A popular post from December 2007
by Annette Lyon
One of the most powerful recurring themes in all of literature is that of death.
I'd go as far as to say that every story is about death, whether that's a literal death or a symbolic one. Quite often the death is followed by a rebirth of some sort.
If we use the 3-act screenplay format to describe a novel, the most dramatic death/rebirth generally occurs near the end of the second act, or with about 1/4 of the story yet to go, but others generally occur along the way as well.
Literal deaths include times when a character is experiencing or is around death, perhaps witnessing a loved one pass away.
Symbolic deaths can include cheating death and coming out the other side with a new perspective on life and the goal for the story, sort of a "NOW I get what it's about" moment. That realization turns the story in a new direction for the final act.
Stories often have a number of death/rebirth moments, because any time a character changes, leaving behind a former self, it's a symbolic death of the old self and rebirth of the new. It can take something dramatic to shake up a character's status quo, to make them change course, and a death/rebirth can do that.
These are powerful moments for the reader, which is why so many classic stories, blockbuster movies, and best-selling books include death and rebirth moments.
As an example, let's look at Disney's movie Beauty and the Beast, and at the Beast's character in particular. (Belle changes and has deaths/rebirths, too. Think how the concept applies to her as well.)
The beast's first brush with death is when he saves Belle from the attacking wolves. After he saves her, he collapses in the snow and even appears to be dead.
Belle decides not to abandon her rescuer and instead nurses him back to health. This prompts their first significant conversation ("Ouch! That hurts!") and provides the first turning point in their relationship from captor/prisoner to being icily tolerant allies.
As their friendship progresses, the Beast moves into the death of his old self. His pride and selfishness peel off like a snake's skin, and he learns to love another person. An outward expression of the birth of his new self is the scene where he bathes, dresses, gets a haircut, and otherwise gets ready for a special night with Belle.
(Side note here: An outward sign of Belle's inner death and rebirth occurs during their dinner that night, when she abandons her expectation that he use a spoon and instead raises her bowl and drinks from it. She's accepting who he is and no longer requiring him to fit her mold.)
Later on, the Beast frees Belle from her obligation, which shows his complete transformation but also sends him into essentially a death of the heart, which he doesn't recover from until Belle's return.
At that point we get the nearest to death the Beast ever comes: he and Gaston have it out, and the latter comes after the Beast from the back. In true villain fashion, such underhandedness is promptly punished, for after he stabs the Beast in the back, Gaston falls to his death. Belle pulls the Beast from a certain physical death (apparently with miraculous strength) onto the castle tower.
It is in that moment we see the final death/rebirth: the spell is broken when Belle declares her love for him, and the Beast melts away and transforms into the prince he's been inside this entire time.
Without such dramatic external and internal shifts between life and death, the story would lack much of its power.
As you read and watch movies in the next little while, pay attention to the deaths and rebirths. It might be Luke Skywalker apparently dying and in the trash compactor and managing to get out alive anyway. Or maybe it's Buzz Lightyear who faces the death of who he has always believed himself to be--a space ranger, not a toy--and in trying to hold onto his former identity, nearly kills himself physically by falling and breaking off his arm.
Look at your latest story and try to identify when your main characters face death, both literally and symbolically. What parts of them die? What parts are reborn? What do they learn from each death and rebirth? Does someone actually die? What is the rebirth that follows? Do you have one final, powerful death/rebirth scene that propels your character into the final act?
Don't start killing off characters for the sake of playing with your reader's emotions, but do take a look at where you can use those moments of change to enhance your characters, their problems, their goals, and their ultimate rewards.