Screenwriters - It's Time to Kill The Cat
One of the many reasons that Game of Thrones was such a remarkable show is because it wasn’t afraid to kill its leading characters, or at the very least, severely injure them. That strategy was used by storytellers for ages as a means of “setting the stakes,” and it’s one of the reasons why many filmgoers look down upon movies with unbeatable characters who jump into dangerous fights and emerge victorious without a scratch – they’re boring!
As time goes by and audiences become more and more sophisticated, the demand for higher stakes is rising, and even superhero movies like Avengers: Infinity War recognize that the stakes must be higher for people to remain engaged. The characters they love can get hurt or lose the fight; in other words – the cat could die! Someone could lose an eye (Thor), be severely injured (War Machine), lose their best friends (Guardians of the Galaxy), or our hero could end up dying altogether, forever (Logan).
So – what “Kill the Cat” is actually saying is that you shouldn’t be afraid to be mean to your characters; establish the unimaginable (losing a child, a job, the car, a best friend) and then deliver the worst; show us how your characters deal with that loss, how they grieve, bounce back (or not), and emerge victorious (or not). Don’t be afraid to kill the person they love (The Dark Knight), or show the cruelty of the world they’re in (Inglourious Basterds), or force them to cut off their arm (127 Hours), or regret the things they didn’t say (Lady Bird), or kill their cat, literally (The Grand Budapest Hotel).
No matter how technically accomplished, visually impressive, or well-acted a movie may be, at the end of the day, for a film to succeed it has to be emotionally engaging; filmmakers must rely on their audience’s capacity to relate to, and have emotions for their characters, whether we consider those characters to be flawed, good, bad, or somewhere in-between.
Emotional engagement is developed through a number of interrelated elements — we tend to be emotionally invested in a character when we can understand their plight, when we can see the world through their point of view and understand why they make the decisions they make in pursuit of their ultimate goal. And when we begin to understand the character’s why, is when we begin to care about the character, we become emotionally engaged, we grow to love and identify with the character.
Once an audience identifies with your character, you can send them through all sorts of adversities, up, down and sideways, and the audience will be there for the ride. So long as there’s a chance that the character might fail to achieve his or her goal, the story will remain engaging until the goal is either achieved, or abandoned.
For a story to work there has to be a tangible sense of danger, a plausible chance of failure, or even the threat of death. Putting the axe over your character’s head will increase the likelihood of viewers sitting on the edge of their seats, biting their nails as you take their favorite character from point A to point B. For this, the storyteller has one important job to do, and that is to “Set the Stakes”.
Of course, as with any technique, there are good and bad ways to “Kill the Cat”. Leaning too hard into shocking moments always risks exploitation, or emotional manipulation, and can make a movie downright depressing (No Escape); but there are steps you can take to ensure your screenplay has the right balance of timing, purpose, and believability to make it feel authentic.
This guide will give you the lowdown on everything you need to know about how to properly execute the Kill the Cat technique, from examples to a theoretical breakdown to a test exercise.
Characters are the heart of any story, but your audience won’t automatically care about them as the film begins. You need to make them care. Characterization is a whole ‘nother meaty topic, but for the sake of this article, let’s think of things on the level of plot, and your characters’ place in it.
To illustrate, we’ll use Joseph Campbell’s famous “Hero’s Journey” model: your characters are going on a journey from the known to the unknown, facing challenges and obstacles along the way, and ultimately returning home, transformed, to arrive at some kind of conclusion.
Beginnings and endings are important, of course, but they’re a lot simpler to imagine—humble beginnings, happily ever after, yada yada yada. The obstacles are where the bulk of the story happens, and it’s through the process of overcoming obstacles that your audience builds an emotional relationship with your characters. Without conflict, there would be no need for characters, no story at all.
“Kill the Cat” suggests a specific kind of obstacle. The rather morbid and distasteful name of the technique is important—there’s something repulsive about the idea of killing something as innocent and beautiful as a cat. It provokes an immediate gut level reaction of disgust and sadness—this shouldn’t happen! This is monstrous! Life is cruel and unfair! It’s precisely these sorts of feelings that you want to lean into when using the technique.
Now, the important thing to remember here is that you don’t need to “Kill the Cat”, in fact, most stories never do. Merely ESTABLISHING the possibility that the cat could die triggers these very same emotions. And this is where this tool becomes interesting.
Casino Royale (2006)
Flash back to the early 2000s. Coming off the cartoonish Pierce Brosnan entries, the creative team behind Casino Royale was tasked with reshaping the 007 brand into more grounded and visceral Bond. It might be hard to imagine now, four successful movies later, but Daniel Craig was considered an unconventional choice for the 007 role at the time, and the initial announcement of his casting provoked a lot of backlash (like it always does). The team behind Casino Royale had a lot riding on it, rebooting the suave, dark, and handsome spy as a blonder, more thuggish, more vulnerable breed.
