FacebookTwitterPinterestInstagramTumblrGoogleYouTube
 
 
RSS Feed Print
Creating a death scene
Ed Ireland
Posted: Friday, November 30, 2012 10:26 AM
Joined: 11/10/2012
Posts: 11


Have you created a death scene where it just grips you and makes you feel horrible? In my case, each character I create is like my baby for lack of better description. In writing Fire At Dawn I had always planned that a certain character would die but when it came time and the scene was written it really bothered me. I knew the death would be an integral part of the story so I had to leave it in. I tried desperately to find a way to bring the character back but the whole "Lazarus Syndrome" is just not acceptable to me even in the world of fantasy. I did allow a brief return that only lasted a few minutes under the power of great magic but that was as far as I was willing to go.
So how is it for you? Similar, or can you just go about slashing and slaying with great abandon? Also, how do you write your scenes? Quick and to the point or slow and lingering. I'm hoping mine wasn't too lingering, I don't think so. All I know is my wife cried like a baby at that point and refused to cook for me anymore. I guess it worked.
Colleen Lindsay
Posted: Monday, December 3, 2012 11:54 AM
Joined: 2/27/2011
Posts: 356


Bumping this up so others see it.

Elizabeth Moon
Posted: Saturday, December 15, 2012 10:48 PM
Joined: 6/14/2012
Posts: 195


Yes, it hurts when a character you're invested in--and you hope your readers will be invested in--dies.   And yes, it's necessary in many stories to kill off someone you care about--the story has its own logic.   (Personally, I think killing off favorite characters for shock value is a cheap thrill kind of thing, but that's my opinion, not Book Law.)   You're wise to realize that bringing back dead characters doesn't usually work well.

At any rate...the story  itself determines how the character dies and to some extent how much time you spend on the death scene.   The death scene has to fit into the work as a whole.   The character dies for a reason--the death has significance to other characters, and provides motivation for one or more of them.   Their reaction to it reveals character, too.   So consider what changes when that character dies--who's more sad, and who's more angry, and who's now determined on something he or she may have been casual about before?   If the death is expected (from serious disease, from old age, etc.) it will have one effect on the others; if it is unexpected, traumatic, gruesome, it will have a very different effect.  

First person POV death scenes are...not as effective as you might think--you're going to need a live POV immediately after the death, and that's a difficult transition to manage (because it's so obvious.)   So show the death, to the extent the story demands, from a different POV.  This POV should be active in the story before the death, so there's no transition needed before or after the death.

It helps, in writing death scenes, if you've actually seen someone die (sounds gruesome, but isn't, in many cases.)   I worked in a rural volunteer EMS crew for a few years, and saw a variety of deaths (remember--everything is research to a writer!) from the quiet deaths of the very old to traumatic deaths from gunshot wounds, car wrecks, etc.    If you haven't, keep it simple and short (or go talk to someone who's witnessed the kind of death your story wants you to describe.)   Don't do the operatic kind of death scene where someone flops around on the stage singing as they die.  Don't get too clinical unless your point-of-view character is a medical professional.  It's not realistic to have a character who's never seen a dying person before listing the clinical signs and symptoms of approaching death.    It can help to read about how different cultures view death (including the individual's own approaching death), what their customs are, etc. 

I've written a lot of death scenes, both the more peaceful kind and the sudden traumatic kind--including (in one book) from the point of view of a woman killing a former suitor she blamed for her husband's death after the suitor tried to court her again.   She had planned it, executed it brilliantly, and it was accepted as an unfortunate accident.  The actual death scene was brief (and it didn't bother me a bit to have the suitor killed as he was.)  What mattered in the story was the after-effect on her, and on her relationship to an old friend who suspected the truth. 

The good thing about characters--your best characters--that you have to kill off in the course of a story is that they're still alive up to that point.  Unlike real people, they're alive every time you re-read the story before the death scene.  They're alive for every reader as long as that story is read.  So while it's hard to kill off a beloved character,  it's not the same as losing a beloved friend.  I will never hear the voices of the people I've loved who died--I can't remember their exact words--but the characters I write have their words down on the page.  Maybe that will help, the next time you have to kill one off.





