In the first blog piece on how to write an emotionally impactful death scene, we discussed the four factors needed to make a death scene emotionally impactful. Then, we went on to look at four different kind of deaths that take place in fiction and fantasy. These were: death for justice, the heroic death, death out of duty, and the tragic death.
Continuing on with the different kind of deaths, in this blog piece we shall discuss:
- The traumatic death;
- Death by betrayal;
- Suicide, and the different types of suicide;
- Death by explosion; and
- The redemptive death.
The Traumatic Death
The traumatic death can often seem like a tragic death in a story. However, there are two crucial differences that differentiate it from a tragic death. These are:
- A hope of poetic justice for the central protagonist; and
- Consequence for the rest of the narrative (whereas a tragic death happens at the very end of it).
Furthermore, a traumatic death must:
- Have a profound effect on the main character’s personality; and
- The death must occur within the first third of the story.
This ensures that the reader can see the effect that the death has on the main character (in one capacity or another); and so that there is enough time for him/her to get poetic justice by the end in a logical and satisfying manner.
Example 1 – Mufasa’s Death
In The Lion King, Mufasa’s death (quite possibly the most traumatic death in Disney history) has a profound effect on his son, Simba. Simba not only feels guilty for a long time, believing incorrectly that he is responsible for his father’s death; he is forced to flee before his villainous uncle, Scar, kills him via his hyena henchmen.
Simba escapes and lives many years in exile. There, he tries (in vain) to forget about his supposed role in his father’s death, rather than having to deal with it. It is only when his childhood friend, Nala, and his father’s former shaman, Rafiki, find him that Simba finally gains the mental strength to face his grief.
Subsequently, he returns to Pride Rock as a fully-grown lion to take back his kingdom. But even then, the effect of the traumatic death runs deeply within Simba. In fact, it is only when Scar reveals the truth (that he killed Mufasa) that Simba is truly able to gain justice for his father by killing Scar.
Example 2 – Thomas & Martha Wayne
In Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne recounts the day his parents (Thomas & Martha) were shot in cold blood outside the opera house when he was a boy. Bruce blamed himself for their deaths, believing that if he had not got scared of the bats in the opera, he would not have demanded that he and his parents leave the show.
By the time we see Bruce as an adult in the film, it is clear that his parents’ deaths traumatised him. Indeed, their deaths angered him to such an extent that now Bruce desires to fight the criminal underworld of Gotham to correct the society that wronged him; to make it a better, safer place for others to live in. Subsequently, Bruce spends the rest of the film training to become Batman; turning his fear of bats on those who prey on the fearful; fighting corruption within the city’s police force and judicial system with success, thereby bringing hope to the people of Gotham.
Death By Betrayal
How to write an emotionally impactful death scene that involves death by betrayal? The death has to involve a loved protagonist, and it must leave readers feeling as if a dagger has not only stabbed them but twisted their guts.
Indeed, for a death by betrayal to emotionally hurt readers, events in the run up to the betrayal must mislead the protagonists (and the readers) into a false sense of security, resulting in a dramatic, shocking and logical twist.
Example – The Red Wedding
There is no better example in fiction of a death by betrayal than the Red Wedding in Game of Thrones. In Season 2 of the TV show, one of our main protagonists, King Robb Stark, breaks his pact with the Freys and marries another woman. However, in Season 3, Robb realises that he needs the Freys to defeat the Lannisters, his enemies. So, Robb forges another alliance with the Freys, agreeing that his uncle, Lord Edmure Tully, will marry one of Lord Walder Frey’s daughters. The only condition is that Robb and his northern armies come to The Twins (the ancestral castle of House Frey) to attend the wedding.
Robb is given the Guest’s Right and the wedding ceremony goes well. But late into the night, the doors to the wedding hall close and the band plays The Rains of Castamere, the infamous Lannister song. Then, crossbowmen appear in place of the band and shoot Robb; and the Freys take out knives and murder Robb’s wife, as well as scores of drunken Northmen.
The Red Wedding is enough to leave viewers devastated, broken and with the feeling that there is no hope of justice. After-all, the Stark King is dead, and his armies have been wiped out in a shocking act of treachery that comes out of nowhere.
By definition, suicide is when someone takes his/her own life. In fiction and fantasy, there tends to be four different types of suicide:
- The noble suicide;
- The tragic suicide;
- The suicide arising out of an inability to live with oneself; and
- The suicide that affirms a person’s guilt.
The Noble Suicide – Armageddon
A noble suicide is when a character sacrifices himself/herself so that others can live (in a similar fashion to the heroic death, as explained in last week’s blog piece). When considering how to write an emotionally impactful death scene by this the noble suicide, a great example comes from the 1998 movie, Armageddon.
