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10/14/2004 - WANTED: DEAD OR ALIVE?

Does the character die? It's a question I ask over and over in my screenwriting class. Does the character die? Does it further the story or add more impact if the main, or subordinate character, dies?

In the last couple months I've seen two films that, in my opinion, take the wimpy way out. "Ice Age" and "Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron" both have main characters (okay animated main characters) that "die" - or at least appear to be dying - only to come alive again. And, in my opinion, it lessens the impact of the story.

My latest screenplay is about a girl dying of cancer. As she suffers through the disease we follow her moments of strength and her moments of weakness. When I originally wrote the story, she was going to die in a very sad, emotional, heart-tugging way. I decided to back off that but I also didn't want her to miraculously become "cured" either. So I compromised. As we see her get better near the end of the film, at the very end I say that six months later she died. That way we don't go through the maudlin "Love Story"-"Brian's Song" way of doing things but I still keep SOME of the impact.

Now, people might say that "E.T." is the biggest cop-out when it comes to this. Let's kill the character only to bring him back to life moments later. But what impact did it have? Did it give strength and weight to the story or did it seem like Spielberg was just saying: "Oh, yeah, let's let him live." Now, if he had "E.T." dying and two minutes later he's well and back to his home planet, that would be one thing but, instead, the moment is the catalyst upon which the Second Act ends and the climactic Third Act begins. So where you place the "death" has impact upon whether the moment feels forced, contrived, heart-tugging, manipulative, etc.

As James Cameron described "Titanic" as "Romeo and Juliet on a boat." You KNEW one of the main characters had to die. The film would have been vastly different if Jack had lived. In short: He had to go.

Does the character die? How does the character die (all evil characters must die a horrible painful death - rule 57 in basic screenwriting)? And when, in your screenplay, does the character die? For your screenplay to be better, it could be a matter of life and death.


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