Character deaths are an exciting facet of storytelling because they are a powerful emotional experience for both the characters within your story and the audience. Their death could be incredibly heartbreaking and tragic or symbolize victory depending on the character. It depends on the story. But character deaths must always serve a purpose within your story.
The death must affect the course of the story. Also, it adds further motivation to your protagonist to achieve their own goal. Perhaps it finally gives some key information to help them succeed. Whatever happens, that character’s death must send your other characters down a specific path. Do you want to write a death scene for your story? Stay with me!
How to write a death scene?
Death scenes are very common in fiction. The problem is death scenes can make or break a piece of fiction depending on how they’re written, why they’re written, and how they impact the overall story.
You want your death scene to mean something to the audience. That doesn’t mean it has to be sad or make some spectacle. But even the smaller deaths have to pack some punch.
I will share my 10 best tips to write a death scene successfully for your story. Let’s go!
1. Define your purpose
What’s your point? Not every death in your book needs to be monumental, but it does have to serve some purpose. Your job is to figure out the point of the death scene before you write it. Making the reader sad is not a reason. It has to serve some greater significance to the plot. For example, maybe this death proves how formidable the villain is to the protagonist or the reader.
Also, it launches the protagonist into their breaking point. Nailing down the purpose of the death scene will make it a lot easier to write. That’s because you will have an immediate idea of the tone and gravity that the death scene needs to hold.
2. Add shocking scenes
It’s incredible when death is shocking, but shock value cannot be the sole reason behind it. Many newbies take this route because they were shocked by deaths in some of their favorite series and want to emulate them. Shocking scenes affect the plot in some way, and you overlook it.
Also, the shock value is cheap. The readers know what you’re doing, and it lessens the quality of the reading experience. Shock loses its value when repeated because readers start to expect it. Instead of making your deaths impactful, you’re doing the opposite. Shocking deaths are great to write and super entertaining, provided that’s not their sole purpose.
3. Have a relation to the protagonist
If you’re going to kill off a character, you have to determine their relation to the main character to understand how it will affect the reader. Readers experience the story through the main character. If the main character barely knows a person who dies, guess what? Their death needs to serve a purpose other than making the main character depressed or sad.
Maybe the death is shocking or horrifying to them. On the flip side, if your main character is super close with the victim, they will likely be a mess when they die. In theory, readers will feel the same. Otherwise, you may kill a character and expect a reaction that doesn’t translate.
If you kill off the protagonist’s best friend and their only reaction is to fear for their own lives, they’ll seem heartless. Knowing what this character means to your protagonist will help create the right tone.
4. Mirror the emotion
Whatever emotion you’re trying to convey with this death needs to be mirrored in the pacing. If the death is swift and shocking, the pacing must be swift and abrupt.
- Don’t drag out the death in long, rambly sentences.
It’ll make it feel like it’s happening at a snail’s pace, which is the opposite of what you want. On the flip side, if the death is long and agonizing, the pacing should be slower with much longer sentences. Emotions translate heavily into sentence structure. So please take advantage of that by making your readers feel the way you want them to feel.
5. Use five senses
Showing the emotion and utilizing your character’s five senses will make the death much more impactful. If the character is sad, describe them sobbing as they cradled their face in their hands.
- Describe how the sadness feels in their body, the ache of their lungs, and the thickness in their throat.
Can they smell the blood and sweat on the battlefield? Can they taste the salt of their tears? Do they hear the cries of mourners? Setting the scene in this manner will make the death scene much more evocative to the reader.
6. Avoid melodrama
We’ve all seen the same reactions to death scenes repeatedly. The main character hovers over the body while screaming into the darkness. Maybe they shake their fists at the heavens while screaming. Before you write this, ask yourself, “Would this happen in real life?” If the answer is, “No,” you got yourself some melodrama.
Death is a real thing that happens every day, and it’s tragic and emotional all on its own. You don’t need to cartoony the experience to get a reaction.
7. Remember the effect
How often have you read a book where a character dies, and life continues as if nothing happened? As we already covered, your character’s death needs to serve a purpose. That will likely affect both the plot and the characters themselves. If the death scene exists to show how powerful the villain is, then your characters will be affected accordingly, either by being fearful or intimidated.
If a death breaks the character’s heart, they will not be back to normal the next day. They are going to be mourning for some time. Death can trigger PTSD or depression. How your character reacts is so important to visualize the death scenes.
8. Foreshadowing is not your friend
There are always exceptions to the rule. But nine times out of ten, foreshadowing a death is not a good look. Congratulations! You eliminated the element of surprise and dampened the emotional experience. If the reader knows the death is coming, they have time to prepare themselves, which is not what you want.
You want them to be caught off guard and feel unpredictable. If the character is dying of disease or wasting away with old age, it doesn’t matter what you do. Readers know what’s going to happen. Additionally, there are situations where the reader will expect the death but still be surprised due to the nature in which it occurs. However, lay off the foreshadowing outside of these circumstances if you can.
9. Resurrect at your own risk
There are plenty of stories where a character dies and comes back to life for whatever reason. Sometimes this is necessary for the plot. Other times it’s a cop-out. Before you resurrect a character, be 100% certain that this is what the story needs. Know from the start that this resurrection is going to cheapen the death. Also, depending on how it’s handled, it may cheapen all future deaths throughout the series.
Sometimes this is okay, especially if the resurrection happens immediately after the death, because the reader doesn’t have time to become emotionally affected. It also works if the resurrection offers some revelation, like immortality or brand new magic. But the more you lay on the emotion over the death, and the longer you wait to resurrect them, the bigger the risk.
10. Be cool
A lot of writers write a massacre to be edgy. Don’t feel like you have to kill off characters if it doesn’t suit your story. You know your work better than everyone. Death scenes do not make you cooler than any other writer. It’s another plot point.
Not every death scene will trigger the waterworks, and that’s okay. What’s important is that your death scenes matter and evoke the response you intended.
Make sure that when your character dies, you do it in a way that makes your reader react with the emotion you want them to react with. Make it sappy if you want them to cry, but be sure you don’t overdo it. Like what George RR Martin is known for, if you want shock, then make the death sudden and unexpected.
Remember, the character who dies will still affect the characters who live, and their death will help shape the story’s future. So what are some of the best character deaths you have seen? Let me know in the comments down below.
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