By all accounts, they nailed it, and one of the key moves was their “Kill the Cat” moment, the death of Eva Green’s love interest, Vesper. It wasn’t the first time one of Bond’s love interests died, but it was made memorable by the arc of Vesper’s characterization, her betrayal, and redemption. The film’s other key “Kill the Cat” moment is the unforgettable image of Craig tied naked to a chair, having his genitals whipped with a knotted rope by Madds Mikkelsen. Never before (or since) has Bond been depicted as so vulnerable and emasculated. In both cases, these shocking moments help to define the new Bond—high stakes, gritty, brutal. Gone is the Bond of whacky gadgets and absurd chases, in is the Bond of dead lovers and bruised balls.
The Dark Knight (2008)
The other key, paradigm-shifting action movie of the 2000s is undoubtedly The Dark Knight (2008). Though Batman Begins (2005) did a lot of the heavy lifting of establishing a more grounded superhero origin story, The Dark Knight elevated the craft to a new level, and a big part of that was upping the stakes. The film’s standout “Kill the Cat” moment is the death of Bruce Wayne’s love interest Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllehnaal). As a refresher—around midway through the movie, the Joker has tied up Rachel Dawes and Harvey Dent to time bombs in two locations around Gotham, and gives Batman enough time to save one of them. Wayne chooses Rachel, only to find that in a cruel twist, the Joker switched the locations. Batman saves Dent, Rachel dies.
It’s a loss all around—the Joker proves his point that humans’ irrational emotions trump their sense of justice, Wayne loses his childhood sweetheart, Dent gets half his face burned off and becomes the menacing Two Face. It entirely rewrites the stakes of the film, and leaves Batman utterly defeated. The travesty of this low-point in Wayne’s life makes his ultimate triumph over the Joker in the end that much more meaningful. It’s what gives the film’s bittersweet, yet hopeful ending its goosebumps-inducing power. For hope to mean anything, the consequences must be clear and dire.
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005)
It’s well established that the Harry Potter series was conceived to have the audience age with the characters, and for the story to get accordingly darker. So while the Sorcerer’s Stone was mostly full of childish misadventures, The Deathly Hallows was an all-out war, with Wizards dropping like flies. The real turning point in the series came in just about the middle, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005), when a newly-resurrected Voldemort kills star student and athlete Cedric Diggory (Robert Pattinson). It’s a dark moment for our hero, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), and makes him understand the full ruthlessness of the enemy he’s facing. Until that point, no Hogwarts students had been killed, but this climactic “Kill the Cat” moment totally changed the stakes of the Harry Potter series. After Goblet, it became a pre-release game to guess which characters J.K. Rowling would kill next—a sort of adolescent equivalency to Game of Thrones.
Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri (2017)
Three Billboards’s screenplay is written by the brash, acid-tinged pen of Martin McDonough, so it’s no surprise that the film has several “Kill the Cat” moments (one of his earlier shorts even features the killing a rabbit). The standout moment is undoubtedly Sheriff Willoughby’s suicide around a third of the way through the film. The first portion of the movie sees Willoughby, played by Woody Harrelson, as a reluctant antagonist to Frances McDormand’s grieving Mildred, and an idol to Sam Rockwell’s Dixon. The movie builds momentum on the dynamic between these three characters: Mildred grows increasingly impatient about the lack of investigation into her daughter’s death, Dixon faces heat for racist and unruly behavior, and Willoughby does his best to maintain peace and order while his pancreatic cancer escalates. After an idyllic final day with his wife and kids, Willoughby takes fate into his own hands and shoots himself in his stable.
Though the moment is somewhat telegraphed, it’s also entirely shocking when it happens, and totally reframes the character dynamics in the film. The death of Willoughby, who mostly wanted the best for everyone, removes any overarching sense of authority, and leaves the rest of the characters reeling. Mildred doubles down on her efforts and grows increasingly unhinged, while Dixon begins a transformative, redemptive character arc. And the characters’ chaotic conflicts lead to another “Kill the Cat” moment: Dixon getting severe burns from Mildred’s Molotov-cocktail police station arson.
John Wick (2014)
How can you hurt a man who already lost his wife? John Wick responds with a simple answer: kill his dog. The movie begins with John Wick (Keanu Reeves) in retirement, still reeling from the loss of his wife to cancer. The one silver lining is his beagle puppy, Daisy. Unfortunately for Wick, some Russian gangsters take notice of his vintage Ford Mustang at a gas station and follow him home, knocking him unconscious, stealing his car, and killing Daisy (damn you Reek!!!). Unfortunately for the gangsters, John Wick is a former assassin of legendary stature. The rest of the film sees him targeting the gangsters and getting revenge for their horrendous, careless crime. The whole plot hinges on this “Kill the Cat”, or rather, “Kill the Dog” moment—Wick begins the film retired, newly widowed, and depressed. Without the instigating murder of his dog, none of the rest of the plot would need to happen. In short, there would be no John Wick without “Kill the Cat”.
