The Importance of Death in Storytelling

I will never forget the first time that I ever cried while watching a movie.

I was eight years old, I was sitting in the living room of my small townhouse in Grand Forks, North Dakota, and I was watching Transformers: The Movie (Shin, 1986) with Orson Welles and Leonard Nimoy. It was a pretty sick movie, there was plenty of the  campy action that I ATE UP as a kid, plus, it was about giant anthropomorphic robots fighting each other, that’s a formula that should be pretty hard to mess up *cough* Michael Bay *cough**cough*.

Anyways, this great battle happens at one point in the film, and my favorite Transformer, Optimus Prime, destroys like twelve Decepticons to Stan Bush’s “You’ve Got The Touch” and it is so 80’s, you wouldn’t believe it. But I was a kid and didn’t understand cultural time periods, all I saw was the coolest thing I had ever seen in my life. Then Optimus comes face to face with his greatest rival Megatron, and after sharing some of the cheesiest dialog ever, they start to throw hands, and for reference, “You’ve Got the Touch” is still playing.

It is fantastic.

Optimus gets stabbed with a stalactite and/or stalagmite at one point, and at another point he punches a gun in half, and then later he throws Megatron, like a football, thirty feet. And eight year old me is freaking out, this is so cool, Prime has finally found an opponent who may be better than him, but he is still doing his best and fighting hard. Optimus is fighting, and he is so brave and I am so proud of this imaginary robot because he is standing up for what is right, and my heart is swelling with emotions. But Megatron, still recovering from being thrown, notices that there is a gun near him, hidden from Optimus’ view. As Optimus himself grabs a gun, and slowly advances towards his downed enemy.

“You’ve Got the Touch” suddenly stops.

And Megatron shoots Optimus Prime in the chest.

And my heart sinks.

And Megatron shoots again, and again, and again.

Optimus gets one final strike in but it’s too late, because a few minutes later, the great Optimus Prime dies on the operating table. My heart broken, I tried and failed to hold back tears. My hero had been vanquished. The greatest Transformer had just been slain, so I had no idea how the rest of the movie would proceed. I remember pacing nervously around my family room, not sure what to do, or how to hide my tears from my family.

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The whole tone of the movie changed, because a new character had been added to the narrative, the Grim Reaper, (theoretically of course, but now typing this makes me want to see what a Cybertronian Grim Reaper would look like.) While death had existed in the movie up to this point, it seemed to be a factor that affected only the lowliest of decepticons, with little cost to anything important. The Autobots had been strengthened by this plot armor, protecting them from any fatal situations, but this plot armor also affects the narrative as a whole in a negative way, by constantly protecting the autobots, there is no real threat. Up to this point, the Autobots had escaped all of their battles relatively unscathed, so the audience has been somewhat trained by the filmmakers to assume that nothing bad will happen to the characters. But with the death of Optimus, the plot armor that protected the Autobots was torn away as well.

With Optimus Prime gone, the whole movie was given real stakes. There was a real sense of dread going into each situation of conflict afterwards, because you had no idea if your favorite characters were going to make it out alive. And this sense of dread is what storytelling is all about, creating emotions within people that further draw them into your narrative.

One example of this idea done perfectly is through the HBO series Game of Thrones based off of George R.R. Martin’s hit series, A Song of Ice and Fire. **SPOILERS FOR GAME OF THRONES SEASONS 1-3** If you want to keep reading spoiler free, scroll until you see a picture of Danny Devito.

The writers of the show, and George R. R. Martin do an excellent job of establishing the fact that any character can die in the series at any point. They create this level of uncertainty in the world that is best established at the end of Season One, after the death of Ned Stark, the main protagonist of the series. Clearly asserting that with the death of the main character, everyone is at risk of danger, at any time. This is further in referenced by the Red Wedding episode in Season Three, when the writers show their true brutality by killing off Ned’s son Robb Stark at a wedding followed by his mother, and pregnant wife seemingly out of nowhere.

But while the writers not only managed to perform one of the most surprising, horrifying, and memorable moments in television history, they also managed to truly establish the show as a situation where no one was safe. It didn’t matter if the character was young or old, male or female, or even pregnant, every single character in this world was at risk, no one has even an inch of plot armor. It’s a really special experience, because it puts you, the viewer, in the shoes of the characters in the show, who are also aware that they can die at any time.

It also provides levity, because now we as viewers have seen what can happen as a result of political situations that have gone wrong. So now, when characters attempt to play the game, it makes everything more suspenseful, because even a minor slip up has major implications down the line and can affect any of the other characters within the intricate web of alliances and rivalries between the various characters of Game of Thrones. 

