Different Kinds of Death Scenes

There are thousands of ways to die, but when you’re writing a story, there are at least four kinds of death scenes:

  1. Shocking Death—the death occurs as a complete surprise
  2. Pending Death—this death is pending but uncertain—the character may or may not die.
  3. Inevitable Death—a prolonged and absolutely unavoidable death
  4. 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.)

Shocking Death

Emotions: surprise, horrified, confusion, denial, anger, sorrow, and maybe disappointment

Pending Death

Emotions: surprise, horrified, anger, denial, sorrow

Inevitable Death

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.

Summary of Former Blog Posts

Today’s blog post is going to be a recap of all my previous posts with links to each one. People ask me about specific elements of writing, and I realize I’ve already discussed those elements, so I direct them to that post. Here’s a chance for everyone (including myself) to get caught up on the different topics I’ve covered. I may do these kinds of posts periodically to keep everything in perspective.

Post 1: Let’s Talk About Telling – This post discusses what exactly ‘telling’, so it’s easier to identify in your own writing in order to help you ‘show’ better.

Post 2: How ‘Said’ is Redundant – The common dialogue tag is ‘said’, but due to punctuation, it is also redundant and lends itself to telling rather than showing.

Post 3: More on Dialogue Tags – Dialogue tags have their place in writing, but these days they are often used as a cheap way for the writer to write a conversation between characters without putting much effort into it. However, the writing can be stronger and much more vivid by using body language in place of the tags.

Post 4: The Adverse Adverb – Stephen King says, “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” While I wouldn’t go that far, most of the time adverbs only weaken the structure of a sentence and the writing. They can be replaced by more concrete words therefore creating a stronger experience for the readers.

Post 5: The Playground Experience – In order to know anything, you have to learn about it. Sometimes you learn the hard way, but sometimes your learning experience can be fun. The ‘Playground Experience’ is writing stuff that you never intend to publish only because you’re writing it for the practice.

Post 6: Practice Makes Perfect and then Publication – With writing, we’re not immediate masters of the craft, and we need to recognize that. Instead, we need to take the time to stretch ourselves in writing different things in order to learn this or that element of writing rather than the sole purpose of writing for publication.

Post 7: The Personality of Writing – If you ignore your writing obligations or skills, writing will give you the cold shoulder when you turn back to it. The longer you go on ignoring it, the harder it will be to write when you finally decide to pick up the pen. Is it worth it? Absolutely. The persona of writing simply wants to make sure you have the commitment to sit down and write before it floods you with ideas and inspiration.

Post 8: Paint Pictures With Words – ‘Show, don’t tell’ is the common rule among writers, but are you supposed to show every single detail?? No, and this post shows you how to determine what to include in description and what you could leave out.

Post 9: Movement in Description – There should be motion in the words that describe the scene. To me, the scenes play out like a movie scene, and the camera is always moving—in a logical manner that doesn’t sicken the viewers. The description of writing should reflect that, but how? This post shows.

Post 10: Shifting Points of View (POV) – Writers are commonly encouraged not to switch POV in the middle of a scene. While I see their point, I disagree. Multiple POV’s in the same scene takes practice to master, but it must be practiced (and therefore allowed) in order to master. Once this tool has been well-refined, it can show the scene in ways that limited POV cannot, and this broadens the horizon of the story.

Post 11: The Key to Dialogue: Listening – A lot of people struggle to write dialogue. One way to overcome this is to listen to others talk. As writers we tend to get caught up in our own thoughts and not pay attention to what is being said around us, but we write about people, so we should take the time to stop and watch them and listen to them. Pay attention to their speech pattern, choice of words, etc.

Post 12: Speaking of Dialogue – There are some elements of speaking which do not transfer well in writing, and this limits your audience. We discuss it in this post.

Post 13: Necessary Narration – ‘Narration’ can be another word for ‘telling’, and because of this, a lot of people won’t talk about it since you’re not supposed to ‘tell’. However, narration is important. Through this tool, we can get inside our characters’ minds, feel their emotions, and relate to them. The key is to balance the ‘telling’ with the ‘showing’.

