How can you tell if your story is any good? If it doesn’t involve death of some kind, your story probably isn’t any good. It’s easy to see how death is a prime motivator in action/thriller stories like “Avatar,” “Skyfall,” or “American Hustle.” In those stories, the hero risks getting killed. The hero must either take action or die, so audiences want to know how it all turns out in the end. If the hero doesn’t take action, he or she will die. Not only will the hero die, but something horrible will likely occur as a result. So death isn’t just a way to threaten the hero, but also to threaten innocent people and the hero\’s loved ones at the same time.
In “Avatar,” the hero could die. If the hero fails to act, the aliens will die as well. Even worse, the hero’s girlfriend will die too. This triple threat makes death the ultimate motivator to make sure the hero has no choice but to act. If the hero could save himself, his girlfriend, and the innocent aliens by not acting at all, he would, but that would be boring. If your story doesn’t have an element of death to motivate your hero, chances are good your story is boring.
While many movies use physical death as a motivator, there’s also emotional death commonly found in romantic comedies. In every romantic comedy (“Moonstruck,” “The Proposal,” “While You Were Sleeping,” “Four Weddings and a Funeral”), the hero risks never getting together with their true love. Not only does the hero risk emotional death by not finding true love, but the object of their affection also risks missing out on true love too. That’s a double whammy that makes it crucially important for the hero to find true love or risk living an emotional death.
Most stories combine physical death with emotional death. When you only threaten the hero with physical death, you can mediocre movies like “The Expendables” where enemies can fire thousands of bullets at the hero and the hero never even gets a scratch. What’s always more important is the risk of emotional death. In “Skyfall,” James Bond risks physical death, but due to his aging and declining skills, he also risks emotional death by being thrown out of the British spy service.
In “Shaun of the Dead,” the hero risks getting eaten by zombies (physical death) but also not being able to fall in love with his girlfriend (emotional death). When there’s the risk of emotional death, your story will always be far more engaging and interesting.
In “Harold and Maude,” the hero faces physical death through suicide and to a lesser degree being sent to the army, but he also risks emotional death by never finding true love. The risk of physical death is boring. The risk of emotional death is fascinating and that’s what really holds our attention in every good movie.