Grand Exits

It’s hard to kill off a character, especially a beloved character. We debate, gnash our teeth and wring our hands, (They don’t reeeaally have to die do they? What if I just rewrite the plot? Or maybe throw in some magic Lazarus serum. Yes, that’s it! Lazarus serum!), we cry (and hope our readers do too), and then we stare at the page totally drained of emotion and wondering if we’ve just made a huge mistake and where to go from here.

But here’s a secret. Killing off a character also can be opportunity to have a little fun. Hey, we’re writers, remember? We torture our characters for breakfast (and lunch, and dinner, and elevenses).

A well-written exit is a chance to make our adored character larger than life. The culmination of everything we’ve tried to convey about them, and it can be a huge page-turner and fan favorite if done right.

Here are some of my favorite final exit examples and why I love ‘em. Warning: Minor spoilers for Castle, Star Trek and Burn Notice.


Captain Montgomery: Castle

The Exit: In the semi-finale of a thread spanning multiple seasons, the loyal and beloved Captain Montgomery is revealed to be the mysterious “third cop” in a group of vigilantes entangled in the events surrounding the murder of main character Kate Beckett’s mom twenty years ago. Now, that past has caught up to him. He’s the only remaining survivor of the vigilante group, so the bad guy pulling the strings considers him a liability and gives Montgomery an ultimatum: turn over Beckett or they’ll kill his family.

Montgomery sets a meet with Beckett at an abandoned air field hangar. As she walks up to meet him, she gets a text that tells her he’s in cahoots with the bad guys. When she confronts him, Montgomery shows his true (awesome) colors. He used Beckett as bait to lure the bad guys, knowing he could get her safely away and take the bad guys down. Which he does. At the price of his life.

Why it Works: The twists! It’s a huge shock to the Castle team and viewers that Montgomery played a part in the backstory of Beckett’s mom’s death. We feel a sense of betrayal and whiplash, and because we’re so thrown off our game, there’s a lingering unpredictability throughout the rest of the episode. We have no idea what to expect.

The emotions! There is a very deep bond between Montgomery and Beckett, which is shown beautifully here as he gives his life to save her. Viewers, too, get the sense that, while Montgomery might be flawed or have made past mistakes, he is a man who stands his ground, a man to admire.

The lines! I have a soft spot for exits that include lines of bravado in the face of imminent danger or death. Montgomery’s last words, before he takes out the final bad guy (Who has just told him he can’t hide): “You’ve got that ass backwards, boy. You can’t hide from me.”


Kirk’s Dad: Star Trek (The new movies)

The Exit: George Kirk is on-screen less than 12 minutes. I love him anyway. The Romulans are attacking. The ship is crippled. There’s only one way to save his wife and infant son…stay behind. Not only does he do that, he does it with an aplomb and conviction of character that makes me want to cheer and weep at the same time.

Why it Works: Well, see above, for starters. Simultaneous cheering and weeping is like the gold medal standard of reader/viewer reactions.

Also, the pacing! It helps here because events move so fast and build a foundation of intensity that heightens our emotions all the more. The fact that they kept the dialogue running between Kirk’s parents throughout all of this was a brilliant move.

The effect on other characters! This is a great example of how a character death can alter the course of the lives around him or her. Sometimes, writing someone off isn’t the hardest part. It’s keeping everyone else going in their absence. We haven’t even met Kirk yet, but we sense this will play a defining role in making him the character we know and love. Don’t forget about managing the aftermath of your Grand Exits.


Madeline Westen: Burn Notice

The Exit: Madeline Westen, chain-smoking, straight-talking mom of spy hero Michael Westen, is trapped in a house with her grandson and Jesse (one of Michael’s fellow former spies) as the bad guys close in. Like, the really bad guys. The ones who also have Michael and gang pinned down in an office complex across town, threatening to kill Madeline and her grandson unless Michael gives himself up to die. So, what does Maddie do? She takes herself out of the equation. They have explosives in the house, but no remote detonator, so Maddie gives her grandson to Jesse to escape and sets it off herself, taking down the bad guys in the process.

Why it Works: The attitude! This ties back to my earlier comments about great final lines. Madeline Westen chooses to go out on her own valiant, kick-A terms. In a situation where the bad guys should clearly hold all the cards, she flips their metaphorical poker table so fast, it’s not even funny. They’ve lost their main bargaining chip, and Michael is now free to rain down hell on them.

