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I've always felt weird about death flags in stories. I don't know exactly how I feel about them.

For example, a soldier character reminiscing to his buddy while on the frontlines about his wife and kids and how he's going back home to them while opening up a locket with their picture in it. Sometimes it's done less on-the-nose but when you catch it, it still leaves an ominous feeling that, for me at least, tends to make me "prepare" for it emotionally which I feel lessens the impact of the death.

Now what if a character, especially a long standing one, dies without death flags being raised, would that go over well? What are the merits and demerits of not foreshadowing the death to the reader? Is the death flag leading to readers being emotionally prepared for the potential death actually essential to a good story? Would not having death flags lead to distrust from the readers?

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    Do you consider any foreshadowing of a death equivalent to a death flag? Because the latter sounds a lot more obvious, cliche and, frankly, something that probably should be avoided. For example, my problem with that reminiscing soldier is not even that it signals impending death, but that it's a bargain-bin attempt at trying to make me care about the soldier moments before killing him. I should have been tempted into caring looooong before the last five seconds of his life.
    – user54131
    Aug 7, 2022 at 20:11
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    @towr are they not the same? How would foreshadowing a death be different from a death flag? I just assumed they essentially mean the same thing with just varying degrees of obviousness Aug 7, 2022 at 21:50
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    The longer I think about it, the less sure I am either way :P There isn't really any authoritative source for defining "death flag", and people often mean subtly different things when they use certain words. For me "death flag" has the connotation that I've seen it a hundred times before (i.e. it's cliche, trope etc). But that does kind of align with "degrees of obviousness" as well. I wouldn't call it a death flag if foreshadowing is done through a set of hints that only imply impeding death when you put them together. But that does lie on that axis of obviousness again.
    – user54131
    Aug 8, 2022 at 7:12
  • There are plenty of stories with sudden character deaths - successful enough that I know of them. Downton Abbey is one good example. Aug 9, 2022 at 2:54
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    A character showing off their family photos before they die is not supposed to lessen the impact of their death. It's actually supposed to make the death of the character more meaningful to the audience because it humanizes the character. If you feel that it prepares you emotionally, then that's because this particular way of humanizing a character before their death has become such a cliche.
    – Philipp
    Aug 9, 2022 at 7:31

5 Answers 5

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It's a trope, use it or leave it.

TV Tropes calls it Fatal Family Photo

The 'locket conversation' is the set-up. Their death is the pay-off. For police it is always their last day before retirement, I have seen the cop/retirement trope in movies from the 1940s. The war version feels eternal – it could work in any century (I'm guessing it started late-1800s).

I think it's good to consider reader expectations and use tropes 'correctly', as nods to the genre. They don't need to be ham-fisted crimes, but people do like knowing where the story is going.

Foreshadowing, Death Flags, and Fate

Sometimes it's done less on-the-nose but when you catch it, it still leaves an ominous feeling that, for me at least, tends to make me "prepare" for it emotionally which I feel lessens the impact of the death.

Hitchcock talked about a hypothetical office with a bomb under the table. The choice is to not let the audience know there is a bomb under the table, versus letting the audience know and building suspense over it.

Ann Radcliffe said terror is about something that is going to happen, horror is about what has already happened. There was a whole debate about which makes better storytelling.

Signaling a character is marked for death might "prepare" the reader, you might even say groom the reader for bigger emotions. At the least they will watch for that character.

Ironically, the trope now works in exactly this way, as a signal. Even more trope-y it attaches the memory to a physical prop. We won't remember the guy's face, but we'll remember the locket.

Fix it!

a soldier character reminiscing to his buddy while on the frontlines about his wife and kids and how he's going back home to them while opening up a locket with their picture in it.

I see 3 writing crimes in this trope.

  1. Show; Don't Tell we are told he has a family and plans for the future (as if that is unusual in a human person). Nevertheless we had no scene with a family or ever saw him working towards his goals so we don't care. It's shallow and unearned characterization.
  2. Exposition Dump No one opens a locket and shows a photo of their wife and kids, then talks about the sailboat they plan to buy after this terrible war. It's so awkward and unnatural. If these things are to add depth we need them long before he is in a crisis and about to die.
  3. Shaggy Dog story the 'punchline' is that it goes nowhere and has no pay-off. He'll never see his wife and kids. Those people aren't even in this story.

Fixing the writing crime would probably circumvent the trope entirely, replacing it with something more narratively developed.

