How To Write A Death Scene (Part I)

A death scene should be one of the most emotionally impactful moments in the narrative. Therefore, writers should put great thought into how to write a write a death scene.

But how do writers create this emotional impact? Over the course of the new few blog pieces, we shall assess the factors involved for a death as well as discuss the different types of deaths that occur in fiction and fantasy.

The Four Factors For A Death Scene

As a general rule, when contemplating how to write a death scene, writers should take note of four factors. These factors apply to main characters, secondary characters and villains/antagonists without exception. The death of a character must:

  1. Occur at the right time in the narrative;
  2. Involve a character who has been sufficiently fleshed out*;
  3. Hurt the character’s friends and foes;
  4. Be of consequence for the rest of the narrative.

These four factors are vital in order to create a death scene that will impact everyone caught up in the story, including the reader.

*To learn how to flesh out a main character, click here and here; a secondary character, click here and here; and a villain/antagonist, click here and here.

The Different Kinds of Death Scenes

As has been hinted at, characters in stories die in all different kinds of ways. In this blog post, we shall discuss how to write a death scene that involves: death for justice, the heroic death, death out of duty, and the tragic death.

Death For Justice

The yearning for justice is one of the most innate needs of mankind – To see that those who do wrong to others get punished for their crimes. In fiction/fantasy, justice (or more accurately poetic justice) is the classic way that the villain meets his/her end.

Example 1 – The Punisher (2004)

Frank Castle killing Howard Saint is an example of how to write a death scene
Frank Castle (Thomas Jane), wearing his symbolic death skull t-shirt, in a shoot out to gain poetic justice for his murdered family.

In the 2004 film, The Punisher, adapted from the Marvel comics with the same title, the ironically named mafia boss, Howard Saint (John Travolta), is enraged to learn that his arms dealer son has been killed in a FBI drugs raid, led by Frank Castle (Thomas Jane). Saint responds by sending his thugs to Castle’s home and murdering all of Castle’s family.

Castle is shot. But crucially he survives. After recuperating, Castle tracks down and kills every member of Saint’s family and henchmen. Then, Castle shoots Saint himself. By the end of the film, Castle has gained his (poetic) justice for his murdered family and, in the process, become the titular character: The Punisher.

Example 2 – When No Blood Is Spilt For Justice

Although it often does involve blood and violence, death does not necessarily have to involve either. Writers can be creative in the way they kill off a character. In David Eddings’ high fantasy saga, The Mallorean, King Belgarion’s infant son, Garon, is kidnapped by the evil Zandramas in the first part of the series, Guardians Of The West.

As a result, King Belgarion and his companions set off on a quest to find Zandramas and save Garon. They succeed in both, prior to turning Zandramas into a star and sending her to outer space. (Granted, this event makes more sense when read in the context of the series. But Zandramas’ end is still a death of sort, and writers should bear it in mind when thinking about how to write a death scene.)

Example 3 – When An Antagonist Seeks Justice

In rare instances in fiction/fantasy, it is not the villain/antagonist who dies at the cause of justice, but rather the central protagonist. In Macbeth, Macduff spends the entire story doing all he can to gain justice for his murdered father, King Duncan. As he is not a POV character, we do not follow him and see what he does after fleeing into exile.

Nevertheless, at the end of the play, Macduff slays Macbeth on the battlefield, thereby avenging his father and reclaiming the crown from the usurper.

The Heroic Death

Heroism is the classic way for a protagonist to die in fiction and fantasy. Invariably, the heroic death for a protagonist occurs when he (as it almost always is a he) sacrifices himself so that others can live.

Example 1 – Obi-Wan Kenobi

Darth Vader killing Obi-Wan is an example of how to write a death scene.
Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alex Guiness) fighting Darth Vader in Star Wars: Episode IV.

In Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope, our heroes, Luke Skywalker and Hans Solo, are in the process of rescuing Princess Leila at the Death Star when our villain, Darth Vader, shows up. Then, Luke’s old Jedi Master, Obi-Wan, steps forward and has a lightsaber duel with Dark Vader.

But old Obi-Wan is no match now for his former pupil. He loses the fight and dies. So, ultimately, Obi-Wan sacrifices himself to enable Luke, Leila and Hans to escape; to live to fight another day.

(The heroic death can also occur in a story to redeem a character of a past misdemeanor, crime or sin. This will be covered in a future blog post under The Redemptive Death subheading.)

Death Out Of Duty

Death for the sake of duty is when a protagonist must kill someone because they are obligated to, for reasons of law or code. This kind of death is not done out of a sense of justice and, often, the POV-character would rather not kill at all.

