Writing Lessons from... Rogue One: Death That Matters

This is part of a new series on this blog, looking at what we can learn about writing from great (and not-so-great) pop-culture hits, from movies to video games and everything in between. You can check out the backlist of posts here. This week is more Rogue One, where I want to talk about…

Death That Matters

Game of Thrones has a lot to answer for. Although its dramatic "anyone can die at any time" attitude initially made for some surprising and discussion-worthy TV, it's created a new obsession with being as dark and shocking as possible. Everyone wants to kill characters as randomly and unexpectedly as they can, and this creates problems for a bunch of reasons.

  1. It loses its impact. We get accustomed to these dramatic, horrible deaths, so the show constantly feels the need to escalate, make things even more awful and shocking, to keep our attention. Meanwhile, we stop reacting with sadness and horror, and start just going, 'Oh, another death. Okay.'
  2. It pits writers against the viewers. It no longer feels like the creators are sharing a story with us, but like they are going out of their way to inflict the story on us. And that isn't fun.
  3. We emotionally detach from the characters. If anyone can die at any time, it's much harder for us to bother connecting with them or considering them real.
  4. It's unsatisfying. If characters die randomly, they can disappear without any satisfying resolution to their story arcs or their goals. They just vanish mid-tale, and viewers feel like something is missing from the story as a result. As an occasional trope, this can make a statement. As something that happens constantly, it just ends up being incomplete storytelling.

Which brings us to Rogue One. The movie has a really high death count. A really, really, really high death count. A "does this character appear in the original trilogy? No? Okay, then they're dead now" death count. And that makes it an emotionally difficult movie to watch at times.

But it's not Game of Thrones "grimdark." Everyone dies, but they all die with a purpose, in a way that enhances the message of the story (a message, to be clear, that isn't just 'life is pointless and everyone dies'). The characters have a clear, very important goal. They need to get the plans for the Death Star and transmit them to the Alliance. They need to do this no matter what, because this weapon has the power to destroy entire planets, and millions or even billions of people will die if they don't do anything to stop it.

It's an incredibly dangerous mission. A near suicidal mission. But it has to be done, and the characters go into it knowing that. And although they all die, they accomplish their goal. Their deaths are a sacrifice, not a massacre. We can feel shocked and saddened that they died, and carry that feeling with us out of the theatre, but we ultimately feel like the story all came to something in the end.

This doesn't mean that every death is drawn out. But neither are the characters gunned down almost anonymously, impersonally. They all die performing some vital action in completing their goal, and they're all given their moment, before the movie moves on, knowing, as the characters know, that the ultimate task is most important. The characters all have agency as they die, even though, obviously, they would have preferred to have succeeded and lived.

I doubt anyone goes into the theatre thinking, "I hope all the main characters die. That'd be fun!" But sometimes the story needs sacrifice to give it weight. We're told how unbelievably dangerous the mission is. We know the enemy have a superweapon that can destroy planets. The whole story talks about sacrifice in fighting evil. If everyone survived, it would have been too easy. It would have undercut the weight of the story, the importance of the mission, and the threat that the Death Star poses. Because who has a nearby superweapon but doesn't use it when their enemies are all gathered together? By having everyone die, we see, once again, the immense power of the weapon, and the great importance of finding out how to stop it. It adds weight to the story. They all died, but they died for something. It's sad, but not bleak. There is, as Leia says, hope, because of their sacrifice.

So you can kill off all the protagonists, if the story requires it. You can have them all live too, if you prefer. The important thing is that it makes sense in the context of that story, and, perhaps more importantly, it leaves the viewer with the sense that there was a reason for what they just watched. A character who grew. A mission that was achieved. Something to take away beyond a bleak sense of "they tried, they failed, the end."