One Last Message

It’s an intense plot point, stretching along the span of media at least as long as people have had writing: a character’s final message to posterity. Usually, one gets it in a note where bits of words might be blurred with the spot-chromatography of fallen tears, or in a recording of some sort, when the character who created the message is long gone. (All right, sometimes the character is right there and delivering it, but that’s difficult, and leads to a number of complications including how she knows she’s dying and whether she should actually be able to survive long enough to deliver a speech that long, coherent and intelligent. But let’s ignore those for now.)

While it’s usually impossible, I’ve found that the greatest impact these things have is when you can get the context with them as well. In most cases, people see the letter or the recording (in audiovisual media, even letters often get the writer’s voice and sometimes even footage of them creating it attached), but only the message itself, not what happens before or after, ever appears. After all, the message is usually meant for the characters; how would they have gotten to see it written? The message can, of course, carry itself at that point; it’s already got that sense of inevitability to it that tinges these messages, that revelation of what the character considers important, those little personal note-to-specific-people touches if applicable, the tear splotches or pauses in transmission where the character tries to re-compose herself, and of course, the authentic voice of whichever character happens to be delivering the message.

What features are important? Staying in a character’s voice is, of course, a must; there’s nothing that’s going to drive a person out of the scene quite like the fact that the character delivering the final message doesn’t sound like herself. (Of course, it could be on purpose, particularly in a story—if so, I strongly recommend having a character around to comment on it.) Reminiscences are nice in small quantities, but veering off into nostalgia tends to detract from the scene. Keep your past references relevant and concise. If it’s a situation where it makes sense to sum up ideals, emphasize them but don’t pound them in too hard.

But what I find really interesting is what happens just before, and what happens just after, and if there are any parts that didn’t make it to the final version. Did the character draft the message beforehand, or just deliver it as one massive braindump? Did she do it readily, on her own initiative; convince herself; get talked into it by someone else? Were there false starts, beginnings scrapped midway through? If you’ve got the magical or technological recording, where the character’s emotions are clearly visible, is there something she’s faking, or something she’s holding back, while the camera’s on? When the message is complete, what does the character do? Granted, this is hard to do in a story without flashbacks, and even harder to do in a roleplaying game, unless the point is the character leaving the message rather than the character receiving it.

Since the last message is a natural tearjerking cue, it’s important to at least try to make it the kind of thing that would stand on its own; otherwise, a discerning member of the audience might feel that the only point is to play with the emotions. It’s better that it earn its response from its content than from the fact that last messages are generally sad.

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