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 the ultimate death scene.
But how do writers create this emotional impact? In this blog post (and video), we shall discuss the four factors required for a death scene, as well as nine 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 the ultimate 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:
- Occur at the right time in the narrative;
- Involve a character who has been sufficiently fleshed out*;
- Hurt the character’s friends and foes;
- 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.
1 – 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 end.
Example 1 – The Punisher (2004)
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 an 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 (Macbeth)
In rare instances in fiction/fantasy, it is not the antagonist who dies at the cause of justice, but rather the 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.
2 – The Heroic Death
The second way on how to write the ultimate death scene is by giving your protagonist a 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
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 is covered in The Redemptive Death, below.)
3 – The Redemptive Death
Death has the potential to redeem a character for a sin, crime, or betrayal that he commits during the course of the narrative.
When it comes to how to write the ultimate death scene vis-a-vis the redemptive death, it is crucial that the character admits his 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 his friends, Merry and Pippin.
Boromir fights heroically, but 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. Moreover, 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 the protagonist has been redeemed as or after he dies. Making such judgements takes away the objectivity from the narrative and can also make readers think the opposite of what the writer intends.
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.
Example – Theon Greyjoy
To give an example of where a character has been told that he’s been redeemed, let’s look at the moments prior to Theon Greyjoy’s death in the much-maligned Season 8 Episode 3 of Game Thrones.
What was the point of Bran saying here: “you’re a good man, Theon” and “thank you”? It came across as trite and cheapened Theon’s heroism.
Plus, it can made the audience think: “Is Theon a good man?”, “What did he do throughout the series that made him a good man?” and “Did Theon not betray Robb Stark, kill two innocent boys, and enable the Boltons to seize control of the North?” Those actions aren’t those of a good man. In short, Theon’s death would have been better had Bran not said anything.
4 – Death Out Of Duty
Fourth way on how to write the ultimate death scene Is 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 Beheads 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.
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.
5 – The Tragic Death
The fifth different type of death on how to write the ultimate death scene is 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, heart-breaking, etc… but not tragic.)
The lack of poetic justice ensures that the devastation and heartbreak that readers feel is compounded by the knowledge that:
- Nobody wins from the situation; and
- 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.)
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.
6 – The Traumatic Death
The sixth way on how to write the ultimate death scene is 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.
7 – Death By Betrayal
How to write the ultimate 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.
8 – 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.
9 – Suicide
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.
9a – 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.’
9b – The Tragic Suicide – The Old Man (Brooks Hatlen) in The Shawshank Redemption
A tragic suicide is one where there are no winners and there is an absence of poetic justice, as discussed in the tragic death. An example of a tragic suicide is Brooks Hatlen in The Shawshank Redemption.
Brooks is an old man, who was in Shawshank Penitentiary for fifty years. Upon release, he finds it impossible to re-integrate into society, is lost, and even contemplates committing a crime, just so that he can return to prison, which he calls home. But, instead, hangs himself.
His suicide is so sad. Brooks has no-one even to mourn him, let alone to get justice for him (not that there is any justice to get).
9c – 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.
9d – Suicide That Affirms Guilt – Warden Norton in 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.
Lastly, thank you very much for reading this blog post on how to write the ultimate death scene. I really appreciate it and I hope my tips make the writing process a little easier for you as well.
Tell me, which death in books, films or TV series (whether from this list or otherwise) is your favourite?
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