Post 14: The Origin of the Narrative – Most writers begin their writing career as a child writing in their diary. This means they start writing in ‘first person’, and when they finally begin writing actual stories, those stories tend to be in ‘first person’ as well. Eventually they may dabble in ‘third person’ writing or may opt to stay with ‘first person’. All of this determines the narrative of the story.

Post 15: Punctuation of Cinemagraphic Writing – How should punctuation be used today? The semicolon is losing ground. The ellipsis should definitely be limited as should the colon. The one that’s gaining more ground surprisingly is the dash, and this post goes into more detail in it.

Post 16: Determining the Person – Should your story be written in first person, second person, or third person? Here we discuss the pros and cons of each one.

Post 17: Overview of the Different Tenses – Usually most writing is done in ‘past tense’, but it is becoming more and more common for stories to be written in ‘present tense’. However, there are more tenses than merely ‘past’ and ‘present’, and this post discusses them.

Post 18: Flashbacks and Tenses – Flashbacks are tricky, but with the proper use of tenses, the transition between past and present events can be smoother.

Post 19: Author-Based Characters – Due to the fact that most writers begin by writing in their journals then transfer over to story writing, they usually write the main character as themselves. This is dangerous because readers can sense it, and it will turn the readers away from the story.

Post 20: Author/Character Relationship – There are two kinds of authors: Interactive and Static. Interactive authors are constantly communicating with their characters throughout the process of writing, but Static authors are set in their way of how they’re going to write, and the characters must do their will.

Post 21: Describing Your Character Upon Introduction – When your character is first seen in the story, natural instinct is to pause the flow of narration to give a full description of your character. This disrupts the story and can be jarring to your readers. There is a smoother way to bring your character to life.

Post 22: Notice What You Notice – In order to write description of a scene better, it’s important to recognize for yourself what you notice when you walk into a room. This helps you write more realistically.

Post 23: Immortal Words – Our words have a lasting effect, especially those printed on paper. Yes, there are ways such words could be destroyed, but if preserved, they could essentially last forever. It’s important remember the far-reaching effect your story may have on future generations.

Post 24: Plot: The Spine of the Story – What is the story about? Sure, we can have fantastic characters, but if we don’t have an actual plot to follow, the story won’t be memorable.

Post 25: Different Kinds of Outlines – Outlining a story is one way to stayed organized and motivated to write, but there are different approaches to outlines.

Post 26: Timeline Outline – This specific outline draws everything on a horizontal line rather than vertical. It helps keep dates straight as well as what’s happening where when there are multiple plots to a story.

Post 27: When TO Use an Outline – Outlining isn’t for every writer, so there is a time to outline and a time not to use an outline. This post discusses the proper time when to use this tool.

Post 28: When NOT To Use An Outline – A continuation from the previous post, this one focuses on the other side. It discusses when it’s proper not to use an outline.

Post 29: When To Step OFF An Outline – You might have completely outlined your story, but then the story decides to change direction on you. This is all right, and you should heed the direction of the story even through it takes you off the outline you had planned.

Post 30: Production Writer’s Block – Unofficially there are two kinds of Writer’s Block, and here we discuss the first kind which is ‘Production Writer’s Block’. It can also be described as ‘In-Progress’ writer’s block. It’s when you’re working on a story and hit a brick wall.

Post 31: New Project Writer’s Block – The second unofficial Writer’s Block is when you’ve finished your story and now aren’t sure what to write next.

Post 32: Always Try To Write Your Best – There are a lot of influences out there in the world, and there’s a lot of pressure of how you should conform your writing to what’s acceptable and marketable. However, you should only write the best you can at that time in your life. Always try to sharpen your skill. As time goes on, you’ll look back with fresh eyes, and you won’t be happy with what you wrote, but at that time you wrote the best you could write.

Post 33: A Method of Revision – When you go back to your old work and decide to finally do something with it, the work will need some polishing up, and the first thing you need to do is revise it. This post discusses an approach to revision to help familiarize you with the process.

Post 34: Steps To Editing – The next step of polishing your work is to edit it. This post goes into detail of how to approach editing.

Post 35: An Approach to Proofreading – The final step of polishing your work is proofreading, and this post shows how proofreading differs from editing and gives a warning that most writers don’t consider when they’re polishing their work.

