Why death doesn’t always raise the stakes…
I am incredibly surprised to be writing this article, as I’m sure anyone who has seen season one of the hit Netflix paranormal K-Drama “Sweet Home” will be.
In fact, before season two dropped I was praising the show for how incredible it was at punching me directly in the feels.
Based on the webtoon of the same name, written by Kim Kan-Bi, the series follows a group of survivors who become trapped in the Green Home apartment complex after people begin inexplicably turning into fearsome monsters when they become unable to resist their innermost desires.
Season one excelled at getting the audience to invest in the main characters by ignoring the typical “deaths = higher stakes” trap that many writers of post-apocalyptic shows fall into when trying to make their stories compelling.
While Sweet Home season one had its fair share of death scenes, the writers were extremely strategic about how they metered them out, which made those deaths that much more effective.
After the initial bloodbath in episodes one and two, the writers allowed the dust to settle to give us time to get to know the characters and develop their group dynamic, only to rip our hearts out in the last few episodes.
However, when the long awaited season two rolled around, I couldn’t help but notice that Sweet Home had lost its sense of connection. So, let’s explore why Sweet Home has a connection problem...
What made season one so special?
While the first few episodes show a lot of deaths and carnage, once the initial dust has settled we shift from immediate survival to the dynamics within a group trying to negotiate coexisting with strangers as they learn to trust one other.
During this time, we see relationships blossom as characters find ways to help and protect each other, solving problems and resolving conflict.
While not so breakneck as the first few episodes, this down time gives context to how these characters fit into a wider group dynamic and allows us as an audience to connect with them more deeply.
This was an excellent choice in terms of pacing, due to the close proximity of the story setting, using character deaths as the only means to raise the stakes between episodes would have left the writers little room to manoeuvre by the season end.
Instead what the writers did was give us lots of near misses that allowed us to see how the characters responded to seeing their friends in peril.
Getting an audience to connect with characters is far more complex than merely giving them admirable qualities. In order to truly empathise with characters, we need to see how they affect other characters, and how their absence would impact the story dynamic.
They need to feel integral to the fabric of the story for us to truly care about them.
After giving us a reprieve from major character deaths, other than the unlikeable Mr Kim, Sweet Home season one takes out multiple characters within the last few episodes, with an “home invasion” that disrupts the sweet little home we’ve built.
I was both shocked and genuinely devastated by every single one of these deaths because I’d had time to get used to their group dynamic.
However, while this outcome was great for the impact of the first season, it has actually presented quite a big problem for season two. The unfortunate thing is, in one fell swoop the writers did away with 90% of the fan favourite characters, leaving us only with the less developed, less likeable characters.
Where did the love go in season two?
There is common wisdom in writing circles that “death automatically raises the stakes” in a story, but I think this is bad advice. True, killing off a character can raise the stakes, but it only works if the audience actually cares about that character or that their death will have a meaningful impact on the story.
If neither are true, what are the stakes exactly?
Where season one of Sweet Home got it right was not only making the characters likeable, but showing that their absence would have a profound effect on the tight-knit group they’d established.
While I assume it was always the point of Sweet Home that many of the characters would not make it to season two, it presents a big problem for the viewer because the status quo they’d grown accustomed to, and were therefore rooting for, no longer exists.
All this character development the writers built was obliterated in mere moments.
This presents even more of a problem in Sweet Home because many of the fan favourite characters who did survive the first season were dispensed with within three episodes once season two begins.
After episode three we jump almost one year into the future, where the characters are underground with hundreds of other survivors. You might be thinking great, that’s basically the same dynamic as season one, however, this is where things kind of fall apart.
Not only have they killed off the most likeable and consequential characters, but they have split up the remaining group, meaning those previous relationships are now lost.
However, as so many new characters are being introduced, we never get enough time to sit in any one storyline, which means the show fails to build those relationships to the same degree. Not only this, but very few of the newly introduced characters are likeable, moral or competent.
We have the priest character, who is morally ambiguous, while the Chief’s daughter, Ja-yeoung, is whiny and annoying. The arc between Eun-yoo, who survived season one, and crow platoon soldier, Chan-yeong has potential but Eun-yoo is persistently cold towards him and their connection feels thin.
The previous season’s protagonist, Hyun-su, is missing for most of season two, and when he does appear he is cynical and hates everyone.
Similarly, Yi-kyung, who spent season one being a total badass, has gone through a character assassination becoming a shell of a person filled with angst regarding her monster daughter, who is also unlikeable.
While Sergeant Kim and his Crow Platoon have shown promise, we don’t get enough time to build rapport with this storyline, and the constant in-fighting keeps things fractured. It seems as if the family is gone and now there is no-one to root for.
Unfortunately, I find myself barely caring about any of the characters and the season is quite boring to watch became of this.
What does this teach us about engaging the viewer?
Based on what we’ve seen in these examples above, it’s clear that deaths aren’t always a shortcut to raising the stakes in a story. It only raises the stakes if the audience cares about the character or that death heavily impacts the dynamic of the characters who remain.
If you fail to meet the requirements of establishing the right conditions for a death to be impactful, then those deaths are wasteful in my opinion as they serve no purpose.
Further to this, quite often killing off characters has the opposite intention in that it annoys the audience and can cause them to lose investment in the story as a whole, particularly when the potential of those characters isn’t explored.
A good example of this was the character Noah from The Walking Dead, whose death has been widely reviled by fans of the show.
Paying lip service to the development of a relationship between characters, such as with the incredibly short arc between Noah and implied love interest, Beth, only to kill him super quickly is a cheap gimmick.
Much of the criticism directed towards TWD is that the writing became more about cheap kills than character development, meaning it lost the ability to connect with its audience.
So, in conclusion never kill a character just for the sake of “raising the stakes”. Make your deaths matter, build your character relationships and you should have no problems getting your audience invested in your story.
Disclaimer: Apologies if I have made mistakes with Sweet Home character names, it is surprisingly hard to find a full cast list or actor photos in order to connect names to faces! Please feel free post corrections in the comments.
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