5 Reasons You Should Kill Your Darlings

5 Reasons You Should Kill Your Darlings
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Screenwriters are often told to kill their darlings – figuratively speaking. Snuffing out your characters begins during the outlining stage of your screenplay. If two or more characters are too similar and the story still stands if you remove one or more, then they are not essential. Your audience won’t miss them.

Consider a scene where a group of cops approaches a house. One cop may be considered to be dangerous. Two is standard procedure if one needs backup. If there is a SWAT team, the story dynamics change. In these situations, each cop doesn’t necessarily need to have a distinct personality or dramatic role, because the cops function as a single dramatic unit.

Not all groups consist of a homogeneous character type. Consider a particular demographic such as a group of teenagers going to prom or a concert, who, by definition, will have similar (but not identical) traits. As a screenwriter, you can explore the differences in each which can add points of conflict to create tension in your story. For instance, one person might want to drink and the other may not. What if one person had to bring their little brother along to the dismay of the rest of the group? No two people are alike, so the members of each group need not be exactly the same – not even identical twins.

Photo by Angus Gray

Killing off a character does not always mean a physical death. It could mean a departure, a transformation, or the abandonment of an old behavior or values in favor of new ones. Every character has a life span. Some make it to the end of the story while others die in the middle.

Typically, the main characters in your screenplay don’t die since they are the main drivers of your story. A notable exception is Game Of Thrones when you must keep track of who survives.

There isn’t a consistent time to best kill off a character. It all depends on the story and the dramatic purpose of the character. It’s more important for screenwriters to understand that ending a character must be organic and necessary for your screenplay. They should never die in vain or to cover up problems in your story.

It’s more important for writers to understand why a character is exiting for good.

Let’s take a look at the key reasons screenwriters should consider killing off a character:


1) Serves the theme


Killing characters can’t be contrived or gratuitous – even in horror/ slasher films that rely on a steady stream of carnage to make their point.

Was the death an act of sacrifice, natural causes, an accident, or an act of violence? The cause of death informs the theme of your story.

Consider how a death motivates the other characters’ actions. Did the dead character leave behind a legacy or a secret?

A death must compel the surviving characters to respond in a meaningful way that illustrates the theme of the story. If a character dies in the opening scenes, it must be consequential. Perhaps their survivors carry on their work or learn to rebuild in the aftermath?

Naturally, a death will involve exploring feelings of sadness, loss, and grief. This is implied and expected. Think about exploring the higher theme in your story such as dying for a cause or to explore the preciousness of life.


2) Serves the plot


Even in horror films, killing off characters shouldn’t be gratuitous,s although it may seem that way. You can’t have a serial killer movie without multiple killings. Consider what drives the killer? Is there an endgame or some alternate world view worth exploring? Perhaps there are unusual ways of killing victims as is the case in the Saw movies?

Many crime stories feature a death or murder. Without this crucial event, there would be no story. Is the murderer killing off potential witnesses? Is he or she making it look like an accident or as a warning to others?

Killing off the character such as a villain signifies a natural conclusion to your story – a sense of justice and closure of a situation.


3) Shock the audience


These are the unexpected deaths that haven’t been set up in your screenplay. They could be deliberate such as a murder or suicide, or accidental, such as a car crash. Their role is to disorientate the audience and elicit an emotional reaction. They have followed the story to this point with a certain expectation of the story trajectory. Now they have to recalibrate their expectations.

Be wary of exploitative violence – more blood and gore to paper over holes in the story rarely elevates your screenplay.


4) They have completed their dramatic purpose


Impact characters enter a story to affect change in the main character in some deeper way. Once they have imparted wisdom and knowledge, they have served their purpose and are no longer required.

Mentor characters such as Yoda in the Star Wars films typically die around the middle of a screenplay. Luke Skywalker can now continue his mission.

Creative Screenwriting Magazine

Luke Skywalker and Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back

Love interests, particularly in the case of stories involving infidelity, may not be relevant to the plot until the end. Often, they tend to disappear soon after they are discovered.


5) Comedic Effect


Some types of dark / black comedy feature some truly silly and amusing ways for characters to die. These stories such as a character accidentally falling into a wood chipper to clear a blockage are meant to entertain rather than take an audience through an emotional journey typically associated with death.


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