Harry (played by the all-American hero, Bruce Willis) nobly sacrifices himself to blow up an asteroid to save Earth. What makes his act noble is that he was not originally the one chosen to stay behind and blow up the asteroid. It was supposed to be his future son-in-law, AJ (Ben Affleck). But Harry ensures that AJ survives to marry his daughter, claiming that AJ is ‘the son he never had.’
The Tragic Suicide – Romeo & Juliet
A tragic suicide is one where there are no winners and an absence of poetic justice, as explained under the tragic death sub-heading in last week’s blog post. Once again, we shall use the example of Romeo & Juliet to show us how to write an emotionally impactful death scene with regards to the tragic suicide.
As this example has already been discussed, we won’t delve too much into it again. All we can add is that Romeo’s and Juliet’s double suicide could have been avoided had circumstances been different. Moreover, the double suicide leaves their families (and the audience) gutted, without hope of poetic justice, and wondering what might have been.
Suicide Due To An Inability To Live With Oneself – Javert
Javert in Les Misérables gives us a case of someone who commits suicide because he is unable to live with himself. After spending years hunting Jean Valjean to incarcerate him (if not hang him), at the end of the play Jean Valjean saves him. Javert is unable to come to terms with this; unable even to understand why someone would save him after the years of hell he had given him. Unable to live with himself, Javert takes his own life by jumping off a bridge into the River Seine.
Admittedly, Javert is the villain of Les Misérables and the way one looks at him in a less sympathetic light than if he would have been a protagonist. This clouds how one views his decision to commit suicide at the end of the story. Nevertheless, it is still an example of someone committing suicide because of his/her conscience.
Suicide That Affirms Guilt – The Shawshank Redemption
When suicide arises out of an affirmation of guilt, viewers are unlikely to have much (if any) sympathy for the character who has committed suicide. This is because the character has weighed up that it is better to take his/her own life than face the consequences of his/her actions.
This is the case for Prison Warden Samuel Norton (Bob Gunton) in The Shawshank Redemption. The man is a hypocrite, cruel and corrupt. When his prison is about to be investigated by the police, he shoots himself in the head. He takes the coward’s way out, knowing that if he lived he would face the rest of his life behind bars (and he knows all too well what awaits him there).
Although, readers/viewers should never rejoice at the sight of a character committing suicide, there is a sense with Samuel Norton that he gets his due, poetically at least. He spent many years giving himself a pious, squeaky clean reputation. But in the end, everyone finds out the truth.
Death By An Explosion
When a character gets killed by an explosion, the death should be sudden and shocking for both the characters who are still alive and for the audience.
Example – Primrose Everdeen
In Mockingjay: Part II, Primrose Everdeen is blown up by a bomb. Her death is not just sudden and shocking. It has the added consequence of Katniss feeling that Gale betrayed her by not caring when he detonated the bombs or how many people died in the explosions. This leads her to walk away from him and marry Peeta instead.
The Redemptive Death
Death has the potential to redeem a character for a sin, crime, or betrayal that he/she commits during the course of the narrative. When it comes to how to write an emotionally impactful death scene vis-a-vis the redemptive death, it is crucial that the character admits his/her guilt before dying.
Example – Boromir
The best example of a redemptive death in fiction/fantasy is Boromir in The Fellowship of the Ring. At Rivendell, Boromir vows to protect Frodo and help him take the ring to Mordor. But towards the end of the film, Boromir tries to take the ring from Frodo, violently. Upon realising his mistake and hearing the Uruk-Hai approaching, Boromir runs to save Merry and Pippin.
Boromir fights heroically, slaying many a foe. He knows he can’t slay every Uruk-Hai by himself, so he blows his horn frantically. But before Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli arrive, an Uruk-Hai fires three arrows into him. Helplessly, Boromir watches as the Uruk-Hai take Merry and Pippin captive. As his life seeps out of him, Boromir confesses to Aragorn that he tried to take the ring and asks for forgiveness. Additionally, he states that he would have followed “his King” (Aragorn) to the end.
Additional Point On The Redemptive Death
It is important to add at this point that writers should resist making moral judgements on a fallen character by saying that he/she has been redeemed as or after he/she dies. Making such judgements takes away the objectivity from the text and can also make readers think the opposite of what the writer intends (which distracts from the narrative).
With regards to Boromir, none of the characters in Lord of the Rings say to Boromir “you are redeemed,” “you are forgiven,” “you are a good man,” or anything else of this ilk. Nor do they say later it about him, after he dies. This was a smart move on behalf of JRR Tolkien as it lets the audience decide on whether Boromir is redeemed.
Lastly, thank you very much for reading these blog posts on how to write an emotionally impactful death scene. I really appreciate and I hope they prove useful for you in your writing journey. Tell me, which death in books, films or TV series (whether from this list or otherwise) is a your favourite?
PS: For more weekly writing tips, including on how not to write a death scene, please fill in the form below.