How To Write A Death Scene

How To Write A Death Scene

Death scenes are an integral part of the storytelling process. They’re so important that they can change the way we think about everything that has come before in a book. Writing a death scene is nothing like killing a character off, though. It’s not about dispatching them in a way that’s shocking, brutal, or even unexpected. A death scene is about making the reader understand why the character had to go, and why the death is justified. It’s about making the reader understand the consequences of the character’s death. It’s about making the reader feel the tragedy of the character’s death.

Decide what your character wants most in the scene

It’s important to know what’s at stake during any scene, and that’s true whether your character is living or dying. If he’s dying, he’s likely bidding farewell to some part of his old life, so think about what your character has to lose in the situation. Maybe he was a counselor at a small-town summer camp, and he’s dealing with the divorce of his best friend, the girl he secretly loves, and his ex-wife as he watches his kids having the time of their lives, and they’re all going to want to talk to him about his tragic love story. That can feel like a lot of different things to lose — his peaceful summer, his lover, his marriage — so think about what’s most important to him at that moment, and have your other major players accept and support his decision.

Death scenes also sometimes elevate a character’s legend among his peers. Think about other times when someone has died heroically — were those people remembered for their talent in some aspect, or for their heroic death? Regardless of the heroic deed or something related to it, say that it’s their moment and have your other characters recount it, and make sure everyone feels the way it deserves to be felt. Set the table for the right kind of death scene by setting its context. What’s happening outside your hero’s situation that’s critical to success? While your character’s dying, what else is going on in the world around him? Make sure you think about what kinds of other situations your characters might be in, and if one of them seems like the next most logical and right thing he can do at that stage of his life, have that one be your hero’s way out. For example, if your character is going to defy all odds, he should literally die in defiance.

Find the point of greatest change in the scene

If you’ve killed someone off in your narrative, there needs to be a reason for that, and the most compelling reason is to change the setting. You want to create an opportunity for a shift in point of view, plot, or characterization that will kick start the next parts of the story. You should choose the character who causes the biggest change and make them die horribly — they just don’t come back from that. And while you’re at it, make it meaningful, even poetic. Harking back to the golden age of stage, Elizabethan theater provides a rich source for archetypical and frequently played scenes, such as poison for Hamlet, beheading for Macbeth, and dramatically falling out of a window in Romeo and Juliet. Overuse these and you’ll set yourself up on the slippery slope that leads to cliché. It’s more interesting to unearth the interesting undergrowth of a death scene. Everyone cries by themselves very sadly, or has people over for comfort after the fact. Is there any other sort that would feel more realistic?

Another important part of writing a death scene is its relationship to the characters’ journeys, and where they come from and where they’re going. In terms of setting, most stories tend to substantially focus on just the protagonists. What happens to the people that the protagonists are leaving behind — their best friends, former frenemies, parents, teachers, siblings? Is there more to their feelings over losing someone, anyone, than anger or pain? What would be the best way to portray those reactions, if you’re going to?

Make the death matter for something

The key to a good death is making it count for something. This can apply both to the larger story context and characterization, and both are necessary to do well. You have to bring death into the rest of the plot in order for it to feel significant and effective. If readers don’t see a reason for the death or if the death doesn’t feed into the rest of the plot in any way, it becomes an unpleasant hiccup in the story, but the opposite can also happen. By pulling in every other plot thread to the death scene, you can add meaning and flavor to the death, increasing its value and the impact on the reader. Whichever approach you take, though, there needs to be some kind of tether between the death itself and the other parts of the story. Maybe it’s a revenge quest, or a dispute over land, or perhaps the loss of a loved one has made one character more eccentric and cautious than before? Death can fit into a lot of themes and does a lot of storytelling work if it’s approached correctly.

That said, you can’t make death matter on an interpersonal level if you don’t intimately know who it is you’ve killed off, and that character’s entire arc. This means you have to get to know your character before even starting the death scene itself. If you waste your precious page space on wholesale slaughter with absent motivations and goals, all you’re going to be doing is looking helplessly at your sudden death of cast members and wondering how to do over. You have to make your heroes sympathetic — it’s just that easy.

