Death dealing is our #1 form of light entertainment
We’re not being entertained by the thought of confronting death. Nor are we entertained by the idea of coping with death. Or handling death. Or overcoming death. Not even about caring for those who suffered the consequences of death… no, as a species we care little about any of those topics…instead, our #1 form of light entertainment is watching death being dealt. The upshots of sudden death are rarely discussed or even covered… perhaps it’s because they are not fun enough for our short-term recreational needs! Instead, we savor & revel in the thrill of voyeuristic death and the excitement a shocking death brings. Clearly we delight in it!
You don’t believe me? Look at the TV schedules: they’re stuffed with cop shows, murder-mystery suspenses, action thrillers and… of course, the news. The news telly brings us 24-hour coverage of death and it beams images & words about death directly into our sanctuaries… we have technology that allows death-as-entertainment to enter the same cave we keep our children, and our old folks safe — the same cave we use to hide away from worry & threat.
Death as entertainment is intoxicating and it’s problematic for our species… it’s not just an unhealthy fascination either, it’s more pernicious than that — it’s a boundless, insatiable and global preoccupation that’s turning into almost hypnotic obsession… We have lessened the dire consequences of death, we have diluted death’s terrible sting, and instead we have come to regard death as a form of carefree light entertainment.
And if you think I’m right about this and you suppose our preoccupation with death might be connected to the internet, video games, Hollywood movies, or even racy literature, I’ll remind you that humans have always been partial to a bit of death as entertainment… death has always been viewed as something to get excited about: think of the Romans and their gladiatorial combat (or throwing Christians to lions, just for fun) think of the Aztecs who rolled heads down the slopes of their pyramids to cheers from the crowd, think of the Egyptians who employed legions of slaves to create elaborate time capsules so kings might carry their possessions into the afterlife, think of the Elizabethans who would take the family for a fun day-out to Tyburn “triple tree” to witness a wagon-load of criminals swing on the ropes… think of the iron-age Britons who spent hundreds of working hours constructing hills, mounds and henges to celebrate death. Think of the Victorians who took death daguerreotypes of their own children!
So recreational death is not new … it is as pernicious & destructive as it’s ever been. And, to me, the biggest catastrophe of all is that weak, under-performing writers (hopefully not you, but there are some out there) will recklessly use wasteful death as an entertaining plot device.
We all know that soap operas use the “shock” of a sudden death to improve their ratings when the normal story-lines run-out-of-steam; and directors of soaps like occasional death because it allows their actors to practice their chops… but I can tell you from personal experience, that sudden death in a community will totally disrupt and destabilize everything. Sudden death will fracture friendships, jeopardize fragile family ties, and often divide families for generations. If soap operas ever handled death properly & appropriately, it is likely that the death of a main character would spell the end of the show… just one “shock” death would be enough to end “the street” the village or the neighborhood.
And death isn’t (though we like to kid ourselves it is) but believe me, it isn’t, final. I know many soldiers who have confronted, addressed and (yes) dealt in death. And they continue to react and respond (negatively) to their (terrible) encounters for many years afterwards… for some of these death traffickers, the death will take forever to overcome and forever to understand. And here’s another thing: they can’t communicate what it was like. This makes me speculate that death is inexpressible... it makes me think that death is so barbarically awful that it is indescribable. And if it is inexpressible and unspeakable to a person who has been intimate with it, then we better be very skilled writers indeed if we are ever going to (dare) handle it properly with words on paper! And that’s the problem with using death as a convenient plot device, or using it as an easy narrative “twist” in a humorous and almost frivolous way, perhaps as an easy way to bring fun to our readers… a writer will almost always overlook the inevitable sufferings that sudden death brings… sufferings that intrude and compromise the progress of all characters involved, all the independent narratives and even the trajectories of entire populations.
In the U.K. these last few days we have been dealing, as a nation, with grief. We have been thinking about the death of Prince Phillip. And perhaps some have been making fun of it. And some have treated his death lightly. However, it is a fact that television companies and the media (in general) have been capitalizing on and exploiting his death for their own ends. For them, the death is a source of income. They have benefited enormously from the death of the Prince, not only because death is our number one form of light entertainment but also (this is my theory, and you may challenge it if you wish) because death is easy to write-up! Yes, easy.