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  • After giving it some thought, I think I do prefer Radcliffe's take on the horror vs terror thing. At the end of the day I'm not aiming for shock value, I just don't want readers figuring out that a character is dying and emotionally brace themselves but I realized I was thinking about this with the mindset of obvious foreshadowing when I can just as easily opt for a more subtle hinting that will keep the readers on edge instead. Aug 8, 2022 at 13:10
  • I'd nuance #2, I don't think it's terribly unrealistic that soldiers might talk about their families or plans for the future at some point, it's more a matter of when and how it's brought up. What's certainly true is that it's not a sufficient element to properly humanise a character, and that you can certainly do it wrong. Aug 9, 2022 at 14:26
  • You could have the subversion, where a character sacrafices himself so privat locket can go home to his wife and kids... or you could have the unit acknowledge the trope and each try to one up each other by coming up with over the top longings for wives who are princesses and children who are savants. Private Locket will at one point point out that one solider is in an open gay relationship and he heard the other break up with his girlfriend, calling her a whore and that was the nicest thing said in the conversation. The solider who refused romantic advances to avoid this trope bites it.
    – hszmv
    Aug 9, 2022 at 17:15
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    Yeah, there's "doing this as a Death Flag", where the person who is going to die talks about their family out of nowhere, and there's "doing this to build a connection to characters", where you might have the entire squad chat about their people back home, which includes the person who is going to die. Are you doing it for foreshadowing, or are you doing it for the emotional impact? Because the locket scene is generally bad at both; try to foreshadow the manner of death, in a way that isn't necessarily apparent until afterwards… Aug 9, 2022 at 18:56
  • There was a subversion in the war movie "633 Squadron". In the days while the squadron trains for a near-suicidal mission, one member got married to his girlfriend. Yeah, we're sure he's doomed. But there's a surprise enemy attack (or training accident, I forget which), and this airman is seriously wounded and has to sit out the actual mission. In other words, "Private Locket" was the only survivor of the squadron! Aug 10, 2022 at 22:40
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In the real world, death is often sudden and unfair. Especially in a story with a dark tone, any character can die at any moment.

The issue is that stories are not reality. Killing off a fan favorite without any fore warning or buildup will leave the audience feeling cheated. At least one person in your audience probably liked that character and wanted them to reach the end.

Foreshadowing a death is good because it can give the audience time to grieve in advance. They know it's coming any day now, but they don't know exactly when. It builds tension and makes the eventual death feel more earned.

If there is no buildup, the death feels unearned. It came out of nowhere so fast that it left the audience feeling disoriented. That only works if the disorientation is the intent. You wanted to shake the audience up. Prove their favorites are not immune to consequences. Anyone can die in this world.

If there is buildup, it escalates the tension and lets us know that this is the beginning of the end for our hero.

There are downsides to building it up. The first is that the audience knows pretty soon that this character is going to die. Sometimes you don't want to reveal that too early. Death flags post the twist on a bright neon sign. Show a picture of the wife and you know that soldier is never coming home.

The other issue is that sometimes the author lays the death flags on a little too thick. They try to squeeze every last drop of sympathy that the audience has. It's better to make your audience cry than feel nothing at all, but you don't want them sobbing so hard that they won't turn the page. You also don't want to milk it for so long that the audience stops caring after a few pages.

Like for example, Tommy Mcgee is the character everyone knows is gonna die. He's a bright ray of sunshine in a wartorn world who's got a wife and three kids waiting for him back home. We know he's going to die. The narrative knows he's going to die. So let's milk it for all it's worth! Add in a tragic backstory about how his parents died, how his grandmother raised him only for her to die too, leaving him a jobless, homeless orphan having to beg on the streets before he met the love of his life around and got a fantastic job. Now he's enlisted in the military. And he tells the MC, "If I die, take care of my wife for me."

Great right? Well, let's repeat that tragic backstory every three pages. I really want you to feel bad for this poor man. Did you know he sold his kidney just to make ends meet? Did you know he kept a stray cat and nursed him back to health? Did you know he lost vision in his right eye because he was bullied a boy?

He's a pure soul too good for this lawless world. An angel among men. He's...Oh. He's dead. Do you feel bad yet? Should I go in depth about his funeral for twelve pages?

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  • There is indeed a hint of wanting to make the readers feel like "nobody is invulnerable in this story" but I didn't want them catching on too quickly. I suppose the way to go is to be just more subtle with it so they can piece it together later when everything's said and done. Aug 8, 2022 at 13:12
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    The value of giving the reader time to prepare for the death of a sympathetic character is indeed incredibly important. I rarely drop books and/or series, and one of the only times I did was when an author decided to layer two 'played for emotional shock' deaths after each other. Looking at the reviews of the book about one fourth of reviews absolutely detested this decision and were contemplating/threatening to stop reading the author completely because many readers don't want to feel downright bad from reading a book. Foreshadowing is the tool to not lose those readers. Aug 9, 2022 at 7:05
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It depends how frequently you have characters die.

