Writing 3.3 – “The Death Story”

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In January of ’84, after a decent winter break between college semesters, I was excited and nervous about something new in my college schedule – theater.  Not theater from a book but more like an intro to acting.  I had always loved movies and plays, but I had never actually done anything towards joining a production.  Signing up to not just talk about theater but to take part in script reading and performance, albeit limited to a classroom, was bold for me.  The professor – Dr. Will Grant – was far bolder.  Or, maybe he was just a bit nuts.

We sat there, some with notebooks and pens ready while others sipped coffee.  Then he sat on his desk with a big smile and Jerry Lewis hair, a white dress shirt and black pants like halfway to a Blues Brother, and asked if anyone had seen any good movies during the break.  Someone answered with “Terms of Endearment.”  Dr. Grant’s face reddened as his smile grew, sort of a devlish Jack Black smile.

Terms of Endearment!” he said, and I was thinking he must have enjoyed it as much as I had.  “What a piece of trash!”  Okay, that was intimidating.  He must have been able to see faces dropping throughout the class as he continued.  “Think about it.  What happens at the beginning of every story?  You introduce characters.  You learn about them, get to know them, what they do, what they like and don’t like.  Where they live, who they’re in love with, who they hate.”  He picked an aisle and walked a bit, always making eye contact with anyone willing to look his way.

“Then the main character, our protagonist, gets involved in a conflict of some kind.  Trouble happens.  He has a problem he must deal with, something to overcome.  But he has limitations or faults that are usually related to the problem he is facing.  For example, in Rocky, he was a fighter, but not a great fighter with not much confidence.  He was going into the ring with the heavyweight champion.”  Grant paced further, arms more animated.

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Which one of these people will die?

“A protagonist’s conflict is against one of three possibilities.  Another person, one’s environment, or against one’s self.  Rocky’s conflict was against his own confidence, his friends who did not help, and his opponent who was the champion of the world.  While Rocky seems like a simple story, it is actually a rather complicated conflict.”

I was learning so much on my first day, first hour of class.

“The person or thing opposing the protagonist is called the antagonist.  So we have a protagonist versus an antagonist.  And the whole reason we watch a movie is to find out who wins.  Does the protagonist overcome the conflict against the antagonist, or does he fail?  Is he beaten down, unable to win, or does he rise above?”

I had kind of known that, but I had never given it much thought.  I just watched movies and enjoyed them without naming the parts.  When I drive, I don’t think about the how the hydraulics control the brakes.  I don’t imagine the coordination of the spark plugs, cylinders, and fuel-to-oxygen ratio.  I just step on the damn brakes to stop and gas to go.  You can write a sentence with a predicate adjective without actually knowing what the hell a predicate adjective is.  Either way, I was learning, and the teacher continued his monologue.

“So, in Terms of Endearment, we meet a mother and daughter who don’t get along well.  And the mother meets a love interest who does crazy shit.  And people get along well, not so well, then well again and not so well again.  Would anyone like to tell me who either the protagonist or the antagonist is?”  Hesitation, then a few hands.

“The mother?”

“The daughter?”

“The crazy guy?”

I wasn’t about to say a word, but I could see Dr. Grant was ready to say something.  He was an acting teacher.  He was building drama, letting tension bubble up, increasing the pressure as his face morphed into a satanic grin.  He landed back on his desk again, standing with his butt leaning against it, his arms folded across his chest and resting on his protruding belly.

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Which one of these lovers will die?

What Dr. Grant went on to explain was that stories like Terms of Endearment, Love Story, and Beaches, with 6 Oscars and one nomination total, are much beloved films in which nothing really happens.  We meet people, get to know, perhaps like them, and watch them do incidental things that are mostly endearing but not at all vital.  They go in and out of relationships while having professional and personal ups and downs.  Eventually the story has nowhere to go, nothing else to do, so the only way to end it is for someone to die.  It’s about as creative as paint-by-numbers.

There was no way I would have ever disagreed with Dr. Grant back then, but I do agree with him today.  The only reason I mention this is because of the recent release of The Fault in Our Stars, another “death story.”  This one is even worse because it involves teens instead of adults.  When adults perish in a death story, we can deal with it more easily because we can at least say they probably lived a full enough life.  But to have a death story involving teens or kids?  That’s just wrong.  It does no more than rip at our sympathies and slice our heart strings, though I must admit I have no idea what heart strings are.

I have maintained for years that the hardest part to writing a good story is coming up with a convincing ending.  A teacher in a screenwriting class summarized a story plot like this:

You have a protagonist.  You put him up in a tree.  The conflict is he must get down.  While he is trying to get down, the antagonist throws rocks at him.  Some rocks are sub-conflicts and rising action.  Other characters come along.  Some help, but some throw rocks too.  Eventually, he gets closer to the bottom, so you throw bigger rocks, and then he retreats a little.  He tries branches on the other side of the tree, but you move with him and get more rocks.  Eventually, usually, the protagonist will get down, sometimes not, but either way the story is over.

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Pretty sure you can guess which of these “beeches” will die.

I like that analogy because I could see it.  I can’t really see “protagonist” or “sub-conflict,” but I can see rocks and a tree.  When I extend the analogy to story endings, I realize that the protagonist will get down with the help of a ladder or rope or something.  That ladder is your ending, but it needs to be arrived at carefully.  It can’t just appear out of nowhere because that’s like a death ending.  I know the dying character probably started coughing at the end of the first act, but that’s just some foreshadowing because the director thinks the audience could be texting or opening another pack of Twizzlers.

A few coughs from a character are not enough for a death ending to make sense.  Having someone die to end a story is like setting a timer halfway through and watching the countdown until someone is counted out.  It is simply lazy writing.  A good ending needs to be nurtured and worked into the story slowly.  It shouldn’t be a 16-ton block that falls on someone or a train that crushes a car at a railroad crossing.  It needs to be unexpected but not unexplainable.  Inexplicable.  Whatever.

A good ending shouldn’t be a deus ex machina, in which unseen forces conveniently take control.  It should rely on a writer to construct something, put some work into it, plant some seeds along the way, water them, and eventually the ending starts to naturally grow.  It shouldn’t just fall out of the sky or pop out of the ground.  Although, in the case of a death story, I guess it pops into the ground.

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The End

8 thoughts on “Writing 3.3 – “The Death Story”

    • yes, we all know someone who will die or is dying. but (and i apologize for how harsh this sounds) but dying is not enough for a story. to introduce us to a character and then kill the character is not a story. it is an event, but it’s not a story.

      • however much you know is not important as however much you want to know, try to know, and seek to know. some people like me, who might be more “educated,” tend to sit back and think that they’ve done enough. it’s those who want to keep going and do more who will make a difference.

  1. This was a great, thoughtful contemplation to build up to the ends of such stories. There, the antagonist is the limited time leading to death, not a person. It is as much a character as the people on screen.

    • i don’t see death – in this kind of story – as a character. i have seen death as a character, or as a characterization, but it was a character who interacted, engaged other characters. in a “death story,” death seems like just a plot device.

  2. Oddly, I think many of us enjoy a “death” story movie. These are often relatable, we understand them. One of my favorite movies is Steel Magnolias, likely because I know those characters, they are friends of mine at a personal level, I grew up with them.

    This was a lovely post, I understand the idea of a antagonist => protagonist relationship within a story and how this makes a great movie. However, I think there is a very real place for the ‘death’ story genre as well.

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