Add insight into your character

Show your reader how a death affects other characters by adding dialogue at the scene’s end. Talk about the character’s life before and after death. How does the character feel about death? What did their loved ones mean to them? It “may sound well and good from the get-go, but success is determined largely by emotional resonance, and that’s no easy thing to engineer or even explain. …” but be thoughtful in how the character comes to terms with the consequences that their actions have led to.

Making a person sympathetic can draw genuine empathy from a reader for the character in question. You can make a character sympathetic by referring to the thoughts and actions the character has in the previous chapters. The critical components needed to create a death scene are setting and meaning. To create mysterious death scenes, include parts of the character’s past in multiple story lines rather than just one. Make sure to describe what the character looks like after he or she has died. Also, give the cause of death.

Use foreshadowing to create tension

Foreshadowing is one of the most important tools of a writer. By putting clues and hints throughout your novel into the action and the dialogue, you can make the actual death in the scene come as a surprise, but also feel like a natural part of your book’s plot. Consider having a secondary character mention the person often enough for them to feel like a main character, or use the death in religious rites — either on purpose, or through the characters’ own discovery. Both of these techniques can help build tension in the scene. In a particularly violent scene, try having the death happen off screen, which is usually easier to read.

You might also want to consider how, where, and when the death happens. Your book might have a more dramatic sequence by setting it in an unexpected place or at a key moment in the plot movement. In fact, the most dramatic place to stage a death is often late in the book, where the reader is still connected to focusing on the character regardless of development or plotline. A more interesting death often comes from a place of conflict — and sometimes a death can even start this conflict! It’s important to tie in the theme of the book when writing a death scene, because it can be easy to add regality, or majesty, or tragedy — if these don’t in some way express the book’s values, either those of the characters or the author.

Harnessing fear to create horror

Death scenes are all about eliciting a powerful response from the reader. For that reason, horror books contain some of the most effective death scenes in literature. For horror to be effective, we need to have a strong sense of fear — this is true whether the scene is serious or absurd. Fear is the anticipation of loss. Death can happen suddenly, and without warning — especially when it hits you by surprise. To fight this feeling of fear, feel your way into your scene with powerful adjectives and indirect exposition that hint at the fate of your character.

Another way to create fear is to enforce a sense of helplessness and hope. This means that your characters must always have something to lose, who are capable and competent in certain ways, but clueless or weak in others. If your protagonist is a man who stumbles into a desert with no water and no way of grabbing help, you can be sure he’ll die easily. Characters that straddle a fine line between success and failure in unexpected ways are ideal for horror. The more forbidden or immoral the actions they take are, the more afraid you can make them!

Timing has everything to do with it

When a character gets killed in a movie, it’s usually at a very significant moment – like a dramatic showdown on a rainy rooftop or during the final scene. While you shouldn’t necessarily favor one over the other, the order and timing of a scene can change what kind of impact the death actually has. Let’s take a moment to recall the last time we all got a bit misty-eyed over a major death in the movies. Okay, did you pull it up? Did someone start talking during the climactic moment when the guilt-drenched stoic loses his mental stability in the face of his best friend’s death? If so, why did your body-shaking sobs abruptly stop? It should be obvious that it’s an all-around bad idea to talk during emotional scenes, but what about sudden movements, smells, or even loud cars painted the perfect shade of tangerine? What looks like a simple moment with no significance to it could actually make you look like a corpse.

In the world of writing, this mode is called Chekhov’s Gun, and it says that if there’s a gun on the wall in act one, it will go off in act three, no matter how much it’s possibly delayed. Naturally, if we’re talking about guns in writing, we should look at ways to manipulate firearms in the weapons locker. As a death scene progresses, there are multiple opportunities for Chekhov’s Gun to be triggered, because generally the closer the plot is to the climax, the more tragedy starts to hit. Paralysis may shoot through your character as a guilt-inducing realization seizes his mind, or he may realize every way in which he’s incapable of keeping himself out of the dark place he’s heading. If your character usually relies on amusing coping mechanisms, trauma could strike and momentarily deactivate his sense of humor.

