How NOT To Write A Death Scene

The last two blog pieces have covered the topic of how to write a death scene in a fiction or fantasy novel. We looked at the rules as well as different kinds of deaths, and how to make the death scene as emotionally impactful as possible. However, at this point, it is important to show how not to write a death scene, so that writers do not undermine a critical point in their novel.

A Death That Has No Consequence

A death is supposed to have consequence on the narrative. In X-Men: First Class, if Dr Schmidt had not murdered Erik Lehnsherr’s mother, Erik would not have become hellbent on vengeance and become Magneto. Similarly, in Batman Begins, if Joe Chill had not shot Bruce Wayne’s parents in cold blood, Bruce would not have become Batman. The deaths in these narratives had a significant bearing on the central protagonist and on the plot. That is ideally what a death in a story is meant to do.

Yet, if the death does not urge the main character to change course and/or go on a life-changing journey, the death serves no narrative purpose. If the death serves no narrative purpose, it has no consequence and therefore should not have happened.

Example – Eddie Dean in The Dark Tower

In The Dark Tower, the seventh volume of Stephen King’s Dark Tower saga, we are given an example of how not to write a death scene. Around half-way through the novel, Eddie Dean, a reformed heroine junkie, is shot and dies slowly. As a reader, it is sad to see him fade away and die as we have known him since The Drawing Of The Three, the second volume in the series.

But apart from making the remaining major characters (Roland, Susannah and Jake) realise their own vulnerability, Eddie’s death doesn’t have narrative corollary. And the way Susannah’s story ends in The Dark Tower begs the question of why the author killed Eddie at all.

A Death As A Shock Factor For The Sake Of It

A death that shocks the audience is initially great. It is one of the wonders of phenomenal storytelling, as the audience cannot foresee the death coming and so was not prepared for it. Lord Eddard Stark’s beheading springs to mind, here, as it comes just as the audience believes he is going to speared and sent to the Wall.

However, a death that uses the shock factor in and of itself is not enough and showcases how not to write a death scene. Again, the death must have narrative consequence. In the case of Ned Stark’s beheading, it does as his son, Robb Stark, becomes King in the North and ensures that the Northmen will never make peace with the Lannisters.

Thus, Ned Stark’s death meant something. If his beheading would merely have been for the shock factor, per se, the audience would have asked: what was the point in that? As once the shock subsides, viewers are left feeling empty and unsatisfied.

Example – Sévérine In Skyfall

how not to write a death scene with severin
Sévérin (Bérénice Malohe) before being shot in Skyfall. Her death has no bearing on the rest of the narrative. So what was the point in killing her?

Skyfall (2012) was a thoroughly enjoyable James Bond film. Yet, it has a death in it that is merely there for the shock factor when Raoul Silva shoots Sévérine.

After having Sévérine beaten for defecting to Bond, Raoul shoots her in the head. Other than to show how bad, nasty and ruthless Raoul is (even though he has had her beaten and is a bond baddie), Sévérine is not mentioned again in the film. Moreover, her death has no impact on Bond’s character either. So, what was the point in the scene? In fact, what was Sévérine even doing in the movie?

A Death That Subverts Expectations For The Sake Of It

Similar to a death that shocks the audience, a death that subverts the audience’s expectations is great as well… provided it is done correctly.

To subvert the audience’s expectations (correctly), the writer has to leave hints so that upon reading the story for a second time the audience can pick up on the hints and ask themselves: “How did I miss that?” This is a hard feat to achieve and the subversion needs to be carefully planned. As George RR Martin once expertly put it at a Q&A in Edinburgh University in 2014: “I’ve been planting all these clues that the butler did it, then you’re halfway through a series and suddenly thousands of people have figured out that the butler did it, and then you say the chambermaid did it? No, you can’t do that.”

In short, writers cannot create a situation where Character A commits the murder and all the clues hint to Character A having done it only for it to really have been Character B all along. This kind of subversion is a cheap ‘fooled yah’ sort of trick. It’s also dreadful storytelling, lazy and leaves the audience unsatisfied and with a bucket-load of questions (that writers are likely to run away from answering).

Example – Arya Kills The Night King

Sadly, the showrunners of Game of Thrones, David Benioff and DB Weisz, did not seem to take heed of their master’s words. In Season 8 Episode 3, titled The Long Night, the Night King attacks Winterfell in the much-anticipated battle between fire and ice.

how not to write a death scene - arya killing the night king
Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) before stabbing the Night King, what Jon Snow should have done.

Since Season 5 Episode 8 (Hardhome), at least, the showrunners had been building up Jon Snow to have an epic showdown with the Night King. This would have made for a terrific sword fight, and an emotionally logical and satisfying confrontation, whether Jon would have beaten him or not. But, instead, the showrunners ‘subverted’ the audience’s expectations and had Arya Stark come out of nowhere to stab the Night King. The result was wide-eyed disbelief, the ruination of eight/nine years of build-up, and the lowering of expectations for the rest of the series.

