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Four Tips to Writing a Death Scene That
Won’t Kill Your Readership
by Sara Goff
Readers aren’t likely to get excited about a death scene. You’re asking them to experience the protagonist’s despair, guilt-ridden relief, or callous pleasure, if that’s your story. The scene is intrinsically heavy. The action likely slows down, and perhaps worst of all, we’re reminded of our own mortality. Basically, you’re entering dangerous storytelling territory, where your readers might skim, skip, or ‘kill’ the book right there, setting it down. Losing a reader is a death no writer wants. You want to give your readers an emotional experience, and in order to get them laughing, bawling, or afraid to turn the next page they need to be engaged.
Here are four tips to writing a death scene that will lead your readers further (deeper) into the story:
Purpose. Think of the sequential scenes or chapters in your story as drivers on a long and winding journey. Each driver, or scene, takes the wheel of your story for a leg of the trip. If one scene gets lost, moves too slowly, or (yikes!) pulls into a rest stop, the action brakes, along with your readers’ attention.
How to avoid this? Make sure each scene has its driver’s license. That is, each scene or chapter needs to have a specific purpose that moves the action forward. So, in writing a death scene, for example, ask yourself: Is the death necessary in order to reach your destination? Here’s another way to phrase the question: Will arriving at “The End” feel incomplete or less satisfying without the scene?
If you answer “yes” to these questions, then hand over the keys and let that scene drive the action. My next three tips will test its driving skills.
Conflict. You’ve written a death scene and it’s licensed with big-picture purpose, advancing the plot. But does it have conflict? That’s like saying, is it fueled up for the drive? Readers are greedy; they expect the thrill of finding out what happens in every chapter, not just at the end of the book. A mistake I made when first writing about death was thinking, with unquestioning certainty, that the death of a supporting character was plenty of action to sustain a chapter. After all, death is a major life event. Actually, death is not a major life event in storytelling unless it’s about to happen to your protagonist and she narrowly escapes. My focus was on the dying character, not on my protagonist, so the chapter stalled.
Your protagonist needs to take action, and the fact that she’s in dire despair over the death of her husband is a reaction, not an action. Where is the Conflict? How will it resolve? Perhaps there’s a disagreement between your protagonist and her husband’s family, a disagreement that could make her lose custody of their daughter. Or the funeral home catches on fire and your protagonist risks her life to save her husband’s body. Well, you get the idea.
The conflict can be internal, as well. Your protagonist might be so terrified of losing her husband that she can’t find the words to say good-bye. Or she might be too proud to say she’s sorry for past mistakes and will have to live with the guilt. Now you have a purposeful chapter to the story as a whole that is also interesting on its own. A cliffhanger at the end of the chapter will keep your readers wanting more while you switch drivers, moving on to the next scene.
Originality. My third tip is how to avoid writing a death scene that reads like every other death scene. Since most people have lost a loved one or attended a funeral, it’s important to personalize your scene. Use props that mean something to your characters; for example, an old fiddle or a photograph. Color the room with flowers, curtains, a favorite pillow. A startling lack of color would also create a memorable scene, but be aware that you’re making a dark scene even darker. Unusual clothing and unexpected gifts would help to develop your characters. If a particular item, a keepsake, for example, is mentioned earlier in the story, now would be a good time to bring it back. In life we hang on to sentimental possessions when we’re feeling emotionally challenged; keep your story true to life.
Your chapter has Purpose, the right to belong in the story. It has Conflict, the gas to keep it going. You’ve even seasoned it with a unique blend of sensory objects that bring the action to life. However, you’re not done yet. There’s one more tip I can give you to deliver a death scene your readers will love.
Do not let a single cliché slip into the scene. “Tears streamed down her cheeks.” “It was his time to go.” “This too shall pass.” “The tragedy was too much to bear.” I could go on and on. Think of clichés as road bumps. If your readers come across one, they’ll be reminded of the thousand times they’ve heard the phrase before. What happens then? They stumble over the sentence and lose the flow of the story. Be on high alert and take the time to give your characters their own thoughts.
