In real life, when someone develops a cough, even a brutally persistent and obnoxiously wracking one that hangs on nagging for months on end – it usually means that they have something like bronchitis or asthma. Although they’re sick, in time they’ll usually be fine again. In movies and TV, if a character lifts a hand to their mouth to cough (usually delicately) it means that their death is imminent almost 100% of the time. If the creators of said movies and TV really want to drive the point home, the character in question will go so far as to cough, then look at the hand they used to cover their mouth and find it flecked with blood. At this point, picturing the Grim Reaper himself standing at that character’s shoulder is entirely appropriate, for they are a-goner.
This is one of many storytelling shortcuts that TV and movie writers use to send a signal to the audience. That signal is: cough = beware, this character will die soon. It’s effective I suppose, but a little lazy and definitely unrealistic. I sometimes wonder if getting signals like cough = imminent death drilled into our heads by our entertainment viewing contributes at times to medical anxiety and the tendency to assume that every little thing that goes wrong with our bodies, like a cold with a cough for example, is going to kill us.
A friend of mine who recently battled cancer was particularly exhausted by TV and movie writer’s frequent use of ‘the cancer card’. It’s a quick and easy way to kill off a sympathetic character in a way that will make your audience emotional – but as an actual cancer battler my friend found it very annoying. The realities of the disease were a lot more complicated than what we see up on screen, and the constant use of cancer as a way to kill characters ignores the fact that a lot of people beat cancer and survive. Seeing character after character (after character) die from it can be pretty depressing to those who are fighting to live.
As a storyteller myself, noticing these often used chestnuts is a good way to avoid using them. They say that every story has already been told, and those of us still telling them are just rearranging them in our own unique ways. I think that’s true to some degree, but avoiding over utilized tropes is one way I keep my rearrangements as fresh as possible.
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