Example 1 – Lord Eddard Beheading The Deserter

In A Song of Ice & Fire, we first meet Lord Eddard Stark, the honourable Warden of the North and the conventional fantasy hero, with him executing a member of the Night’s Watch for desertion. Lord Eddard demonstrates little emotion before and after executing this person.

Lord Eddard Stark (as played by Sean Bean in the TV series Game of Thrones) readying himself to behead the deserter.

Afterwards, he merely tells his young son, Bran, that the punishment for desertion is beheading and that “he who wields the sentence, swings the sword.”

Example 2 – Killing A Villain Out of Duty

In The Elenium trilogy, one of David Eddings’ other epic fantasy series, our main protagonist, Sparhawk goes after Martel. His former friend and renegade knight has sided with the evil god Azash, and Martell is also trying to install a heretic at the head of the church for which Sparhawk fights for.

At the end of the series, Sparhawk slews Martel in an honourable duel. He kills Martel out of duty and has no ulterior motivative. Sparhawk has not a shred of anger or hatred towards Martell. If anything, he is sad that he’s had to kill his former friend.

The Tragic Death

Tragic deaths in stories make the death scene significantly more potent and impactful on the reader. When thinking about how to write a death scene, writers should bear in mind that a tragic death is the proof of emotional investment in a character. A tragic death can leave readers devastated, heartbroken and in tears.

William Shakespeare was the king of writing tragedy. Analysts of his works have claimed that for a death in a narrative to be a ‘tragedy of Shakespearean proportions,’ there must be:

  • A protagonist who suffers from an internal conflict;
  • A hamartia (i.e. the protagonist must have a fatal flaw in his/her character);
  • An external conflict that creates intolerable circumstances for the protagonist, and that exacerbates the character’s internal strife;
  • A heart-rending waste of life; and
  • A lack of poetic justice.

The last of these points is arguably the most important ingredient for a tragic death. Without it, the death is not tragic. (It can be devastating, traumatic, heartbreaking, etc… but not tragic.)

The lack of poetic justice ensures that the devastation and heartbreak that readers feel is compounded by the knowledge that:

  1. Nobody wins from the situation; and
  2. There is no way back for anyone connected to the character who has died.

Example 1 – Romeo & Juliet

A brilliant example of a tragic death comes from Shakespeare (who else?) in his play Romeo & Juliet. Romeo Capet and Juliet Montague both come from noble families with atavistic hatreds. Yet, Romeo and Juliet love each other with all the passion (and naivete) of youth, even though they can neither be together nor be without one another.

Towards the end of the play, after Juliet’s father arranges for her to marry the Prince, Juliet takes a sleeping pill that makes her look dead so that she cannot attend her own wedding. Word is meant to reach Romeo of her plan, but due to an outbreak of plague the message does not reach him. When Romeo sees Juliet lying dead, he poisons himself, believing that life is not worth living without her. But then Juliet wakes up. Upon seeing Romeo dead, she stabs herself because, like him, Juliet deems a life without Romeo as one not worth living.

The ending scene is tragic because neither family wins from the double suicides, and neither Romeo nor Juliet have any children to avenge them. (Not that there is anything to avenge either.)

Romeo and Juliet's suicide is an example of how to write a death scene.
John Everett Millais‘ famous painting, depicting the suicide of Romeo and Juliet.

Example 2 – A Hijacking

Another (non-Shakespearean) example of a tragic death occurs in the Danish film, A Hijacking. It is a fictional account of Somali pirates seizing a boat and holding the crew hostage for ransom.

Near the end of the movie, the pirates agree to a ransom fee to let the crew go. It is then that our central protagonist, Mikkel (Pilou Asbaek), puts on his wedding ring again, which he had hid from the pirates throughout the movie. Except, one of the pirates sees it and tries to take it from him. Mikkel’s friend, the Captain, intervenes and gets shot.

Subsequently, the pirates leave with their money and Mikkel is left suffering from a severe form of PTSD. The Captain’s death is tragic because Mikkel is left a broken man, the death is treated with indifference, and the pirates get away with their crimes. This ensures that there is no poetic justice for the Captain.

A Final Rule About Tragic Deaths

As we can see from Romeo & Juliet and A Hijacking, tragic deaths must come either in the very last scene (Romeo & Juliet), or close to it (A Hijacking).

This is to maximise the emotional impact on the reader when it comes to how to write a death scene. Also, the death coming at the end guarantees that there can be no justice for anyone linked to the person who has died.

End of Part I

I hope you have enjoyed Part I of how to write a death scene, and that my tips and examples will be useful for you going forwards with your story. We shall look into other types of deaths in fiction and fantasy in Part II, next week.

Paul

PS: For more writing tips, with practical examples from fiction and fantasy, as well as fanfiction and interviews with authors, please fill in the form below.

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