Creator Confessions: Death Is The Most Powerful Storytelling Tool
by Frank Martin
There are many tools in a writer’s toolbox to invoke a desired effect. There’s the plot twist. The romance. The betrayal. But perhaps none is stronger than death. And this is probably because death, or at least the effects of death, is something we all can relate to or fear on some level. It could be the death of a loved one. The death of a friend. Even, in some cases, the death of an enemy. Death is permanent. It marks an end. A profound loss on the greatest of scales. Yet, in terms of storytelling, it’s amazingly easy to incorporate. People die suddenly all the time. Sometimes not even in gruesome, horrific, or violent fashion. Heart attacks and sudden aneurysms happen on a daily basis. So while immensely powerful, death can also be mishandled and used as a crutch for writers.
The most annoying use of death is shock value. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the story has to be a horror — although the horror genre is extraordinarily guilty of this — but it could really be in anything. A love story that wants to throw the audience or reader for a loop might just insert a sudden car crash to add a layer of surprise to the story. But it could also be incredibly lazy for writers to insert a death for the sake of keeping the story fresh. Death for death’s sake, if you will. That’s not to say that death can’t be used to move a plot along, but there is a strong difference between a death for the purpose of plotting and a death that’s meant purely to surprise.
When used properly, death is meant for characterization. It’s supposed to be personal, something that moves the plot along not because of the death itself but because of the reaction of the characters. It’s meant to inspire. It’s meant to burden. And, it needs to be built up with foundational characterization beforehand. That said, it also needs to be handled with tact. Death is still a heavy emotional weight in society. Being irresponsible in depicting the death of a character can actually hurt your story. That is, if your story is meant to be serious. If it’s a comedy, all bets are off as death is a unique phenomenon that attracts both the saddest and funniest emotions in us all.