In Inside The Episode, the showrunners claimed they had Arya kill the Night King because they believed that “it didn’t seem right” for Jon to do it. Many fans (including myself) tried to work out how they came to such a (baffling) conclusion.

Dan & Dave were meant to appear at Comic-Con 2019. Fans, like me, hoped that someone would ask for them to explain their reasoning behind their decision (perhaps even get an apology). However, for unspecified reasons, the showrunners cancelled their appearance at the conference at the 11th hour. Therefore, fans are still waiting for answers about the final season. Sadly, something tells me that we are likely to be waiting a long time for them, if we ever get them at all.

A Death That Makes A Character Cry

Seeing a character cry over the loss of a friend can be beautiful to read or watch. (It is better still if the audience can feel the same emotion as the crying character, but that is another matter.) When a character cries over the loss of a loved one, it shows that the dead person meant something to him/her and that the dead person will be missed going forwards.

Nevertheless, that is the point: going forwards (for the narrative). When Boromir dies in The Lord of the Rings, Aragorn cries. Boromir’s death is a terrific death scene in many ways. But what makes it narratively significant is that Aragorn changes because of it. He decides to no longer follow Frodo, but rather to go the other way and save the Kingdoms of Rohan and Gondor; to become the King he was always supposed to be.

If Boromir’s death had merely made Aragorn cry (before following Frodo to Mount Doom and living the rest of his life as Strider the Ranger), that would not have been enough. Those tears meant something. They profoundly changed him and ensure that Boromir’s death has consequence for the rest of the trilogy.

Example – Daenerys Cries Over Ser Jorah Mormont

how not to write a death scene - daenerys crying and nothing comes from it
Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) crying over the fallen Ser Jorah Mormont (Iain Glen).

During the aforementioned The Long Night, Ser Jorah Mormont dies protecting Queen Daenerys from a dozen (two dozen?) Wight Walkers. His death might have been exactly how he would have wanted to bow out. Some may even call his death heroic as he sacrifices himself for another.

However, Ser Jorah’s death has no consequence on the remaining three episodes of the series. In the next episode, Daenerys cries before she burns his body. That’s it!

The above-mentioned (and much maligned) showrunners later claimed in Inside The Episode for Episode 5 that Ser Jorah’s death (along with Missandei’s) enraged Daenerys so much that she burned King’s Landing. But there is no obvious causal link between Ser Jorah’s death and Daenerys going mad and burning the Westerosi capital. Indeed, the fact that Dan & Dave made this point in the behind the scenes footage to Episode 5 hints at lazy script writing on their behalf, and at them trying to cover their tracks.

Having A Character Die And Then Bringing Him/Her Back To Life

Tempting as it may be to bring a great character back from the dead, it is the biggest instance of how not to write a death scene. This is because death is not a temporary absence.

The death of a character in a story should be absolute and final, with narrative consequence. Bringing a character back from the dead renders the consequence of the death as utterly pointless. And if the death is pointless, it shouldn’t have been in the story in the first place.

Example – Optimus Prime In Transformers II

In Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, the leader of the Autobots, Optimus Prime, is killed by the Decepticons. Leaving aside that he is a robot for a moment, Optimus is brought back to life before the conclusion of the film. Subsequently, in the climactic battle, he defeats the Decepticons and forces out his nemesis, Megatron, and Megatron’s sidekick, Starscream.

Thus, Optimus’ death adds nothing to the movie. Optimus Prime might as well have been elsewhere throughout the film and it would have made no difference. If it made no difference, why was his death there in the first place?

Exception To Bringing The Character Back From The Dead

There is an exception to the above-mentioned tip, where a character is brought back from the dead and the death still has narrative purpose. This occurs when a character comes back from the dead changed.

Example 1 – Gandalf

In The Fellowship of the Ring, Gandalf the Grey falls into the abyss in Moria and dies. Yet, he is brought back to life in The Two Towers as Gandalf the White, a stronger and more powerful wizard.

His increase in strength/power is shown in The Return of the King when he faces down his former master, Saruman. In The Fellowship of the Ring, Gandalf had lost to him in a wizarding duel upon finding out that his master had sided with the Mordor. Now, Gandalf defeats Saruman once and for all, thereby ending the threat posed by Isengard and enabling the major characters to focus on the threat facing Gondor.

Gandalf the Grey and Gandalf the White. Gandalf dies in The Fellowship of the Ring, but comes back in The Two Towers as a stronger, more powerful wizard.

Example 2 – Lady Stoneheart

In A Storm of Swords, the third instalment in A Song of Ice & Fire, Lady Catelyn Stark is resurrected from the dead. Where once she had been a multifaceted and compassionate woman, now she is unrecognisable, both physically and in terms of her character. Indeed, she is no longer known by her old name, but as Lady Stoneheart: a cold-hearted, vengeance-seeking creature that cannot speak.