LeeAnna Holt
Posted: Sunday, December 16, 2012 12:27 AM
Joined: 4/30/2011
Posts: 662


In my current epic fantasy WIP, I have a couple of character deaths planned, and one of them already has people invested in them. (Sorry if you figure out who it is, but it won't be for some time and a couple books.) I know I have to do them in, yet it still kills me to think about it. Character deaths are necessary to give the world a sense of realism. We are mortal. Impermanence is a part of life. I tell this to myself every time I kill off a character. It helps a bit, but I still miss writing them.
Colleen Lindsay
Posted: Monday, December 17, 2012 7:15 AM
Joined: 2/27/2011
Posts: 356


I think it's also helpful to remember that the death has to affect the reader as well. I recently read a middle book in a series that featured the death of a character that readers had gotten to know over the course of five books. The death felt like an afterthought, and it wasn't handled thoughtfully. It upset me a and a lot of other readers, who felt this character's death was handled like an afterthought.

Alexander Hollins
Posted: Friday, January 11, 2013 5:15 PM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 416


I'm having a problem with a death scene, because, well, she "goes out like a bitch."  Basically, another character is going to pull a gun, put it to her head, and end her, in front of others.  It fits the story, but I kinda want to give her a death SCENE, not sentence, you know?
Cassandra Farrin
Posted: Saturday, January 12, 2013 8:08 PM
Great question, and I really appreciate Elizabeth Moon's detailed response to it. I do have deaths of characters in my stories, and, as Ms. Moon points out, I am most invested in the meaning and response in the story itself. I think a one- or two-liner of the death itself is natural, and, in my opinion, it is better to understate than overstate in these cases. It is easy to become melodramatic.

This is essentially the same rule as any other conflict and tragedy in a book. Writing is not like reading; you have to go down that path when you write, because it makes a better book. Readers WANT to feel all that angst, as long as it is meaningful. I also think death scenes can be made more powerful if you hint that they are coming in indirect ways: foreshadowing. One of the best lessons I learned recently about writing was from re-reading Robert Jordan's Eye of the World. In a classic fantasy move, he sets up a destination (the White Tower, and individual cities along the way), so the reader can feel like an expert as she reads: "Ah, of course so-and-so needs to do that, so s/he can get to the White Tower," followed by "Oh no, now he'll NEVER get there in time! Disaster!" I believe readers need to feel some kind of anticipation about the consequences of the death, so they can share in the feelings of the characters afterward.

Ed Ireland
Posted: Tuesday, January 15, 2013 11:03 AM
Joined: 11/10/2012
Posts: 11


All wonderful replies. They give me a better insight into the creation of a death scene. I think I handled mine fairly well going by the comments here. It was unexpected, and a character who had been written to be well-liked. His death was long enough to draw some hard emotions out but not so long as to be boring and it gave several other characters the cause and effect a death should.Being the opportunist I am I even managed to elicit some slighter emotions of that same death in the sequel book.
The only problem with all this is that I was very attached to the character as well. I try to put a bit of myself and others I know into my creations and killing this character was very hard to deal with but I think, a necessary and justifiable death.


Elizabeth Moon
Posted: Friday, January 18, 2013 10:22 PM
Joined: 6/14/2012
Posts: 195


I agree with Colleen (above) that the reader has to understand why the person's died, and how it fits into the whole scheme.

For Alexander, I'd say use that suddenness and the fact that it doesn't satisfy you.   Take your situation, your character being shot, abruptly, in front of others.  What is the Story Purpose to that scene?  Why did the shooter choose to shoot her in front of witnesses?  To impress the witnesses?   Intimidate them?  Gain their approval?   To prove the shooter would actually kill?  What do the witnesses think?   One of them (or more) may be shocked by the swift brutality, the callousness...that should probably be your viewpoint person for that scene.   Someone who has not, perhaps, ever seen anyone died violently before.  Someone who has never quite realized how fast and how final death can be.   Someone who cared about the person who was shot, as you do.  This takes it beyond a sentence, and connects the sudden death to the rest of the story via the surviving character, his/her memory of the person who was killed, how that changes the survivor. 