“Kill the Cat” is, of course, not just about death. Here’s a quick run-through of some more non-traditional “Kill the Cat” examples which set the stakes of their film through more unique means.
Wes Anderson resorts to “Kill the Cat” with every new film he makes. To avoid letting the whimsy and colorful visual style of his films put his audience too much at ease, Anderson has to establish the rules of the game. In his case, the rules say – something bad could happen. It’s no coincidence that he kills a pet in nearly every movie he’s ever made (from Royal Tenenbaums to Moonrise Kingdom and the Isle of Dogs). Establishing the fact that something bad COULD happen eliminates the sense of comfort you’d otherwise get from watching all that dazzling color, smooth camera moves and deadpan dialogue.
In the 2017 version of Stephen King’s It, the filmmakers were tasked with the objective of presenting Henry Bowers, the psychopath who bullies and terrorizes The Losers’ Club, in a terrifying light. What’s the best way to do that, you ask? In the film – while testing out the gun he stole from his father, Bowers orders one of his friends to place a cute cat on the log, points his gun, and is just about to pull the trigger before being interrupted by his father. In this case, the filmmakers didn’t have to “Kill the Cat”, it’s enough to show you that this character could. Doing so resulted in the same effect – we now know that this character is pure, effing, evil, and we didn’t have to shock the audiences into it. (The movie has plenty of shock value going for it, so this is a good example of the filmmakers choosing character building over gratuitous violence towards adorable kittens.)
James Franco cutting off his own arm with a pocket knife in 127 Hours (2010) is the unthinkable moment that the rest of the film revolves around. Director Danny Boyle depicts the moment with a dizzying variety of formal techniques that both obscure and amplify his pain, hitting him and the audience where it hurts.
In general, Disney movies are full of “Kill the Cat” moments, usually involving parents dying: Bambi, The Lion King, and Finding Nemo, to name a few. And in the recent Avengers: Infinity War (2018), about half the cast dies at the end!
In each of these cases, writers are using “Kill the Cat” strategically to test their characters and audiences. With so many examples out there, you might think that filmmakers today have mastered the use of this technique—but you’d be wrong.
The Invincible Cat
Having gone through so many examples of “Kill the Cat” done well, it’s time to look at the opposite: a movie that desperately needed a “Kill the Cat” moment, but didn’t have one. Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit (2012-14) trilogy may be the most egregious recent example. An entire article could be written on the ways that the Hobbit movies disappoint in relation to Jackson’s masterful Lord of the Rings trilogy, but to stay on topic, the absolute lack of “Kill the Cat” moments in the Hobbit series rains the films of any sense of actual danger, and therefore, of excitement or adventure. While Lord of the Rings had Gandalf and Aragorn dying (or at least, appearing to die) and other meaningful character deaths and injuries, The Hobbit is comparatively lacking in gravity and thrills.
All of the characters appear invincible as they plow through hordes of CGI goblins, which turns potentially exciting scenarios into dull spectacles. And this goes double for the Lord of the Rings characters inserted into the Hobbit world like Legolas—we already know he’s going to survive into the next movies, so the films’ endlessly dragged-out battle scenes are completely devoid of tension. A real opportunity to make him vulnerable was wasted, and instead he was presented as an undefeatable superhero character that does what he does with absolutely no effort or resistance.
The Hobbit is based on a book with an amazing “Kill the Cat” moment, the book’s leading character Thorin Oakenshield and his two nephews/heirs Fili and Kili all die at the end, which means that the line of Thror and Thrain is extinguished. Instead of capitalizing on this opportunity, the character’s demise at the end of the film feels meaningless, because only a few scenes earlier, we saw them escape through an actual ocean of enemies without so much as a scratch. This moment, therefore, feels as if it was made to manipulate the audience into feeling something.
This same flaw can be found in other movies such as Man of Steel - where super-beings throw each other into buildings without consequences, and superpowers aren’t being differentiated to keep things interesting. In other words – nothing meaningful happens, the audience knows that the cat is safe, and therefore, the story lacks interest.
There are plenty of lesson in why not to make your heroes bulletproof: it’s boring! And worse, it completely flattens out your plot and character development, which leads us to elaborate on what “Kill the Cat” is really about.
The True Meaning of “Kill the Cat”
“Kill the Cat”, at its core, isn’t really about setting stakes through violence or shock. It’s really all about testing your characters with failure. Anyone can put on a good face in times of peace, anyone can coast by in life if they avoid conflict. But failure makes people show their true colors—failure causes someone’s real character to be revealed.