Post 36: The Etiquette of Readers Part 1: Casual Reader – Sometimes we all need encouragement and motivation. What we really need is a cheerleader. We don’t need them to criticize us when we make a mistake but to cheer us to get back up and keep going. This is where the Casual Reader comes into play.

Post 37: The Etiquette of the Reader Part 2: Beta Reader – Unlike the Casual Reader, it is the Beta Reader’s job to critique our work. It’s not fun, but it’s an important step.

Post 38: Emotions: Let Your Characters Feel – Emotions are fundamental to human life, to our experiences, and how we react. Due to its great importance in real life, emotions shouldn’t be skimmed over in significant scenes of our stories. It might make us feel uncomfortable, but we need to let our characters feel.

Now we are entirely up-to-date.  I have a lot more material to cover, but you’ll just have to wait until next week to see what will be discussed next. Thank you for your patience. See you then!

Emotions: Let Your Characters Feel

When co-writing with people, I find a lot of people prefer to skim the emotions of a scene—especially the most emotional scenes of the story! They tell me, “The character didn’t want me to dwell on it.” I find that curious, but for me the opposite is true. The characters want to be remembered. They want to make the reader feel their pain for all its worth. They want to make the reader cry or scream out in denial just as much as the author does.

What I have discovered though about those people who withhold emotions from a scene, they are usually very withdrawn individuals in real life, and they’re uncomfortable showing that much emotion. It’s almost as if they don’t want that emotion to be identified with them. Is this wrong? No. A lot of writers are introverts who prefer not to show their emotions, and there is nothing wrong with that. However, there is a distinct difference between the author and the character. The character is not the author. People are not going to read the story and see you in it unless you specifically write yourself into the story.

Why is it so important for us to include authentic emotion in our story? Emotions are our way of connecting with the fictional world. We can’t really experience their adventures or completely relate to them in all their endeavors because we might not be super assassins or dragon-slaying medieval knights or vampires or werewolves or an orphan who’s meant to save the world. Our characters’ stories are often out-of-this-world, and by all rights, their world should be as foreign and strange as any country in this world. However, it’s not that strange. Why? Because we can all relate to the character’s denial when something bad happens, his stress as he tries to decide between two difficult choices, his determination when he finally sets his mind to the task, and his relief when he overcomes all those obstacles as well as any sorrows he might have encountered along the way.

Emotion is a universal language. We can all relate to it. Even if our books are translated into hundreds of different languages that we don’t even understand, we’d still be able to see the emotions on our readers faces as they read. We can relate to their smiles, their frowns, their widened eyes, quickened breath, then sighs of relief. We can laugh with them and cry with them.

If we refuse to let our writing be saturated with emotion in the proper time and place, then we deny our readers the opportunity to express themselves with that emotion. In today’s world, especially in the Western world, openly expressing emotions is frowned upon, but when those emotions aren’t yours but someone else’s (rather a character’s), it’s more acceptable. That’s why we can go to the movies and laugh or cry (though we will try to hide our tears) or scream in denial. When reading a book, outwardly it might appear as though we’re some of the most boring people in the world, but inwardly, we’re on an emotional roller coaster. Sometimes we might sigh or wince or cringe. Other times we might throw the book down or across the room in anger or disgust or disbelief, or we might let out a shout, “No!” or even mutter under our breath, “Don’t do it—don’t! Stupid, stupid, stupid!” Then we look around and realize people are staring—if they’re not plugged into their iPods. At the end of the day (or the book), we feel human because we actually felt emotion rather than going through the mundane day of work, family drama, friends drama, school, and so forth.

This is why it is important to keep emotions in your writing. “But how do I do that? How do I know that I’ve put emotion in? How do I show emotion when you’re supposed to feel it?” There’s no secret formula to this—there never is any secret formula to anything regarding writing. However, let me show you an example. I wrote this piece merely for this blog post. It was the first thing I could think of to demonstrate the difference being restricted in use of emotion versus honing in on the emotion.