In A Feast For Crows she captures Brienne of Tarth, and in A Dance With Dragons she uses Brienne to find Jaime Lannister and to lead him somewhere (presumably to a trap). It remains to be seen what will become of them, and how Lady Stoneheart will affect the plot of the series, going forward. (After-all, we are still waiting, patiently or otherwise, for The Winds of Winter to come out.)

Warning About Bringing Characters Back From The Dead

If writers are tempted to bring a character back from the dead (even changed), it comes with a massive warning. This is because it undermines every other death in the story.

After Jon Snow was resurrected in Game of Thrones Season 6 Episode 2, Charlotte Hope (the actress who played Ramsey Bolton’s psychotic bedwarmer) appeared on Thronecast, the after-show to Game of Thrones in the UK. When the presenter asked her what she thought of the episode, she essentially responded “bring my character back.” Charlotte hit the nail on the head. Once one character has been revived, the audience can legitimately ask: “why did the writer resurrect Character A, but not Characters B, C or D?”

Once the audience begins asking this question, they are distracted from the narrative. This is never good as it means that the story is not engaging enough or is (deeply) flawed. Second, the question makes the audience justifiably believe that deaths are no longer anything more than temporary absences i.e. they have no serious consequence for the plot.

Thus, I would advise writers against bringing characters back from the dead as it is the biggest case of how not to write a death scene. Regardless of how much the writer loves the dead character (or how much the audience may clamour for the character’s resurrection), it is best for the narrative if the character stays dead, or doesn’t die in the first place.

Thank You

Thank you for reading this blog piece. I hope this article is helpful and that it enables you to understand why deaths should not be treated lightly in stories. Also, I hope this blog piece makes the writing journey more enjoyable for you.

Following on from how not to write a death scene, we shall discuss some of the many different ways that death can impact the narrative next time around.

Paul

PS: For more weekly writing tips, including the unusual consequences of a death scene, please fill in the form below.

2 comments

  1. Respectfully I disagree with the idea’s that authors ‘choose’ to kill off their characters. If it were up to us, they’d live forever, or at least for a good long while. However if we did that the guilt would keep us awake at night and we’d never get a moments rest.
    Death in books should mirror the way death happens in the real world. There isn’t always a reason for it, and the consequences don’t always affect the main characters of the book aside from them having witnessed it, or to show what might be headed their way. To imply that there must always be a reason or that the main character must always find out and be devastated or changed by it is to imply that death’s in stories must be better organized than the deaths which happen in real life. An organized well planned death is an unrealistic one.
    As a fan of mystery. I love red herrings, watched Case Closed as a kid and love Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. My favorite part in any mystery is the reveal. To see if the person I thought it was, actually did it. I wouldn’t suggest that red herrings should never be used, only that they should be used with great practice by skilled professionals, something I myself am not, therefore I would not attempt it. So I half agree with you on that one.
    Aside from all of that, I do agree with the advice that one should not bring characters back from the dead, no matter how tempting.
    Before you go thinking I didn’t like this article, I’ll let you in on a secret: It’s awesome. If I only ever read things that I agreed with I would never find any of it very interesting. The fact that I disagreed with a few of the things in it is reassuring. I love seeing things from different perspectives, it’s the only way to learn. Can’t wait for the next article. ^.^

    1. Hi Caitlin, thank you so much for your detailed comment. I am also happy to read that in the end you thought highly of the blog piece and that there is much you agree upon. In turn, there is a lot that I agree with you about too, and we share a love for the suspense/mystery surrounding ‘who did it’ and the reveal at the end. This can be extremely satisfying (or frustrating lol).

      However, where I would disagree with you on is in comparison to a death in real life compared to the death in a narrative. I would say that every detail in the narrative should be well-planned, including the death, (even if it seems to come out of nowhere like some deaths in real life, sadly, do).

      The real world is different and so can only be compared to an extent. This being that when someone dies in the real world, it deeply affects their loved ones. As for death’s being well-organised in this world… that is a tricky one. I am not God, so I cannot answer if everything that happens is pre-ordained and I would not presume to go down that debate either.

      All I can say is that every event in a novel must have consequence, and the same is true for the death of a character on the remaining (living) characters. In the next blog piece, I will show many different examples of how death can have consequence on the plot, but for the moment we can again the examples of how Thomas & Martha Wayne’s deaths affected Bruce, and how Boromir’s death affected Aragorn. Those deaths had tremendous impact on the plot, and writers should aspire to use deaths in a similar vein, so that the deaths mean something.

      I hope that clears up how deaths in novels and deaths in the real world are different. Do you agree with my analysis?

Leave a Reply