There also is a strong sense of steely, motherly protection in her final scene. She wants to stick it to these guys, and she lets them know it. The bad guys enter the house, see a 50+ year old woman lounging on a couch smoking a cigarette. She fixes them with a sly, how-do-you-like-me-now smile, says: “This one’s for my boys,” and hits the button. People don’t forget characters like that!

Misc. Other Favorite Exits
  • Draco – Dragonheart *“Look to the stars.” Happy sigh.*
  • Boromir – LOTR *Can you say “redemption?”*
  • Wally Hamilton – The Far Pavilions *This one made me ache in a way beyond tears.*

How about you? Any you want to add to the list?

18 comments:

  1. I don't have time to watch Castle anymore but remember that episode. You're right, it works really well. And we do have to kill off some of our characters in our books, especially if it's a series.

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  2. I just read a lot of bad reviews on allegiant, and it made me wonder why that exit strategy didn't quite work for her. If you've lived with the characters for three years, if affects the readers if they suddenly die at the end.

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  3. It was tough to see Western's mother go, as she was a great character. But she did so in a splendid fashion.
    I had to kill off a main character before. Most difficult thing I've ever had to do, but the other main character couldn't have grown the way he needed to grow otherwise.

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  4. I read about Allegiant, too. I appreciate characters that meet an untimely demise that act as a catalyst for upcoming events. I think A Song of Ice and Fire have some powerful moments like that. And of Course Harry Potter, too.

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  5. Oh, I hate killing characters I like!!! I have to kill someone in my novel very soon and it's...just...so...emotional. Ugh. But, alas, he's got to go!! Yeah, it can be very powerful in a novel. Though I think GRRM plays with our emotions TOO MUCH!

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  6. How about James Bond?

    Sorta.... if *only* Dr. No and all the other "baddies" had kept their mouths shut and just killed Bond, instead of revealing the whole plot :)

    Sheesh, you'd think at least one of them had watched a previous Bond movie... :)

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  7. I totally cried at the beginning of Star Trek. After that beginning I knew it would be good.
    Great post!

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  8. I skipped reading Burn Notice. I'm not that far yet.

    Loved the way they did the new Star Trek.

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  9. Great examples of grand exits. I killed one of my main characters off in a trilogy I wrote, and my beta readers cried and yelled at me. Yet it was perfect. The emotion and motivation. It had to be done. I wish I was as good at it as George R.R. Martin.

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  10. Natalie - It's definitely a memorable Castle moment!

    Miranda - I haven't read the Divergent series yet, so the jury's still out on that one.

    Alex - She really was! It's so hard to kill off key characters, but you're right - sometimes it allows the others to grow in ways they otherwise couldn't.

    Michael - Yes to both those examples! GRRM is kind of the reigning grand master of the final exit.

    L.G. - Haha, I totally agree. I read through book 2 and then stopped (at least temporarily) for that very reason.

    Mark - It reminds me of The Incredibles when Syndrome talks about "monologuing." ;)

    Emily - Me too!!

    M Pax - You will love the Burn Notice finale when you get there! And I'm also a huge fan of the new Star Trek.

    Christine - Aw, beta readers crying and yelling; that's the best kind of reaction ever! Congrats to you on that one!

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  11. Yes, it can be a great way to show the true strength of a character. It should always be done for the best reasons, not just to shock.

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  12. I shouldn't have read the one about Burn Notice. I haven't gotten to that part yet. I told myself not to but I just had to know which of my favorite characters was going to die. I will miss Maddie!

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  13. Oh, no! Yeah, I shouldn't have read the one about Burn Notice either. LOL!

    I normally don't mind killing off my own characters. Some just have to die after all, but there are a few I don't really want to kill off.

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  14. Great examples! I always kill off a character in my stories, too, it's very hard but I think you said it perfectly: it actually makes me them larger than life; and because it's a story, they're still alive in the story, if you know what I mean?

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  15. The Castle one really shocked me.

    My stories tend to be a bit nihilistic, so a happy ending where almost no one dies (there's ALWAYS at least one death) would be a shock for most of my readers. =) But I strive to keep them on their toes! Ah, my twisted mind...

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  16. Nick - "It should always be done for the best reasons, not just to shock." Yes, this!

    mshatch - Drat! Spoilers! But it is well worth watching anyway. :)

    Cherie - It's those tough few that always get me.

    Margo - Yes! Love your phrase about them living on in the story.

    Georgina - That does sound like you. ;)

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  17. Boromir is the one that resonates with me :)

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    Replies
    1. Yup - he's definitely hard to forget!

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