Suicide is Painless — writing the note is not.
When it comes to handling suicide in a script I find that writing the event is not nearly as challenging as writing the note. Here’s the thing. Contained in that one INSERT or V.O. we may have, if handled creatively, a concise statement about the person’s character, motivation, conflict, strengths, weaknesses (or flaws) and psychological state. A suicide note may reflect the theme, the plot, and shed light on other characters in the story. Additionally, words from the dead can enhance the inciting incident, provide an act transition, spice up the turning point, and turbocharge the protagonist toward the endgame.
The key is to pack as much relevant information as one can into the fewest sentences. I have a film in preproduction that begins with a suicide scene. A fellow writer urged me to pay particular attention to the suicide note. Her advice was to keep it alive beyond the actual event itself. Time and time again a self-executioner is immortalized by their last scribblings at the death scene..
Studies have been made about the contents of suicide notes, such as the research by Lenora Olsen who concludes that suicide notes might contain elements designed to:
1. Ease the pain of the victim by attempting to dissipate guilt.
2. To increase the pain of survivors by attempting to create guilt.
3. To set out the reason(s) for suicide.
4. To express thoughts and feelings that the person felt unable to express in life.
5. To give instructions for disposal of the remains.
6. Occasionally, to confess acts of murder or some other offense.
The most effective elements for a screenplay suicide note seem to be all or some of the following:
1. Why I am committing the act (justification).
2. What I hope to accomplish by dying (rationalization).
2. A message that I think can best be sent through my death (communication).
3. An attempt to ease, or increase, the suffering of survivors (mitigation or exacerbation).
The popular Southern Gospel song, “Goodbye World, Goodbye,” is not a suicide note but it contains the essential elements of an effective last statement.
What I hope to accomplish by the act: To escape to heaven.
This world where I roam cannot be my home;
Heaven is near and I can’t stay here.
I won’t have the blues anymore
When I step across to that shore.
And I’ll never pine for I’ll leave behind
My heartaches and cares ever more.
An attempt to ease the pain of survivors: God is by my side.
Now don’t you weep for me when I’m gone
For I won’t have to leave here alone.
A message that can be most effectively communicated by death: Hope of resurrection.
And when I hear that last trumpet sound
My feet won’t stay on the ground.
I’m gonna rise with a shout, gonna fly,
Gonna rise with my Lord in the sky.
Tony Hancock, the English comedian and actor, revealed why he wanted to die. “Things just seemed to go too wrong too many times.”
Kurt Cobain’s last testament attempts to both justify the act and to ease the pain of survivors: “Frances and Courtney, I’ll be at your altar. Please keep going Courtney, for Frances for her life will be so much happier without me. I LOVE YOU. I LOVE YOU.”
An evil antagonist can get in on the act as well. Here Adolph Hitler expresses what he and Eva Braun desired to accomplish by taking their own life. “I myself and my wife — in order to escape the disgrace of disposition or capitulation — choose death.”
Hunter Thomson’s message for the world was that suicide is an easy way out — and it doesn’t hurt. “No More Games. No More Bombs. No More Walking. No More Fun. No More Swimming. 67. That is 17 years past 50. 17 more than I needed or wanted. Boring. I am always bitchy. No Fun – for anybody. 67. You are getting Greedy. Act your old age. Relax – This won’t hurt.”
So, my protagonist is at wit’s end. Nothing remains but to die. With an old 78 rpm recording of “I’m So Lonesome I Could Die” playing on a beat up old phonograph, Noah Callaway writes a note to his family before putting a gun to his head. But, the gun misfires and an unexpected visit by his daughter and son-in-law ruins his plans. He tosses the note, but days later his daughter discovers it.
INT. NOAH'S HOUSE - LIVING ROOM - DAY Glenda picks up a trash can brimming over with debris. A wadded piece of paper falls to the floor. She bends over, picks it up and drops it back in the can. But, something about it gets her attention. She sets the can down, grabs the note and spreads it open. INSERT - NOTE "I GOT UP THIS MORNING AND FIGURED IT WAS TIME TO KICK THE BUCKET. I'VE LOST TOO MUCH FOR TOO LONG. TELL SARA GRACE I'VE GONE TO CHINA OR SOMETHING. NO USE TO FEEL BAD ABOUT THIS. I'D BEEN DEAD A LONG TIME BEFORE I DIED, ANYWAY. JUST NEEDED BURYING. I WILL MISS THE GRAPE SODAS THOUGH. ALL THE BEST, N.C." Glenda scans the note several times. Her mouth flies open, her cheeks flush,and her knees buckle a little. She crushes the note, then opens it and reads it again. She sniffles and her eyes moisten. She runs a sleeve over her face and takes a deep breath of air. The initial shock and dismay fades and anger sets in. She raises her arms with clinched fists and SCREAMS. She rips the note to shreds and tosses the pieces in the air. GLENDA (crescendos) All the best? Kick the bucket? I'll kick the bucket. Snorting like a stallion, she rears back and boots the waste can, driving it across the room, leaving a debris field in its wake. She eyes the mess, rubs her eyes and takes deep breaths; then wilts like a fading flower under a scorching sun. GLENDA Oh, Pops. What are we going to do?