There are thousands of ways to die, but when you’re writing a story, there are at least four kinds of death scenes:
- Shocking Death—the death occurs as a complete surprise
- Pending Death—this death is pending but uncertain—the character may or may not die.
- Inevitable Death—a prolonged and absolutely unavoidable death
- Inescapable Death but with a Twist—this death is certain, and you know exactly how the character is going to die…and at the last second the character dies but not HOW you expected.
So which of these are most emotional? Before we can dive into that, we must acknowledge that everyone is different. What kind of person the reader is, where they are in life, what they experienced that day, and their current emotional state all play into how emotional the actual death scene will be. Some people won’t cry at all while others will break down at every death. There is no magic formula to conjure tears in your readers eyes, which is unfortunate but true.
Let’s break down each kind of a death scene.
Shocking Death: The death occurs as a complete surprise.
These are shocking deaths—usually so shocking that the reader doesn’t fully comprehend what happened but have to go back and reread the passage a few times to come to grips that this specific character is now dead. Once I was reading a story, and there was a scene where this family went to an ice cream shop for a good time. They stepped out of the shop laughing and smiling, and then there was a drive-by shooting, and one of the characters died. I was so surprised that I couldn’t grasp what happened. Did she really die? How exactly did she die? What happened?
If this is done quickly, the reader won’t feel anything but disappointment and confusion. However, if the scene is dragged out, the reader has enough time to snap out of the shock and scream in denial. This is what happened at the ‘Red Wedding’ in George R. R. Martin’s ‘Game of Thrones’. When characters started being murdered, people were shocked at first, but then more and more characters died, and readers (viewers for the TV series) quickly realized everyone was going to die. This is tricky and quite an extreme. This card only works if more than one character is put to death and if the executions are carried out immediately rather than dragged out. This method should be used sparingly. Otherwise, it becomes predictable and loses its shock factor.
Pending Death: Death is pending but uncertain—the character may or may not die.
This basically summarizes every horror story. A lot of characters are going to die, but some will survive. As the reader, you don’t know who will die or live. You also don’t know how or when a character will die. The method of death may startle and horrify you, but will you be reduced to tears of sorrow? Unlikely. Tears of fear–probably.
Another example of this method is having a character held at gunpoint. Someone is negotiating for that person’s life, but you aren’t sure if the negotiations will be successful. If the character is shot and killed, you might be shocked, horrified, angry, and greatly distressed—or maybe you won’t be surprised at all. This method has the ability to induce tears in the reader, but it completely depends on the relationship between the characters, all the aspirations or failings of the character, how well the reader got to know the character prior to this point, and ultimately the reason why the killer decided to end this character’s life this specific way while sparing the other character. Also playing into the emotional aspect of this method of death is what the readers are personally experiencing in their own life, and that is beyond the author’s control.
Inevitable Death: A prolonged and absolutely unavoidable death
An example of this version of death is a character has cancer throughout the story and dies in the end. This can be absolutely heartbreaking or they can be a complete relief that the character is finally dead and no longer suffering.
There’s a book I read, and I know this specific character dies in the book. Regardless of my knowledge of this, every time I go back to that book and read it, I still get teary eyed—every single time. The series wasn’t focused on her, and she was only mentioned occasionally but always fondly. When you meet her in the story, she’s a fun-loving character but someone who is physically weak. She put much effort into living, but she still dies in the end—a quiet death but taken too soon. These kinds of deaths, if crafted well, are heart-wrenching.
However, at the same time, if the character is suffering horribly, when he dies, even if he was a good person, everyone will be relieved. For instance, in my historical fiction novels, King Baldwin IV suffers from leprosy. There are four books in the series, but after each book, my reader comes to me and asks, “How on Earth is he going to survive another book??” Everyone is expecting him to literally drop dead. Since the series is based on his life story and ends with his death, he does die in the end, but no tears are unlikely to be shed. He was a great and honorable king, but he suffered horribly in his life, so all those around him were relieved when he died because he finally found peace. Although this method of a death scene doesn’t usually invoke tears or sorrow in the reader, it does make them appreciate the life of the character and all they did or tried to accomplish.
Inescapable Death but with a Twist: Death is certain, and you know exactly how the character is going to die…and at the last second the character dies but NOT how you expected.
I’ve only seen this very few times. It starts off much like the last method I mentioned about having an unavoidable death. For example, you have a character who’s suffering from lung cancer. It’s a horrible and painful way to die. He’s weak and feeble but convinces his wife to take him to the beach one last time. They know they’re going to say their goodbyes. He’s getting weaker, can’t stand, and can’t stop coughing. You expect him to keel over dead any moment, and then his wife shoots him in the back of the head thus putting him out of his misery.
This stuns me because it’s completely unexpected. I have to reread it to make sure I read it correctly, and in the end, I’m never sure how to respond to this method. It’s personal but also unrealistic. At the same time, it’s extremely heartbreaking because you know the character who took the life of the other character did not want to do it. She was sparing him an anguishing death.
There are the different kinds of death scenes that exist in fiction. There may be more, but this has been my observation. The actual method of a character’s death is innumerable, and we won’t go into that.
Now, you must determine one important factor when approaching the death of a character. Other than the fact that it’s a turning point for the story, how do you want your readers to react? I once spoke with a student of mine, and she exclaimed, “I want to make them CRY!” While this is a worthy endeavor, it should be the byproduct of the scene—not the ultimate goal. In order to make someone cry, a lot needs to line up—things you don’t have control over. You can write the perfect story with the most heartbreaking death scene, but the reader still not cry. Why not? Well, for one, he could be someone who has tremendous emotional control—crying is just something he doesn’t do. Or she could be someone who has had the worst week of her life, and she’s already cried bucket-loads before even reading the scene, so by the time she reads it, she’s drained from any emotion (on the other hand, it could make her break down and cry all over again. Everyone is different). Or she could be someone who is emotionally detached and analyzes everything.
In other words, making someone cry is a hit-and-miss scenario. However, you can shock people, get them angry, make them confused, or feel numerous other emotions. How the readers respond to those emotions will differ from person to person—some may scream or gasp or slam the book shut or simply stare—holding their breath without realizing it as they quickly continue to read the passage because they’re hoping beyond hope that the character is still alive.
So which methods of death scenes conjure what emotions? Emotions are extremely hard to put in a single compartment, but this is a rough sketch as to which emotion associates with which death scene. (NOTE: everyone is different and may react contrary to what is listed here, but this is a very basic outline.)
Emotions: surprise, horrified, confusion, denial, anger, sorrow, and maybe disappointment
Emotions: surprise, horrified, anger, denial, sorrow
Emotions: sorrow, relief, and maybe a bit of anger and regret
Inescapable Death but with a Twist
Emotions: confusion, shock, denial, guilt, sorrow
There are depths of this I’m not going to discuss because it varies so much from person-to-person and even character-to-character. However, now you can see that a death in your story isn’t just another death scene. There is actually a process to it. Granted, as the author, you don’t have to sit there and think of which method you want to use in order to target specific emotions in your readers. Instead, you should let the story flow naturally.
If your reader doesn’t cry at the death scene, don’t let that discourage you. It could be that the method of death scene you had written in your story for that specific character might not have lent itself to that emotion. However, if you can’t seem to invoke the emotional response you want from your reader, it is always good to look back at your writing and examine it. Did you rush the scene? Did you show enough? Did you show too much? Did you let the characters themselves feel, or did you skim over it?
Keep in mind, if you show ten people your story, you’ll likely get ten different responses, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Just continue to write, but keep this information in the back of your mind when you come to these specific scenes.