If you have characters die on a regular basis, readers know to expect that and won't be devastated if a favorite of theirs dies, because they know it's been a possibility for a while.

GRRM does this in Game of Thrones. Death is a constant threat to all major characters. The first three characters we're introduced to during the prologue are all dead 50 pages in, fan favorite characters are killed enjoying festivities or in the middle of a battle.

Obviously this isn't possible for every author, but Terry Pratchett has the ultimate ability to mess around with death flags, given that Death is a distinctive character in his stories that SPEAKS IN ALL CAPS. If you're reading a discworld book and see ALL CAPS, you know that a character is about to die. He will frequently have minor characters going about their day and be greeted by Death, only to realize they are now dead. For major characters, he'll sometimes have Death hang around, only to reveal he's not actually there for them, thus subverting reader expectations.

If you only have one character die during your story, yes you should foreshadow it (although maybe not as overtly as "last day before retirement"), but if you have characters die all the time, then it's an expected part of your story. As long as the motivations behind their death make sense, readers will accept it, even if they loved the characters.

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    YOU SEE, YOU ARE HAVING A NEAR-DEATH EXPERIENCE, WHICH INESCAPABLY MEANS THAT I MUST UNDERGO A NEAR-VIMES EXPERIENCE. DON'T MIND ME. CARRY ON WITH WHATEVER YOU WERE DOING. I HAVE A BOOK.
    – Separatrix
    Aug 9, 2022 at 14:48
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The trick is to leave death flags but fool the audience into thinking it doesn't matter. Very famous game of thrones example:

Letting Robb Stark break his oath, blather on about true love, and then get murdered later on as a reminder that actually oaths are a very big deal and you can't break them on a whim.

If you didn't want to build up emotional mush you could for instance;

  • emphasise the danger of the TNT on the boat
  • let a character brag about the safety measures he's put in place
  • quietly remind the audience this character is overconfident later on
  • start an argument over the lack of food on the ship because of all that useless TNT

Weave a few interesting side threads or some other looming threat and then blow up the boat to remind the audience that loading a ship with TNT is a very dumb idea.

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One of the most memorable scenes in Raymond Feist's Serpentwar series comes in the aftermath of some harrowing fighting. The soldiers made it out alive, against all odds, and are at their camp celebrating. Life is good, everyone's happy, everyone's safe... and then all of a sudden and with no warning or foreshadowing, an important character drops dead with a bolt in his head.

An assassination? A disgruntled soldier taking out his anger? Nope. Turns out it was just some soldier getting a little bit too careless with a crossbow and it went off accidentally, randomly hitting this person and killing them. A completely senseless mishap that feels all too real because it's the sort of thing that actually happens in the real world.

"Bad writing" typically boils down to in-universe violations of consistency and causality. Death flags work because we know what they mean. They give the reader some sense of cause-and-effect even though real-world causality does not work that way, because narrative causality does and the reader understands that. But the reader also understands that senseless, pointless death also happens. If your story's setting is enough like the real world that it makes sense for such things to happen, the reader will be more likely to accept it. What they won't accept is a violation of causality. (ie. someone dies from doing something that there's no good reason, in-universe or out-of-universe, to believe should have killed them.)

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  • While I partially agree with this, I disagree with the answer overall, especially with ...the reader also understands that senseless, pointless death also happens. If [in] your story's setting ... makes sense for such things to happen, the reader will be more likely to accept it. This is VERY HARD to pull off correctly as a death like that can come as "out of nowhere" even if the setting "allows" it. E.g. the original ending of Clerks (a movie about the ups-and-downs in the life of a convenience store worker) had a robber just randomly entering the store and shooting death the MC-cont'd...
    – Josh Part
    Aug 10, 2022 at 17:51
  • ... and even if that's something that happens every often in the real world and "made sense" within the setting, it still was never foreshadowed, added nothing to the story, and could fell like just another "bad thing" happening to the MC in a bad day already full of bad things happening to him, but this one without a reason; that's why they eventually discarted it. So, a death like that needs to be still planned carefully or it risks to be felt as it was put there just for the shock value.
    – Josh Part
    Aug 10, 2022 at 17:55

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