Are you having trouble deciding how to end your script? Have you considered killing your protagonist? There are more ways to make this work than you might think. Some of the greatest movies ever made end with the main character’s death. Here are just a few examples of how those movies work.
What’s more noble than dying for what you believe in? We see this often in sweeping epics, where the protagonist is just a small cog in a movement or revolution bigger than themselves. Freedom, life, justice, these are all ideas that people die for. We’ve seen it in Braveheart, Spartacus, Children of Men, V for Vendetta and Gran Torino just to name a few.
3. The Main Character is Also The Villain
Was anyone sad when Jack Nicholson died at the end of The Shining? Movies like this are a reminder that main characters don’t always have to be good people, they don’t even have to be likeable. When a movie pairs us up with a sociopath for a protagonist, there are several agreements it makes with us, the viewer: 1) The protagonist will be the main source of his/her own conflict, and 2) That conflict will be resolved either when they change their ways or they die. When that happens, we know that’s what we signed up for. This type of story was always meant to serve as a cautionary tale, not a triumph.
2. The Horror Movie Teaser
Tell me if you’ve seen this before: The monster’s dead, our hero lives, all is right with the world…but wait! The monster survived the fire! It creeps up behind our unsuspecting hero, strikes to kill and we cut to credits on a blood splatter. Horror is one of the few genres where we actually expect a body count, and when this isn’t delivered we’re somewhat disappointed. Because of this, our protagonist is usually deemed less important than the monster itself—if it ever comes down to just the two of them, you can pretty safely bet which one will live to sell sequel tickets.
4. The Story is Carried On By Loved Ones
This is a rare occurrence, but its effect is undoubtedly shocking. Psycho is the most famous example of this practice. Marion dies within the first half of the film, and her sister Lila is left to find out what happened. A more recent example is Ryan Gosling’s character in The Place Beyond the Pines—I guess now’s a time to say “spoilers.” After Gosling’s death, the story follows the life of the cop who shot him. This eventually comes full circle when the cop comes face-to-face with Gosling’s son years later, having to face the consequences of his actions.
Romeo and Juliet, does that need any further explanation? Sometimes our characters are simply doomed from the start, and these stories carry a certain weight to them. This may often shed light on real world injustices, or unfairness. You think it was fair that the villain gets away in Chinatown, or that Ofelia is killed in Pan’s Labyrinth? But it can happen, because it does happen. Innocent people die, villains get what they want, and tragedies allow an audience to realize these things can happen.
This one’s almost cheating, but there are times when a protagonist is killed off in the first five minutes, then the rest of the movie is a flashback of his/her life. This tactic can be common in biopics like Ghandi and Lawrence of Arabia. It’s attention-grabbing, but it also greatly emphasizes the significance of this character’s story. Whatever they did, it was significant enough to get them killed—and that’s only the start of the story!