So You’ve Decided To Kill A Character

Now the next hurdle . . . how do you write the death scene?

It really depends on the way your character dies. Let’s face it. The way a person dies from a gunshot wound is not the same way a person dies after years of struggling with cancer. On top of that, the people left behind have different ways of handling death. While the survivors of each of the above characters will more than likely feel sad, the family of a gunshot victim may vow revenge whereas the family of a person who has died of cancer may feel an overwhelming sense of relief. You as the author must establish the conflict. You must decide how to make your readers feel what your character feels. But how?

Next to pulling from your own experiences, I suggest reading books that include death scenes. See how those authors pull you in. Did the death make you cry? Angry? Study the wording, the paragraph and sentence structure, then figure out how to make it work for you and write. It may take several attempts but you’ll eventually get it.

A few things to think about when writing death scenes:

1. It’s not all about death. It’s about reflecting on the life of the person who died. How is that person’s death going to affect the people who are left? How will the protagonist survive without this person? What has the protagonist lost? If you have lost someone in your life, think back to how you felt after you received the news. What were the thoughts in your mind? Did you weep? Sob? Feel numb? Use your own experiences and then thrust them on your protagonist. Understand the feelings, highlight them then exploit them. And always remember, in death people don’t always act the way they do when the world is going right. A very selfish individual may actually show signs of compassion when a death occurs, if only for a brief moment in time. No matter what you do, make the reader care.

2. Avoid the cheese. I can’t tell you how many death scenes I’ve read that turn a tender, emotional moment into a laugh fest. That’s the last thing you want (unless you are writing a comedy). Keep the dying simple. Avoid exaggerated talks about life and death. Try to avoid ‘life flashing before my eyes’ sort of speak. Think of Rue’s death in the Hunger Games. Boromir’s death in Lord of the Rings (the movie version, not the book). Olga Treskovna’s death in The Miracle of the Bells or Lennie’s death (and George’s reaction) in Of Mice and Men. Why do these scenes work?

3. Because the reader is invested in your characters. To do this doesn’t require chapters upon chapters of details but you do need to establish each character. You can do this with a few lines or paragraphs. Take for instance the following scenario:

13-year old Danny is being made fun of by the jocks in History class for wearing a pink shirt. After class is over, a new girl at school, Sandy, catches up with him in the hall and tells him how she thought it was wrong for the other classmates to make fun of him. He notices her smile. The way she flips her hair. The softness of her voice. She says good-bye and skips off to her next class with a promise to talk to him later. Danny doesn’t see her anymore the rest of the day but he can’t stop thinking about her and their brief encounter. He feels special. Needed. A pretty girl talked to him and she didn’t care if he wore a pink shirt. While walking to school the next morning he picks a wildflower to give to her. However, when he arrives in History class he discovers she died in a car accident the night before. Danny is crushed.

While there has not been a huge amount of time for the reader to know Sandy, the reader does know how her brief appearance affected Danny. Now the reader wants to know what is he going to do? How is he going to react? They want to help him. Why? Because you’ve given the reader a reason to sympathize with Danny. You’ve shown us his vulnerability. You’ve given him, and in turn, the reader, a reason to care. I don’t know about you, but I want to know if Danny cries in front of his classmates and risks being made fun of again, or does he go against his grain and ‘man-up’? How does his reaction shape his future? The present? Does it dig up past memories? Only you the author knows. Share the details.

4. Give the dying person all the lines. Restrict anyone else to direct responses and words of comfort. Keep the dying one’s sentences as short as possible. It creates a sense of breathlessness in the reader. Don’t write in the gasps and pauses. The dying one’s mind will be wandering, allow it to wander, make it seem fairly random. End it unexpectedly but not in the middle of one of the dying one’s lines. Allow the other characters to hope (and then dash it, of course). Keep the other characters’ response at the end as terse as possible. Allow more extended reaction further on in the story, when it will come in useful.

5. Keep in mind, guilt often accompanies death. The person still alive may feel it’s his fault the person died. He may play out many scenarios: “If I’d only done this.”, or “If I’d only said that.” or “If I’d only gotten here in time.” When you build up guilt, you make the death more believable.

6. And last but not least, don’t let the protagonist forget the person who died. I hate it when I read a book and come across this tear-jerking death scene and then the dead person’s gone for good. There’s no reference, no remembering, no nothing. Keep in mind, when someone close to us dies, there are five stages of grief we as survivors go through: denial and isolation, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Have your protagonist go through these stages. You wouldn’t dismiss your best friend so easily in real life. Don’t have your characters do it either.