This week I’m talking all about death. At some point in our writing careers we will all (probably) have the dubious pleasure of playing the Grim Reaper and killing off a character. Perhaps this character is a villain, perhaps they are the hero. Regardless, this scene can be quite difficult to write. Especially if you want to make it poignant. Any good author knows a character's struggles are what makes them likable. Through their pain, we see our own hardships. Through their struggles, we see our own conflicts. Through their growth, we see our own development. This is why character death is so powerful. The death of a character reminds us of our own mortality, a touchy subject for many. Character death is the simplest and most effective way to draw your readers closer to your story. But, only if you do it right. So how do we write them and what are
their purpose? Let’s take a look, shall we?
The characters know they are going to die and have time to think about it.
This is when the character contemplates death and either accepts it or fights against it and the reader is left with the feeling that it just isn’t fair. You could do this by the character talking about their upcoming death or through their inner thoughts and fears.
I suppose this is for shock value, but when you think of life you don’t expect people to die and I suppose that is the same for books. These deaths are never normally expected, either because the character is powerful or because you weren’t aware as the reader of the danger.
Remember the Significance of Death
An important step in understanding death in fiction is pondering its significance to audiences and considering why it's one of the most frequently portrayed themes. Human mortality has been reflected upon since the birth of literature, often elevating writing and provoking thought among readers about the nature of life.
Modern writers often see death as a theme of universal value, the ultimate existential dilemma. Without fail, the theme can rouse feelings of anxiety and fear, while also potentially opening up avenues to self-discovery and coming-of-age. Additionally, death has great symbolic importance as part of the natural cycle of birth and decay.
With all this to consider, it’s easy to see why death often wins writers’ awards. But it’s important to be honest with yourself as a writer, and to consider what the idea of death means in the unique context of your story. It’s too metaphysical and powerful a theme to simply shoehorn into a narrative.
The death of characters can seriously raise the stakes. It throws the characters into a state of immediacy, where danger is imminent and the audience becomes quickly invested due to escalating tension.
For example, in the Harry Potter series, the deaths of major mentor figures Sirius Black and Professor Dumbledore signaled the fact that Harry was on his own, left to face an increasingly deadly foe without the safety of his childhood tethers.
Incorporating death can also create an atmosphere of dread and mystery. In some instances, it can clearly communicate the wickedness of an antagonist.
A brief glance at lists of top villains in literature demonstrates how compelling villains often leave a bloody trail in their wake, which adds to their menacing personas – especially when their true identities are not immediately known but the deaths they cause pack a narrative punch.
It’s not about the death; it’s about the life.
For someone witnessing the death of a beloved person, the scene is not just about the way the person is going. Few of us get to choose how we go, and if it’s ugly, or painful, or drawn-out, that still has little reflection on how people feel about the person dying. When a life is at its end, we think about the life. Start thinking about what that life meant in the grander scheme of things, what the survivors will be losing.
Avoid the Cheese Factor.
It’s very easy to get cheesy in a death scene, instantly robbing your story of its tenderness and emotion. Err on the side of spare. What I mean by that is, just describe the person’s death; don’t go soaring up into the rafters with analysis and lofty analogies to angels, ascending to heaven, or on the other side, descending to hell. It is a human being, who is dying; there is enough profundity in that simplest of observations to make your readers feel moved.
These can be the most surprising, even when the author has built them up to the point where you know something bad is going to happen. (A crowd of friends hiking through the woods start to hear random noises off in the distance. They shrug it off and press forwards. The noises get louder and closer, and the friends start to get paranoid. They move faster but can’t shake off whatever’s following them. A few moments pass and all seems calm until…shick! Someone gets their throat slashed by a masked criminal.)
Keep the actual scene where the death happens to a couple sentences minimum. You can also surprise your reader not by having the death be sudden, but by suddenly revealing that a character is dead. (A girl fumbles around the dark in an abandoned house, looking for her boyfriend. She trips on something and pulls out her flashlight, shining the beam of light on whatever was just under her feet. It’s her boyfriend, with his neck twisted sideways and eyes bulging.) You’ll definitely want to generate an, “OH CRAP DID THAT JUST HAPPEN?!” sort of response from your reader.
Tragic Deaths That term might seem a bit redundant. Sure, all deaths are tragic in some way, I understand that. To make a death scene seem tragic, you have to include another character aside from the one(s) that got killed reacting to learning of the death. (A young boy finds his parents dead in the middle of the living room. Through waves of tears, his head hurts from confusion. On the ground in a puddle of blood is a meat cleaver, and in that moment, the boy knows something has to be done.) Have that other character react in the same way you want your reader to react. This can be a mix of emotions, but sad, angry, confused, and scared are the most common ones. The death itself can be a peaceful and simply written scene, but the power comes from the reaction that goes along with it. Use plenty of detail in what your other characters say or do after the death occurs.
The impact from this type of death comes from the victim’s reaction to being killed. You could do something like having them be stabbed once and left there to writhe on the ground and die. Or you could go much further and actually have them be tortured to death. In either case, detail is everything. Describe your victim’s movements, thoughts, and pretty much everything leading to their final moment. You’ll want to make it seem like death would be merciful in their situation. Your dying character’s emotions play a key role in this too. Have them beg or cry as they squirm or try to end the torment. Even the toughest of characters will react that way in this type of death. Just because a character doesn’t have emotions doesn’t mean they don’t have nerve endings! Everyone feels pain, but even if your character has a high tolerance for it, make them scream anyway. It’ll actually add a bit more character development because it shows that your tough character can be broken in desperate circumstances.
You have to cry.
I practically live by this now. You want the scene to make your reader cry? Well then you need to write it so it's enough to make you cry. Killing a character is a difficult task, especially if that character is one you love. So, if you pour your own emotion into the scene, odds are the reader will feel it, too. If you don't cry when you kill the character, then the scene isn't sad enough. Rewrite it until it makes you cry.
Go for the details.
As the character lay dying, take a bird’s eye view of the scene. Describe feelings and understandings in an abstract way that almost doesn’t make sense to the reader, because that strange confusion is what is felt when you watch someone die. Couple the overall feel with small things, like breathing and movement. Describe the frailty of the hand the main character is holding; how pasty a complexion is. Fatal wounds are messy things—the blood, the smell. Don’t shy away from these tidbits because they are what make the scene real.
For most genres, character deaths are not only inevitable, but sometimes, they're necessary. Whether it's to move the plot forward or add a shock factor, killing a character off needs to be done in a way that affects the reader as well as the writer. This is the same for practically any emotion, as well--anger, jealousy, embarrassment, etc. Whatever you want the reader to feel, you need to feel as well. Because if what you write doesn't affect you, odds are it won't affect anybody. These were just a few tips for writing a death scene in your own story or novel. Be tasteful, be spare, be tender, but don’t be cheesy. Good luck!