Because, as a species, we care little about the troubling and “problematic” aftermath that death brings with it, so news writers & reporters don’t have to bother thinking about the more daunting details of sudden death: like how the royal family (and the nation ) faces his death, how we all deal with death (not only that of the Prince but of over 100,000 sudden deaths that have occurred during the last 12 months) or how we handle death as a society generally, or how we overcome the tragedy of death as a family and a nation. The news writers & reporters certainly don’t need to write compassionately about any of this… because it won’t be entertaining for their readers.
So here are five characteristics of death that you should really try to explore as a responsible, perceptive, and considerate author:
Death is violent
Yes, of course! you’ll say with a chuckle. It is undeniable that death is violent! That’s self-evident, you’ll probably scream. But if it’s so self-evident, why don’t writers treat it the way it deserves to be treated? Why don’t they explain how spectacularly violent it is? Consider the reality of sudden death: even if a person “dies peacefully in bed” there is still an egregious brutality about the finality that disrupts the ongoing narrative of the people who are “left behind.” I think that’s why a nation mourns a man they don’t know (a Prince, perhaps) and a man they never met. It’s not that they lost a good friend or a beloved family member… no, they are heartbroken because they lost a link to their own backstory… they lost a legitimate link to the narrative of their own time-line. For example, many of us see Prince Philip as “always having been there” like a rock. Philip has been the cornerstone of a nation’s history since the 1950’s… he is an important character in the history of post-war Britain. So his death is violent because it impoverishes a shared history, his death disrupts national continuity, his death destabilizes the continuum. And death always foreshadows more death to come, perhaps the death of even more important (more loved) characters in our shared history and shared life-journey. This is the violent nature of sudden death: the spontaneous disintegration of everything, absolutely everything, that we assumed (or had hoped) would continue forever.
Death is uncomfortable
Death is never cosy. Talk to a police officer who has investigated a murder and he or she might summarize (although they will never fully communicate) how gruesome, horrifying, and how dreadfully harrowing the scene of a sudden death can be. Even to someone who is supposedly “used to it” — what they see and what they experience is dreadful. Don’t forget, these folks are seasoned professionals… often equipped with years of experience. Yet even these professionals find sudden death daunting & disturbing (only recently has the police service bothered to help detectives overcome the obvious side effects of post-traumatic stress.) Or talk to any member of the medical teams who have been dealing with death on the front lines of the pandemic this year… they’ll say the same thing: it’s been devastating, horrifying, cataclysmic (these are just some words I’ve heard experienced doctors used to describe what they have experienced.) So talking about death informally and indifferently is a falsehood. Death is never comfortable.
Death is consequential
Don’t forget that there are “four trajectories” of grief. These are: resilience, recovery, chronic dysfunction and, for some, delayed trauma: you will probably see the Queen and Prince Charles demonstrating resilience over the coming weeks… you may also see them demonstrating a version of recovery… what you will never witness is any chronic dysfunction and any late trauma. As an author, ask yourself if you have always adequately explored the four trajectories of grief in your own work. One of the best ways to bring death into a storyline without the discomfort and the violence (but facing the consequences) is to have the death occur “outside” of your timeline, so your characters live (and face) life in the shadow of death. The best recent example is Harry Potter. Although Oliver Twist is another well-loved character who faces the consequences of death, even though the death (of his mother) occurred outside his own chronology.
Note: On my blog post (dated 24th October 2020 ) I explained how to Write the death of a character without shtick and cliché
Death is indescribable
As I already mentioned, soldiers cannot communicate how they dealt with death. This makes me think that death is inexpressible. If you really must include death in your plot, then it might be better to describe it poetically (read up on the war poets to understand how to do this well) or you might have to write symbolically or allegorically. Because sudden death is so darned difficult to describe. Think of using symbolic representations, anthropomorphic metaphors and very original wordplay… do you now see what I mean about having to be a bloody skillful writer if you’re ever going to (dare) handle death in words?
Death is unimaginative
Yes, this is the fundamental problem for authors. Using “stock death” in a story shows a lack of imagination. Using “cozy” death as a plot device gives an author away as unadventurous, unoriginal, and (to be frank) sloppy. But why? I hear you moan. The answer is obvious: death as a plot contrivance is amateurish and trite because it’s so commonplace. Death is everywhere! Like I’ve already said, death is pumped into our lives 24 hours a day… it’s our number one form of light entertainment. Death is easily done. Death is mundane. Try something different! Try to think imaginatively instead of re-hashing tired old clichés.
Please, please, please, think outside the casket!
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Words: @neilmach 17 April 2021 ©