Determine the emphasis and aesthetics

As is the case with every element of a story, death comes in a variety of flavors. Is this death a story point? Is it a punchline? Is it supposed to make the reader happy or sad, or is some other emotion best suited to the scene? After that, your audience has certain expectations of how a death scene should be. There are traditional rules for the moment of death. Literary historical standards that almost all authors fall into, whether they intend to or not. They range from the expected — someone dying in a hospital bed, gripping the physician’s hand, having a peaceful smile — to the more recent, like one character promising to catch the one who did it, no matter the cost. The aesthetic of a scene can also profoundly change a reader’s perception of it. A peaceful scene in a pastoral setting where a young child dies might have a different calibre than if the death is violent and messy. Consider all of this when you go to write your next death scene.

Detail is important in death scenes, much as it is in any major dramatic moment in a story. The level of detail is different, naturally—no one needs to know what the wallpaper in the hospital room looked like. But there should be enough imagery the reader can be fully engrossed in the scene — even if it’s a peaceful, natural death. If you’re writing a violent or ambiguous death, however, more detail is required to be empathetic with the characters. What is the character’s face doing? What does the character’s touch feel like? Where does the character see their pistol or bloodied hands in the moment? How can you make the moment more intense and powerful for the reader?

Flourish your scene with pain

Death is pivotal toward storytelling. It’s cause of a life change. A person says goodbye, and this character moves into death and the afterlife. A scene that takes place after someone dies has to show the effect this sudden demise has on the people left behind. A death scene is often in the “show, don’t tell” category. Fragments of the deceased character being there are just as significant in showing the presence of the dead character as long descriptions of the survivor’s pain. There is no one right way to write a death scene. You can present it in any way you want as long as you make the scene work for your book.

Writing about death is not the same as writing a death scene. There is a difference between creating fantasy and writing the fact. Death is often uncomfortable to write about because it has nothing to do with blood and action. A real death scene is about change, the change of relationships, and the change of characters. The reality of death should be present in the narrative. It will feel real to the audience, not only because they know what it is but also because they can relate to when someone they loved is gone.

Force your reader to accept their loss

Once you’ve figured out why the death is happening, set the scene. Death scenes are almost always the climax scenes of the books they’re found in, so make sure you spend the time to make this an impactful reaction. Visualize your stakes. You can refer to the stakes whenever you’re coming up with ideas for your scene. This will help you think creatively and come up with a suitable reaction that doesn’t feel over-the-top or underwhelming. When a character dies, the stakes are almost always about that character’s life, or about the life of another character. You might have the deceased character’s best friend turning to drugs to cope with the grief, or the orphan trying to starve themselves to death. Imagining those things and planning how your character’s reaction will go will put you ahead of the curve.

The body can act as a lightning rod for the emotions characters are feeling. It’s easy to fall into the trap of brushing over the actual physical death with cheap reactions. Murder mysteries, where the body is everything, show the true power of a carefully and cooly described evil deed. If your scene involves death by poison, how will your character react once the body starts seizing up? Paraphrasing some of the symptoms of different types of poisoning might help plan the medical details and give you a picture of what it will actually feel like to see the perpetrator in action, rather than just hearing about it.

Take your reader on a last good-bye

There are three types of characters who die in stories, and each requires a different kind of scene. The first are unexpected deaths — people who are already dead on page one and have their deaths revealed. The second are those whose deaths are foreshadowed, when the author telegraphs what’s coming through the last pages. The final are suicides, which are often accompanied by lots of wailing and gnashing of teeth by readers who all attribute the deaths to the author’s petty hatefulness. Ideally, you want to use all three of these kinds of death scenes in your trilogy, but knowing your type of character will determine your approach.

