A Good Death in Writing

10th May 2019

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Are you trying to write a death scene but having trouble giving it enough feels? I’ve cobbled together a few thoughts on writing a death scene. It’s a wonderful moment to connect with your reader and a useful way test your characters.
You are the real monster in this story
By killing an important character, you are making an example of them. You are telling your reader loud and clear that if this can happen to one character it can happen to anyof them. It’s going to make your reader a lot more protective of the other characters if they feel that any of them might suddenly be snatched away. You’re using violence to make your reader feel unsafe. You are, in this moment, a sociopath.
Timing is everything
Good comedy is based on timing, right? A perfect word said at just the right time, like music hitting a beat in a bar, can hammer home a joke and trick a laugh out of anyone. Good tragedy is the same. Your character has to die at precisely the right moment. Don’t linger on the death too long, or your reader will get bored. Don’t kill your character too quickly, or your reader will feel unsatisfied. You must stoke your reader, cosset and woo them, lead them up to the death so gently and lovingly that by the time the death happens they are ready for it, they want it even though they don’t, they know it’s coming and they need it to happen to put them out of their misery and end their anticipation.
Cutting a hole in the fabric
Imagine a beautiful tapestry, carefully woven, each thread holding the other threads in place. Now cut a hole in that tapestry. That hole has got to hurt. The picture must be spoiled, but not so much that the tapestry unravels completely. The other threads must stay in place. Your story must still stand even when it loses a character. If killing off your character leaves nothing behind, then you’ve taken too much from your reader. You’ve left them nothing but loss. That may well be your intention, but seriously? Have a little pity. It’s pity that will make your reader love your writing, make them grateful you didn’t take everything from them, make them keep reading in the hope that you have more to give them. Leave something for your reader to hold onto.
Let your character’s ashes fertilize the soil
Always, always, always give meaning to a death (unless meaninglessness is your story’s theme). Is your character paying a price by dying, atoning for sins, buying something for someone else? Or is their death a natural conclusion to a life that has had an impact on those around them? A death can offer as much richness to a story as a life, but only if it offers meaning to the plot, the themes or the characters around it.
Make death matter
Even if you want a death to be a surprise, be careful that it still has emotional resonance – by which I mean, don’t make it so much of a surprise that it seems unattached to the rest of the story or unconnected to the other characters. There should be no sense of “oh, by the way, Ravenpaw died”. (Of course, done right, a huge death can seem even huger if the news is delivered in a teeny, throwaway line. But that is serious and advanced writing. Everything around that teeny, throwaway line must be set up like an elaborate banquet so that the line – no matter how small a plate it’s served on – has an impact so devastating that no one afterward can concentrate on their food.) The reader must believe in the death, they must have a sense that the death is coming  (even if they only recognize it afterward). They must feel it was deserved,
What do I mean by deserved? Not that the death is necessarily punishment for crimes committed, (although that can be useful for giving your reader a sense of redemption), but that the death is earned by the character. We must have experienced enough of their life and known enough of their soul to feel that death for them is a full and real experience that resonates in the world around them. Their death must have weight. It must sit heavily on the other characters and in the story. It can’t be moved or argued with. It must be an irrefutable fact that the story could not live without. It is a necessary sacrifice. Ask yourself the question, will anyone miss your character?
Then ask yourself another.
Will your reader truly, honestly, undeniably feel the loss?
Your reader must care about the character that dies - they don’t have to like them, but they need to love them. Losing them must be like losing a friend. Watching their friend die must feel like a loss they think they’ll never recover from. They must feel the emptiness of the character’s leaving. There must be a hole afterward that they think can never again be filled. One moment something they loved was with them, the next it’s gone and they need to feel for a moment the awful aloneness of being the one left behind.