Or you could have your POV be someone who has seen it before, who is (whether happy or unhappy about it) inured to it--and who recognizes the shock others are feeling, who is thinking about their reaction, what it might motivate them to do,  is comparing himself/herself to these no-loinger-innocents who've now been introduced to a reality he/she already knew about. 

Death in a story is not--however fast it comes--just one thing.  It has consequences, and those consequences need to be as important as the death.  Death changes relationships among survivors and changes each person who knew the one who dies.  Especially when the character is a longstanding character very popular with readers, a death needs to be "in character" and "appropriate."   What my friend DRW calls a "being run over by a bread truck in Waco" sort of death--meaningless, silly, random, etc--will not satisfy readers who want to feel that the character's story is rounded off.  It can be heroic or a quiet fading away but it shouldn't make a mockery of the character's life--even though that happens to people in real life. 






Thomas Ryan
Posted: Tuesday, February 5, 2013 10:33 PM
Joined: 2/5/2013
Posts: 1


Hmm I try to use short sentences in quick violent action and slow sequences if required in others but not often. Usually my death scenes only occur if neccessary. Even my bad guys are well drawn out characters and I do this to develop a sense of loss. I learnt the subtilties from studying that great british storyteller Ken Follet. It also stops the story from becoming cliche. What I don't do is make it overly syrupy, draw out and sad.  Some writers seem to think if you show someone crying it will make everyone sob. I don't think so. If the reader is caught up in the story and the characters they will feel the loss.
RubyRainbow
Posted: Sunday, February 10, 2013 10:30 AM
Joined: 2/10/2013
Posts: 1


Yes, yes, yes.

The first thing I try to figure out is when I want the emotion to happen. If it's a massive battle, the emotion probably won't happen until the dust settles. If it's a slower, intimate death, the emotion happens right then and there.

I'm not a fan of death for shock value or death for "realism." It has to make sense for the character to die on a deeper level than that it happens in Real Life.

I'm pretty much a novice at writing death scenes, though. I've written two, both in the same story, and have one planned for a future story. When I came up with the third, I actually cried right there at the dinner table. It was an epiphany of sorts. I was trying to figure out how everything in the plot was going to work itself out, and then I realized, "Oh, God, he has to die." My family were freaked out, to say the least.
Alexander Hollins
Posted: Tuesday, June 11, 2013 4:20 PM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 416


Colleen, oh absolutely, the suddenness is very much part of the story. It's revenge, for a reason the characters and readers find out about right before it happens, it knocks the mc's supports out from under them, as they were following the dead character's lead in everything, it gives a side to what seemed to be a minor character that was veiled, and explains several chapters of foreshadowing. It's meant to shock, dismay, and hopefully make a few readers mildly ill at the sudden violence, and when I actually write the scene, it will take all of my skill (probably more than I actually have) to make it as visceral as I want it.  But I feel bad for the character... 
Elizabeth Moon
Posted: Friday, June 14, 2013 1:37 AM
Joined: 6/14/2012
Posts: 195


Sometimes a character just puts on the red shirt...

In my current group of books, I had a character--a favorite of mine and of many readers--who put on the red shirt early in the series.  Though I tried, I could not get him to take it off--he was going to die at some point in this series unless I falsified his character to give him a different outcome.  Couldn't do that.   He's a strong character, and thus falsifying him would be both obvious and unfair.

So in the book that just came out,  he dies.   So far the reader response has been exactly what I hoped for--that this was--though a shock, and readers are sad about it--the end that made sense, in all ways, and gave readers a sense of closure without disrupting their investment in the character. 

