The way people die in a lot of movies, or TV series is often clichéd; they look pretty good, stay alive long enough to say something significant or stupid, which no dying person would likely say. All in all they act how normally dying people wouldn’t act.
I know this because I worked as a nurse and watched a lot of people die, and for the most part it just isn’t pretty. Viewers are scared of death so it gets sterilized for human consumption; it gets portrayed in a way to make it more palatable. I personally think death does have a huge impact on a movie if you create a great and meaningful death scene.
A good example is The Grey, in which Liam Neeson's main character Ottway prepares one of his fellow passengers for death by telling him that he will die, but the passenger is not ready to die. This makes the scene much more realistic and honest. The brutality of it makes it way more intriguing than most unrealistic movie death scenes. Watch it here.
In one of my own screenplays, I made use of my experiences as a nurse with a patient dying of stomach cancer. When I came into the hospital room she kept throwing up blood, the whole bed was drenched. A short time later she died, holding my hand…it was shocking and heart-breaking at the same time.
Of course not everyone has had a personal experience with someone dying, but you don’t have to. You could talk to people who experienced the death of others, put yourself in their shoes or research it.
Another important thing to consider when writing a death scene is what causes the death. Think of the infamous chest burster scene from Alien, when an Alien explodes out of John Hurt's character Kane's stomach while they’re having dinner. Watch it here.
Actually a lot of the death scenes in most of the Alien movies are pretty grim and dramatic. It is amazing how Ripley dies at the end of Alien 3, with a chest burster coming out of her while falling to her death into the flames of the mining pit.
The main concept of the Final Destination franchise is how each victim will finally succumb to their fate after escaping death, all the while with the Grim Reaper chasing them. The deaths are over the top and incredibly entertaining which makes them even more gruesome. The message of the movie is powerful, ”You can’t trick death and it will eventually happen”. Watch a scene from Final Destination 5 here.
Death scenes should be genre specific; dying scenes in a drama are different compared to a horror or thriller flick. For example people die slowly in a drama, brutally in horror and sneakily in a thriller with a psychopath.
Lastly death scenes don’t have to be realistic all the time. A movie is fiction, so they can be over the top or funny. Just make them memorable and matching to the genre and tone of the movie or whatever story you’re trying to write.
So if you want to write a death scene or already have created them, get your creative juices flowing and come up with a memorable death scene.
What are your favorite movie death scenes and why?