The purpose of the ones that are meant to depict reality, it seems to me, is that they want to expand upon some element of reality, explain it, and give the writer’s thoughts on it, whether that means wallowing in how terrible and difficult life is, or if it means experiencing how joyful life can be.
The purpose of the ones that are not meant to depict reality, it seems to me, is that these stories want to view life, characters, or various stories, through a different lens, one that each writer creates for the purpose of the story.
Now, a death scene can have multiple purposes. It could be included to shake the protagonist’s faith, show how difficult the protagonist’s journey is going to be, or it could be to simply show how bad the antagonist is. There are certainly others, but I cannot include all of them here.
Looking at those three examples of possible purposes for a death scene, does it not seem as though all three of these are undermined in various television shows and movies? I see it less in books (no pun intended.)
This life is the one and only life we have before the final judgement. So it seems as though life is taken not quite as seriously in television as it is in real life. That is fine with me in shows where the characters themselves do not seem too concerned about living or dying, because the fact that life is not taken too seriously is a reflection of what the characters experience.
And then you have the typical television show trope of bringing characters back to life, or pretending that they are dead for a bit. Shows like Blacklist have used this. They pretended the protagonist was dead and then when it was revealed that she was alive, only then did every fan of the show have an emotional breakdown.
Then there are shows that involve magic, such as Once Upon a Time or The Walking Dead. In the former, someone is literally brought back from the dead and in the latter someone was thought to be dead for a bit and then went ahead and killed him later anyway, thereby ruining the death scene altogether and making it generally pointless.
But the thing about death scenes is that they show the fragility of life and how a person faces their mortality.
Now, the Walking Dead fake-out was somewhat jarring from my perspective as an audience-member, but it is understandable why a person would write the show that way. It provides some tension and it makes that character’s ultimate actual death seem like it was not going to come. But then it came.
But the thing that was downright insulting for me, as a writer, was, in the television show Once Upon a Time (yes, I used to watch it, even though I am a heterosexual male), when they killed off a specific character and then brought him back.
His death scene was so emotional and filled with meaning, and I can reasonably assume that, in a universe where magic is real, the type of magic exists to bring someone back to life. But his character arc was over. He showed that he was willing to give up the one thing that he used to be too scared to put in danger—his own life—in order to save his son and, thereby win his son’s love and respect back.
And then we find out that his son brought him back to life and had to give up his own life. There is also some magical weirdness mixed in there that makes no sense.
Do not misunderstand me. The character who died was the only reason why I watched the show, so, since he died, I probably was not going to keep watching anyway. The only reason why I kept watching is that that one death scene was so good. I expected the quality of writing to meet my expectations after that scene. Instead, it dropped my expectations through the floor of what I even thought was possible by bringing him back.
As someone who has written characters that I liked, both protagonists and antagonists, I cannot imagine cheapening their death scenes to that extent. A death scene, if done well, shows how the person involved reacts to their own mortality. Not every death scene must show the character being strong and brave, though, as that does not fit every character, but, like all art, it will have a moral, whether it is one that it chooses or one that its audience places upon it. Stories do not exist in a vacuum.
So the right way of telling a story is to understand that, acknowledge that, and work with that by making things more meaningful and purposeful.