Showing the death of a character or the subsequent funeral will challenge you as a writer and enhance your story on many levels. Losing a friend or family member can be a life-altering event, which might take your story in a new direction. Everyone handles death differently, which means you have an opportunity to show more about your characters’ personalities. Most importantly, death gives you the chance to prove love’s everlasting power. With careful thought and attention to details, your scene will give the story emotional depth and resonate with readers.
Sara Goff is the author of I Always Cry at Weddings and the founder of the global educational charity Lift the Lid, Inc., a non-profit supporting underprivileged schools and encouraging young people to exercise their creative expression through writing. Formerly a New York City fashion buyer/merchandiser, Sara left her career to write and make a difference in the world.
In New York, Sara volunteered as a writing instructor for the homeless with Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen Writers Workshop, founded by author Ian Frazier. She has been an active member of The National Arts Club’s creative writing program and received two fellowships to Summer Literary Seminars in St. Petersburg, Russia and Nairobi, Kenya.
Beyond her leadership with Lift the Lid, Inc., Sara has found a way to share her passion for the written word through speaking engagements with inner-city high schools and colleges in the New York area. Sara has lived in Europe for the past seven years and has recently moved to Connecticut with her Swedish husband of 14 years and their two sons, ages one and six. I Always Cry at Weddings was released this September by WhiteFire Publishing. Proceeds from the book will go towards her charity Lift the Lid, a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization. Visit www.lift-the-lid.org for more information on the charity.
~ Places to Connect with Sara ~
I Always Cry at Weddings
“Ava Larson is going to bring all the other brides to tears.”
Engaged to a wealthy NYC socialite’s son, Ava is ready to set the city abuzz with her glamorous wedding. At least until she realizes her relationship isn’t what it should be. Then, in a move as daring as a red satin dress, she does the unthinkable–she calls it all off and makes a promise to God that from now on, she’ll save sex for marriage.
She’s convinced the future is hers for the taking, especially when an undercover cop promises a new romance…and an unexpected friendship with the homeless guy under her stoop brightens her days. But when her carefully balanced life teeters out of control, weddings aren’t the only thing to make her cry. Ava has to figure out what life she really wants to live…and what in the world love really means.
Thanks for having me on Tenacity, Janet. I love the name of your blog. Absolutely, blogging takes persistence!
Hope my tips on writing a strong death scene are helpful to others!
Helpful post, Sara. You raise a key point, that we can’t simply rely on the major life event to carry the scene. Thanks for the guest post, and for offering a copy of your novel. I Always Cry at Weddings is very well done.
Thanks for sharing your insights, Sara. I’d not thought about the scene having to have conflict but it is true. Those events (funerals–and weddings, too) that are memorable do have an element of conflict to them. And the reminder that the conflict could be internal was welcome.
I found that really helpful too, Shawna. It’s easy to think that just because something highly significant is happening, that’s enough. Thanks for commenting.
Thank you for stopping by, Shawna! I’m glad my post gave you a new way of looking at scenes, especially death scenes. Happy writing!
Oh dear. Looks like it’s back to the drawing board for me. I haven’t reached that point yet in my book, but I’m seeing now I have work to do in what I’d planned. Thanks for the post!
Marti, it’ll be easier to think it through before you write the scene than after, if you’re anything like me. Once it’s there on the page, it feels real and hard to change. All the best with the drawing board!
Hi Marti, I hope having the mindset of finding conflict within the scene opens your eyes to new possibilities in the story. In my early drafts of I Always Cry at Weddings, I was writing in search of resolution, which was difficult because I knew in my heart that I was shortchanging the story. Once I became committed to conflict within each scene, ideas started flowing and the writing became much easier! Enjoy!
And the winner of our book draw is… Shawna Mumert! Shawna, I’ll be emailing you with details. Thank you to everyone who joined the conversation, and thank you to Sara Goff for this helpful post and for donating a copy of I Always Cry at Weddings.
So exciting! I’m happy to send you a book, Shawna! 🙂