Let’s be honest: by the end of most movies, the protagonists succeed with whatever they’ve set out to do. Sometimes this formula is tweaked a little bit, and some movies go with a more bittersweet and emotionally ambiguous ending, but for the most part, the good guys usually win. It’s a formula—but it doesn’t have to feel like one. For heroes’ success to mean anything, to avoid feeling like a weightless cliché, they need to fail first; the deeper they fail, the stronger their success will feel in the end. When crafting your screenplay, take care to find the balance of failure that makes success worth it, in a way that is consistent and believable with what your movie is all about.
With all of this information about “Kill the Cat” established, let’s get into the nuts and bolts of the technique, to see how you can put it to practical use in your screenplay.
Using “Kill the Cat” in Your Screenplay
There are a few key factors to consider when deciding how to “Kill the Cat” in your screenplay. First, you’ve got to think of what really matters to your characters—how you can hit them where it hurts. Is love important to them? Family? Success? Once you have an answer, see what happens if you take that thing away from them, in the most brutal, tragic, or humiliating way possible. How would they react? What would come next? Keeping your answers in mind, let’s run through the four factors that go into a successful “Kill the Cat” moment: Establishing the rules, figuring out the timing, developing a purpose, and ensuring believability.
Establishing the Rules
Before you can throw the executioner’s switch, you need to show the audience that it exists, and that it could go off at any time. Establish the worst case scenario, but leave it alone. Let it seep into your character’s consciousness and be left alone. This could be a visual stimulant, a prop, a location, a dialogue scene where a character says what they want (and then the possibility of that NOT happening), or what they fear the most (and the possibility of that happening). Some things don’t really need to be established, especially when death and destruction are involved.
There’s no golden rule for the proper timing of “Kill the Cat”. Sometimes it happens before the movie begins, or during the film’s first act, setting the rest of the plot in motion (John Wick). Sometimes it happens in the middle, marking a low point that the hero will need to struggle to recover from (The Dark Knight, Interstellar). Sometimes it happens at the end, retroactively changing the stakes of the rest of the movie, or altering the stakes of the franchise going forward (Casino Royale, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Avengers: Infinity War). More important than where it falls within the arc of your movie is where it falls within the arc of your characters. You can either choose to deflate a character while they’re flying high, or kick them while they’re already down. It depends on what kind of story you’re trying to tell, but it’s important to be aware of how your “Kill the Cat” moment fits into the flow of your characters’ lives and the movies runtime.
Though the details of each “Kill the Cat” moment vary, the purpose remains largely the same: testing your characters through failure, strengthening your audience’s investment in the drama, and elevating the stakes of your story. As long as you keep these essential purposes in mind and place your “Kill the Cat” moment strategically, you should be all set. Don’t “Kill the Cat” just to be shocking, or to torture your characters for no reason—you’re not a sadist, you’re an explorer, traveling into the moral terrain of your movie headfirst. If you can avoid killing the cat altogether, that’s even better. Show your audience that the cat COULD DIE, but don’t kill it, unless that’s what the story calls for.
Believability should be a golden rule in any screenplay decision, “Kill the Cat” or otherwise. Not a simple believability that prioritizes strict realism over fantasy, but an emotional believability tailored to the particular world you’re crafting. The Lord of the Rings, despite its fantastical storyline, is still a believable movie because it abides by its own internal logic. The Hobbit, on the other hand, is not, because it plays loose with its rules and ends up as a mushy mess. Your movie should strike a balance between the structure of story and the flow of chance and change. “Kill the Cat” marks a particular tension point in the fabric of your story: it’s where underlying flaws in the stitching get pushed to their breaking point and rip apart at the seams – whether it happens, or not.
It shouldn’t come out of nowhere: believability is all about making the “Kill the Cat” moment fit in with the logic of your story world. You can secure believability through foreshadowing, and a considered understanding of your characters and the tone of your movie. If character, plot, and tone are properly aligned, “Kill the Cat” will fit right in.
By now you should have a pretty good understanding of what “Kill the Cat” means, what makes it important, and how to properly implement it in the context of a screenplay. Sounds good? Time to put your knowledge to the test.
Write a short script, 15 pages or less, where a character’s goal changes after their “cat dies”. Because this is a brief exercise, you’ll have to takes some shortcuts in characterization, and plot, but it should give you enough space to focus on one character and a turning point. Have fun with it, don’t take it too seriously, but pay careful attention to the factors that go into the “Kill the Cat” moment and how it changes your character. If all goes well, this exercise will give you valuable first-hand knowledge on “Kill the Cat” that you can take with you into all of your feature screenplays from here on out.
Look back on your favorite films and try to find the “Kill the Cat” moments in them—you’ll find these in EVERY good movie, whether it’s a comedy, a drama or a Western. The possibility of losing something should always be present, until the story is resolved.
We hope this guide has been helpful and informative. Have fun “Killing those Cats”!