Death in writing: impact on the story

In this post, I’m returning to the topic of character death. This time, I’ll focus on the impact a character’s death might have on the story.

As I said in the intro post, a character dying should have an impact on how the story continues. Ideally, there should be at least some change in the direction the story is going, compared to the situation before the character died.

Fact is, death is one of the strong storytelling tools, no matter on which side the casualty is. Very rarely will a story go from the start to the end without any changes to the original plan. Some parts of it will fail, some will work better than expected, and some will turn out differently. All of that should get some reaction from all sides of the conflict and keep the story organic.

Now, I’ll look into a few common scenarios and their potential.

The first blood

The death of an enemy is a powerful morale boost. The first major character dying is what might be the first shift in the balance of power – and give a hint how it might go on. If the antagonist wins the first major confrontation, it’s a testament of his/her power or cunning – and a blow that might force the heroes to change their plans completely. If the heroes win, it might infuriate the villain and speed up whatever their plan is – thus depriving the heroes of the time they believed they had to find a solution. Of course, there’s the chance it’ll totally crush the villain’s plans but it’s unlikely to happen in the first major fight, unless it’s a short story.

A major success

This is mostly tied to the death of an antagonist. Not the ‘big bad’ (as that’s usually the end) but a major underling. Someone with a lot of power, who is a major obstacle on the road to victory. The impact is usually as simple as the situation itself: it’s a moment that might force the villain into a defensive while boosting the morale of the heroes. Often, it can be the beginning of the end for the villain.

However, it might come with a cost of its own. A major minion might take someone with him or force a sacrifice the heroes did not count with. And again, this cost might have many forms apart from the death of a protagonist: such as losing a powerful weapon/artifact during the fight or creating another obstacle (such as trapping the survivors in a collapsed cave and forcing them to dig their way out or try to find another way).

A plan goes downhill

This is mostly tied to the death of a protagonist. Especially one with some crucial knowledge that was not passed down to anyone else yet. Without knowing what the now-deceased character knew, those who relied on those plans are forced to find their own way. It might set them back significantly – or give them a chance to come up with a new (and possibly better plan). One way or another, it’s (at least at the moment) a loss of momentum and a potential gain for the villain – even if it’s just buying time in the later stages.

It is also a chance to explore different aspects of the story – different ways to overcome the obstacles, whether it’s loss of what the character meant to others or what the character knew (or, in the best case, both). As I hinted in the intro post, one option to utilize this is by carefully planned hints given throughout the story (and you can go full Dumbledore and drop hints even when dead through people the character knew and things he left behind).

A hollow victory

A scenario with a potential for mixed feelings. It can happen that a protagonist’s death will be for nothing – such as assaulting a bad guy’s hideout only to realize he left a few underlings behind but retreated beforehand. Losing time, energy, and people (more so if major characters with special powers) will hit the morale despite winning the battle itself and a well-done trap can be a testament of the villain’s cunning. Of course this can be done the other way around – the villan might kill one of the heroes but the loss might rally them instead and lead to stronger resistance against him/her.

Now, I’ve intentionally skipped the scenario of the very end – because with the story told, there usually won’t be much exploration of the impact left and because that touches the topic of the ending itself more, at least in my opinion.

Anyway, I’ll welcome your insight on this topic. Feel free to share your experience or favorite well-done examples. I’ll continue this mini-series with another post about character death in a week.

Death in writing mini-series:
Intriduction (7.7.) – Impact on story (14.7.) – Emotions (21.7.) – Death sentence (28.7.) – Last rites (4.8.) – Sacrifice (11.8.) – Cheating death (18.8.)

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