First off, understand that the reader is coming into the death scene already primed to not like the character. They’ve already subconsciously analyzed the character’s role in the story and have probably had a few moments of gratitude that they’re not the character. You’re going to have to pull out all the stops to change that idea. Begin your scene with the character at his or her most desirable and charismatic. But remember, his or her death has to be earned — if you’ve led your readers to appreciate the character in the first place, all the reasons for killing him or her off now make sense. Start by showing your character wanting something. Is it success, love, a family? Is the character willing to fight for those things? If you’re killing off a side character, giving the audience an idea of what he or she stood for — society, family, freedom — works well. From there, add conflict and tension about how he or she is barred from obtaining that goal. Start adding details, like the guard giving him the Taser or the puppy deciding he doesn’t like that boy. Add foreshadowing as things get worse and worse, and try to weave in theme.

There’s no formula, just know your story

Writing a death scene is about more than stringing words together to describe the outward effects of it. If you want to write a meaningful character death, you need to be in the mindset of a “murder” mystery. Instead of wondering “who did it,” you’ll ask, “why did they do it?” You need to know why each of your characters is important—as a person and to the story—and how that death fundamentally affects everyone involved. Consider how the world or specific characters are changed afterward, and explore the ways in which your characters grieve. Be sure to have a catalyst for the death, either directly or indirectly. You probably won’t be able to work in a how-to manual on writing a murder into your story after it’s completed, but you can certainly work in a foreshadowing. If the criminal act is directly related to the death or murder, consider working in a mention of it beforehand to allow yourself to play into the tropes of this type of scene later.

When thinking about how to write a death scene, make sure to keep the motivation well in mind. In a murder mystery, the motivation is money or revenge, but in a death in literature, the motivation can be one of any number of things—it might be a murder for justice, or duty, or protection, or love. You might want to include a mysterious death, or a death with a missing witness. Throwing in an accusation increases suspense, and can allow for some intriguing figurative imagery. Bear in mind that if you’re writing more than a one-scene mystery, it can be difficult to structure a plot point that consistently shows up and makes an impact.

Show the character’s legacy

The greatest legacy that a fictional death can grant is the way it changes the lives of those who are left behind. Please note that we said “fictional,” because while this piece is about writing a death scene, it’s “fiction” in the entertainment sense. In real life, the act of a person dying is terrible and it affects great swaths of people — but too much depressing realism hardly serves anyone. First and foremost, who will the death affect? Does it kill the protagonist? If so, it should propel them into a new and fulfilling phase of their life, rather than being a staunch defeat. If the death is an anti-climatic event, then perhaps it shakes the protagonist out of their complacency and sets them on the path to greatness. Alternatively, is it created for the sheer shock factor? Will the death solve one major plotline while creating a new and challenging problem for other characters? Whatever the reason for a character’s death, their legacy should shine through for the sake of other characters and of the story.

Show, don’t tell. If the protagonist is bringing up the death right after it happens, they’re very likely to send the story in one of the above directions. The protagonist’s perception of the deceased is more indicative of general path than the way the characters are currently feeling. That’s why, instead of leapfrogging straight to the reaction phase, authors often think about how even the mundane things about a character were part of their legacy. In most cases appropriate for a death scene, ordinary character dynamics give way to great tragedy, so instead of static exposition, a powerful death scene uses descriptions of commonplace actions as a foundation for events to come. If you’re writing an historical novel, you can write a simple “set the scene” paragraph to illustrate and foreshadow this emotional and narrative shift.

In the end, writing powerful death scenes is all about creating a sense of immediacy in your narrator and in the reader. While some death scenes are moments of high drama, the way the reader interprets a death scene is also colored by how the scene is written and whom the scene involves. Tension and suspense can be built from within a scene or from reader expectations when a story progresses. 

Ultimately, the key to a successful death scene is knowing what kind of scene to write, and to do so, you need to understand what kind of scene you want to write to begin with. Whether you’re writing a mystery, memoir, science fiction, or literary fiction, death scenes play a critical role in pursuing the goals of your genre and style. But within those rules lie important details which can set your scene writing apart.

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