Sacrificial Plot Point Lamb

18 Oct

Why do filmmakers repeatedly rely on death, especially murder, to move their story forward?  True, reckless killings happen often; however, they repeatedly happen in movies.   

I’ll never forget listening to the director’s commentary of a famous independent film.  During a scene in which an adolescent character is killed, the writer/director said that he “needed something to move the story forward…a device.” So he killed off a kid.  I’m sorry, but that is downright disgusting.

Personally, I feel death is the easy choice.  Like in life, one simply needs to pull out a gun and shoot their character – done, which leads to drama.  It gives the writer something to write about.  But I believe there are much better ways to generate drama and move the story forward.

More importantly, I believe these better alternatives to death lead to developments in the plot that would otherwise never have happened if death were chosen.  In other words, by simply choosing death as a plot point, other, more beautiful and exciting developments are also put to death.

Believe me, I’m not immune to death as an idea.  I am currently developing a feature film script and death has arisen as an option multiple times, not to mention rape and incest.  It’s sick, I know.  But from a writer’s perspective, they are “tools of the trade.”  They have been ingrained in me.

Not sure if that’s such a good thing….


3 Responses to “Sacrificial Plot Point Lamb”

  1. Tom P October 18, 2011 at 6:13 am #

    I’m not sure how any other choice a writer makes is less of a ‘device’ than death, particularly when death is a lot more common, a lot more normal, than most of the other choices at a writer’s fingertips. Death might often be a lot more dramatic than, say, the phone ringing or a thunderstorm or someone getting fired or someone having a hallucination (all devices… everything is a device!) but death is something we all experience on a daily basis. Why eliminate it as a choice? Why is it sick?

    I was watching THE WALKING DEAD last night, which I think is pretty amazing. Two of the main characters are kids. The show is incredibly tense because no one is safe… which to me is a lot more dramatic than were death to be eliminated as a choice. I even chuckled to myself as I watched it that, as a writer, “If you want to raise the stakes, kill a kid.” That’s not sick, it’s smart. Because not only does it raise the stakes incredibly, which creates drama, but it is normal.

    Think back to that great speech ‘Robert McKee’ makes in ADAPTATION when asked by Charlie Kaufman what he thinks about Kaufman’s screenplay where ‘nothing much happens…” McKee’s reaction is brilliant:

    “Nothing happens in the world? Are you out of your fucking mind? People are murdered every day. There’s genocide, war, corruption. Every fucking day, somewhere in the world, somebody sacrifices his life to save someone else. Every fucking day, someone, somewhere takes a conscious decision to destroy someone else. People find love, people lose it. For Christ’s sake, a child watches her mother beaten to death on the steps of a church. Someone goes hungry. Somebody else betrays his best friend for a woman. If you can’t find that stuff in life, then you, my friend, don’t know crap about life! And why the FUCK are you wasting my two precious hours with your movie? I don’t have any use for it! I don’t have any bloody use for it!”

    That’s how I feel and why I think death is a terrific choice.

    • Christopher October 18, 2011 at 9:52 am #

      Hey, Tom. Thank you for the impassioned comment :)

      I’m not against devices in and off themselves; I’m simply against using them easily. I find most use of death in movies like pancake mix. Too many coffee shops these days use pancake mix and it doesn’t taste good nor does it settle well afterward. It’s an easy, quick and cheap alternative to wholesome flour, butter, eggs, etc.. If one’s goal is to simply feed and fill people up with food, then mix works well, but if the goal is to nourish while providing good taste, then one must use good ingredients and prepare the food.

      Once again, my issue is not with death in films in and of itself (I will most likely have death in my films one day); I have a problem with the way in which it’s repeatedly used as a quick plot point for the sake of some story. Not only do I have a problem with this as a conscientious human, but as a consumer of media: offer me something original, not the same old pancake mix.

      The problem I have with statements like “raising the stakes” is that they are based on a certain perspective on the purpose of film. It sounds like you primarily want a film to entertain you. Yes, it’s the good old entertainment versus art argument. That’s cool. I can’t disagree with your needs. Me, on the other hand, want more than entertainment. I couldn’t care less about stakes; I want more than sensationalism.

      “’If you want to raise the stakes, kill a kid.’ That’s not sick, it’s smart.” Really? Then lets make a movie about a line of 300 kids that get shot in the head, one by one – 300 in a row – THE END. How about that? Yes, I’m making an absurd argument, taking it to the extreme, however, one must draw the line somewhere. 100 kids? 10? 1? I draw the line at 0, unless, it is really, really necessary and integral to the film and not just raising the stakes.

      I realize my films will bore many, many folks. It’s a choice I continually make and wrestle with on every project. However, I refuse to spice things up with a death here and a death there, no matter how often it happens in the “real” world.

      • Tom P October 18, 2011 at 5:40 pm #

        You are speaking in wild hyperbole here much of the time. Which you acknowledge in part but I don’t think it is helpful and not just the 300 kids is hyperbole. Yes, I think I can raise the stakes without lining 300 kids up for the slaughter. (Though, note to self…next movie idea). THE WALKING DEAD Sunday night put two kids in serious danger, yet to be resolved, to brilliant effect. With some really complex moral issues at stake. But I guess zombie stories are anathema. Way too much death there.

        One problem here is subjectivity. You keep saying you have no problem with death inherently (“My issue is not with death in films in and of itself”) but them you pretty much slam any time someone uses it. I guess only when you choose to use it is it integral to the story. That’s certainly the message you are conveying here. Anyone else who chooses to use it is just raising the stakes, using a device.

        Again, though, I will counter that the devices you use in your own films… and they are devices, storytelling devices each and every one… death is comparatively the most normal, the most common and thus one of the least egregious uses of a device imaginable.

        I also won’t go on ad nauseam here but there are countless examples in art of death being used to ‘nourish while providing good taste’… or do you throw all of Shakespeare’s tragedies out, given the brutal bloodshed of most of them? It’s hard to find more a more compelling, challenging, edifying work than, say, HAMLET. Maybe it would be better if all those people didn’t die.

        Where we do disagree also is on a different issue you raise, which is the purpose of storytelling. Yes, I do think stories work best when they entertain. Granted there are different forms of entertainment. SE7EN and CHINATOWN are as entertaining to me, in a way, as is THE SOUND OF MUSIC, classics all. “Entertaining”, as gross as you seem to find the idea, doesn’t necessarily mean happy, though there is nothing wrong with THE SOUND OF MUSIC. I do think it is a classic. But even a documentary on the Holocaust – whoops, lots of death there – has to be entertaining for people to watch. Or perhaps we are using the wrong word. Engaging is a better word, which is sister to entertaining. If a story does not engage, it doesn’t matter how many it might nourish, it is a tree falling in the forest that no one hears.

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