It was tricky to write because--after mentioning above that first-person death scenes are very difficult--that's what I used.  For this character, with a long history with readers, the only thing that could work for readers was showing his thinking right up to the end...why he did what he did, what he was aware of,  what he thought about...and then finding the right POV transition to continue with.   To complete his character arc required multiple rapid POV transitions that still had to be perfectly clear to readers.  Kind of thing you never know for sure will work until the book's out and the responses come in.



Alexander Hollins
Posted: Tuesday, June 18, 2013 11:21 AM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 416


I think that's one of the great things about groups like ours. That's the kind of scene you can run by people! 

I actually have a first person death scene in a serial novel I was working on, and I'm not looking forward to it. I know I need some more chops before I'm up to doing it justice. 
Elizabeth Moon
Posted: Sunday, June 22, 2014 2:32 AM
Joined: 6/14/2012
Posts: 195


Families & friends are often freaked with writers, until they learn that it's just writing.  Some never do.  But yes, writing about death, that inevitable part of life, adds depth to a writer's work.

 

As with many other parts of writing, it helps to have witnessed death to write it well, and to have heard from others who have done the same, or written about it.

 

Many of us these days are isolated from death (it happens in the hospital, while we're not in the room) or else immersed in violence with death on every hand (live in a war zone, or where there's famine or an epidemic.)   Violent sudden death has a different effect (at least for most people, and certainly teh first time) than nonviolent sudden death (heart attack/stroke) and again that's different than nonviolent slow processes of death (cancer, other illnesses, extreme age.)   For writers with no experience of death--have never seen a dead body, have never witnessed someone dying--volunteering in a hospice can be a good way to get the experience while doing some good.  If a friend has a fatal illness, don't shy away--become part of their support network.   I had the opportunity to train as an EMS volunteer, an EMT-paramedic, and in that capacity (from hospital training through to working in the field) to see both violent and nonviolent death and feel what one feels in those situations, also observing how those around the situation felt and acted.  A toddler's death by drowning in the family pool is different--for both family and medical team--than an aged person's death (long expected) while asleep.  A person dying violently in a car wreck, or by shooting or stabbing, feels different than a person the same age dying of cancer in a hospital, home or in hospice care.  There are many ways to die, and everybody does it, early or late, quietly or violently.   We do not know (most of us) how we will die, or who will be there (if anyone) when we do. 


ChuckB
Posted: Tuesday, October 14, 2014 4:59 PM
Joined: 7/18/2014
Posts: 120


Interesting thread. It never occurred to me that many people have never seen a corpse, or watched people die, or held someone and felt their last breath leave them and the body begin to relax. Then there's the unmentioned fact of not having taken a life in a violent encounter or how a body reacts when hit by a bullet, or from being knifed (it isn't like Hollywood and TV shows show it), or struck by an arrow, etc.

 

One problem, or my problem is, that I've seen many bodies both in Vietnam and as a police officer. The last 10 yrs of my career I was a detective. Describing a homicide scene requires precision, measurements, but the cop is detached. He/she lists the required elements but doesn't 'see' them. The horror of it doesn't register. Which brings me to ... me.  

 

My story up for review, Thomas Moody, is taken from real life. Obviously it's paranormal/supernatural, but the murders other than a mass slaughter which I've removed along with a couple of others, were made up. The motel killings happened, only not in the manner described. The killer used a knife, but evidence suggested he did leave with some of the blood from each victim. How the cops acted, what they did and said, etc is precisely as I remember it. Two scenes, if I recall, were described in some detail. The female victims, prostitutes, are exactly as I saw them and the action and dialogue is again as I remember it. It was my biggest case. I still have the notes and used them to build the book which, again, is paranormal/supernatural crime, not real life. 

 

In reading this thread, it occurred to me that what I've seen is a weak point. I saw the victims in the above and other cases, but didn't actually see them. You become hardened to death. You have to.

 

 

 

 

 

 

--edited by ChuckB on 10/14/2014, 5:05 PM--


 

Jump to different Forum...