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This idea can also be done the wrong way and have the opposite effect. The CW’s tv show Arrow went from being one of my favorite shows to one that I can’t even stand to watch as a result of this. **So again, spoilers for Arrow, if you want to avoid them, scroll until you see a picture of Hulk Hogan**

The reason I stopped watching, and started loathing, Arrow can all be tied back to a single moment in the show that removed all stakes and completely ejected all emotional involvement that I had for it. But first, let me set the stakes.

The Lazarus pits are essentially these magical hot springs that allow Ra’s Al Ghul and the other members of the league of assassins to rejuvenate themselves and heal their wounds. The pit takes it’s name from the biblical character of Lazarus, a man who is brought back to life by Jesus after an untimely death. But while this pit provides healing powers to the members of the league it also has strict boundaries. Namely that it shouldn’t be used to bring others back from the death, as it brings the physical body of one back, but depending on how long the person has been dead, it might not bring their soul back with them.

This separation of soul and body that can occur in the Lazarus Pits is vital to their importance, for it provides an explanation for the immortality of Ra’s Al Ghul and the vast amount of wisdom, skills and resources he has amassed over the centuries, but it also prevents using the pits as a deus ex machina and escape from death. For, even when the pits are used to save from death, they backfire a la Jason Todd.

This is how the plot line started out in Arrow. The Black Canary (Sarah) was killed, and after months of waiting, her sister Laurel brought Sarah’s body to the Lazarus pit and revived it. But there was no Sarah left obviously, only a feral animal with the face of Sarah, a body without a soul. This is what happens when you mess with the Lazarus Pits and play God. Sarah’s living body just ended up being chained in a basement for like months until people find out and try to help. Oliver Queen, aka the Green Arrow, brings in the help of one of my favorite comic book characters of all time, John Constantine, who is an incredible sorcerer, to see if he can do anything. And this is where everything goes wrong for me.

Constantine comes in, and he restores Sarah’s soul to her body.

Just like that.

All the stakes in the show are now gone.                  As well as my interest in the story and its continuation.

Let me explain.

After that moment, I knew the show had died for me, but because I am stubborn, I still held on and tried to watch a the next episode a week later when it aired. But I had to stop, because I got about twenty minutes in, and the characters were all discussing how dangerous whatever situation of this episode was going to be. BUT IT SHOULDN’T MATTER HOW DANGEROUS IT IS. Like, what’s the WORST thing that could happen? Someone dies?

Oh man, it’s not like they have a pit that can immediately bring said person back to life.

But wait, don’t those pits make the dead that rise from them into psychopaths who lack souls?

IT DOESN’T MATTER, BECAUSE ALL THEY NEED TO DO IS HAVE OLIVER QUEEN CALL UP HIS GOOD FRIEND JOHN CONSTANTINE, AND THEY CAN JUST MAGIC SOMEONE’S SOUL BACK INTO THEIR BODY.

It was distracting, because the stakes of the show are now gone. And I know I have already said this, but I felt the need to repeat it, because frankly, from here on out, there isn’t necessarily a reason to watch the show anymore. The characters are too safe. I mean, they can’t die? So what can possibly be challenging to a team of people that literally can be brought back to life on a whim? Why should I care if Oliver is fighting like nine guys at once? What’s the worst that could happen? He dies? Oh man, good thing ALL DEATH HAS BEEN CURED IN THIS WORLD.
I need to stop talking about this because it just makes me sad. Just like the topic of this whole post is death, another example of death in storytelling takes the form of Arrow’s tragic death in my appreciation of it.

So, I mean, that’s perhaps the most personally frustrating example of death being done wrong, and having the opposite effect of this idea. Instead of creating an atmosphere of dread and immersion into this unique world like Game of ThronesArrow’s bungling of the plot, if anything, does the exact opposite by distracting from the story and cuts my immersion. Instead of making every action seem important like Game of Thrones and Transformers: The Movie managed to do, actions that take place in Arrow do the opposite, as I no longer care what happens to the characters, as I know an easily revival is a plane ride and a phone call away.

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Death is an incredibly unique addition to storytelling, as it can directly affect how viewers experience the show, by adding or removing stakes in the narrative. So, the next time you see a character die in a movie or TV show, maybe you can think about how their death affects the stakes in the narrative going forward.

Does it make the viewing experience better by adding to the appeal of the challenges overcome by the characters?

Does it add to the narrative tension displayed by creating a meta-narrative where it is well established that characters can die at any time?

Or is death as a narrative device squandered and tip-toed around in a way that lessens the legitimacy and impact of the narrative?

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