Writing Death: A Guide for the Living

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Writing a death scene can be tricky. If you overdo it, it’s a cliché. Underdo it, and you’re a heartless, callous monster. How do you find the balance and when exactly is the right time to kill a character?  

Death with a Purpose

Unless you’re writing a slasher horror, a death scene should do more than just shock your reader. Your job is to tell a story, and 99% of the time, the story should be character-driven. Therefore, a decision to off a character should always further the plot. The after-effects should create a ripple effect that alters the story trajectory of your main character(s). If your death scene doesn’t serve a purpose, you might want to rethink your reasons for including it.

And, Why Should We Care?

Before you go swinging your literary ax, make sure you’ve built up enough hype for your intended victim–in a way that’s either good or bad. Empathy or pure hatred should be your build-up-to-a-death goal. Either make the intended victim so likable, their absence will leave a lasting impression for many pages to come, or, make them so despicable, the reader will joyfully celebrate the end of a deserving villain. (For more on writing a good villain, click here.) 

The Post-Death Aftermath

Ignoring the psychological effects of a character’s demise on the remaining characters is sloppy writing. Let’s circle back to that ripple-effect. You may choose to have your character deal with the death later (especially if they’re in the heat of survival mode) or deal with it immediately (think death-bed scene). Either way, humans don’t ignore incidents of mortality unless they’re a sociopath. In this case, noticeably not dealing with death, should be written so that it is noticeable.

When to Kill?

Think outside the box on this one. In the novel The Sinner, I’m giving nothing away by telling you that a brutal murder takes place in broad daylight within the first few pages. The main character, a seemingly normal mother of a toddler, is sitting on the beach peeling a piece of fruit and then she’s stabbing a nearby beachgoer. That’s a bold move by the author, Petra Hammesfahr, to put the death right upfront. Therefore, when you plan out your body count, be clever with where you place the death. It could change everything. 

Pacing to Avoid Clichés 

Speaking of death-bed scenes, this is the epitome of cliché. You can make it even worse by including a long-drawn-out, regret-filled monologue delivered by the dying character. Consider pacing to avoid this.

In life, death often comes suddenly without warning. We find out afterward, that someone has passed because we weren’t there. Writing that moment can be powerful. No build-up, just someone going about their day and then their phone rings and everything in their world is now suddenly different. 

If you’re writing a suspenseful death scene, again, think about your pacing. You know all those horror movies where the victim is headed to the basement to just, what? See what’s down there? And you’re yelling at the screen because you know what’s down there and the character’s not listening to you. They’re already headed down that darkened staircase and nothing you can do will can’t stop them. Try to re-create that vibe for your reader. Give them all the sensory details to the lead-up. Really paint the scene for them, and then–switch to rapid-fire, short sentences that cut deep. Then boom! end the chapter. Mic drop. 

Do you have a topic you would like us to cover? Let us know about your suggestion. 


About Author

Heather Rigney is a fiction writer, blogger, journalist, and art teacher based in Rhode Island. Author of The Merrow Trilogy--a dark, historical fantasy novel that deals with homicidal mermaids, the colonial suppression of women, and a present-day alcoholic funeral director trying to make sense of it all. Her writing has been featured in Motif Magazine and Stone Crowns Magazine. By day she teaches art at an all-girls Quaker school and at night she tries to be creative while avoiding too many sweets. You can read more about Ms. Rigney on her website: www.heatherrigney.com

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