VERSION 1:
She was washing the breakfast dishes when the men came. When she opened the door and saw the military men standing there, she knew why they were here. Her heart began to break before they spoke a word, but soon they left, and she closed the door and slid down to the floor, pulled up her knees and sobbed. Her husband was never coming home.

VERSION 2:
She scrubbed the breakfast dishes, frustrated that she had left the scrambled eggs on the plate too long, and now the remnant of eggs were caked to the plate. As she scrubbed hard, she knew she was running late and might just have to let the plate soak while she was running her errands today.

The dog barking outside caught her attention, and she lifted her gaze out the kitchen window to see anyone crossing the lawn. Not seeing anyone, she leaned further and looked to the left and saw a military vehicle in her driveway, but she couldn’t see the occupants.

Frowning, she snatched up a towel and began drying her hands as she approached the front door. Through the distorted glass of the door, she saw the silhouette of two men with proper stances, and the sight of them made her heart sink. Her steps slowed, but she pushed herself forward.

Her husband and she often discussed all the ‘what ifs’ if he didn’t come back from fighting. She didn’t want to be caught off guard but rather be prepared, so he informed her of all the different protocols.

This was one of them, and there was only one reason for it.

The doorbell chimed, and she drew in a sharp breath, straightened her posture, and pulled back her shoulders as she folded the towel in her hands and smoothed out her dress. Finally, with shaking hands, she reached for the doorknob. She took another deep breath, and then she opened the door. She had intended to open it all the way but found herself only able to open it slightly—as if to barricade herself from the bad news.

“Mrs. Whitaker?” the older of the two men asked, and Jennet Whitaker nodded. “We’re sorry to inform you—” and that was all Jennet heard. She knew the speech they would give—her husband died in service overseas. They couldn’t give her details, likely didn’t know the details themselves yet, but they apologized and said if there was anything they could do to help, they were there for her.

She tried to smile her thanks, but her throat was too tight with tears. She knew how uncomfortable men got when they saw a woman crying, so she whispered a weak, “Thank you,” then gently closed the door and rested her forehead against the wood of the door as she closed her eyes.

Tears leaked from the corners of her eyes, and she couldn’t stop them. She turned her back to the door and slid down to the floor, covering her mouth with her hands as sobs overwhelmed her. She tried to keep quiet in case the men hadn’t left her doorstep yet. She didn’t want them to hear her even though due to the nature of their job, they had seen women break down and cry various ways, but too many people depended on her to be strong. They couldn’t even hear a whisper of her breaking. She needed to be strong.

But alone in her house, on the floor at her front door, she hugged her knees close to her chest, buried her face in her knees, and cried.

Together they were going to change the world, but now he left her alone—again.

<~>~<~>~<~>

The difference here is obvious. The first version is merely a paragraph long, and it is more ‘telling’ than ‘showing’. Yes, a reader with similar experience could relate to it, but most readers want to know how is this specific character going to react to that specific situation. We’re all different, and maybe someone else’s way of coping could be an example or a warning for us.

Not only do drawn-out emotional scenes help us understand our own emotions, but in these scenes we may discover something about the characters that we would never have known otherwise.

Am I saying that all characters should be overly emotional at all times? No. Sometimes the lack of emotion—especially in the face of a crisis—speaks volumes of a character. However, you must acknowledge at one point or another in one way or another each character (the human ones at least) must express themselves emotionally. They can bottle it up for so long and pretend they don’t care. They can seem to be absolutely robotic and without feeling, but there will be something that will slip in under their guard—something they’ve always tried to accept, change, or ignore, but it keeps bothering them.

Sooner or later they will snap. They might lash out in a moment of anger, and that is all it is—a moment, and then it’s passed. Or they might be the kind who must go behind closed, locked doors all alone where no one can hear them, and they might cry out in frustration or hurt, but soon they compose themselves.

The longer they don’t express themselves or release that emotion, the more it builds, and such pent-up emotions do cause a strain on the mind and body of the individual—stress, depression, lack of sleep, lack of motivation, short-tempered, and so forth. This can work to your benefit in the story, but sooner or later the characters should be allowed to expressed themselves emotionally. It doesn’t have to be a huge emotional scene but rather a small private passing moment.

Remember, we read in order to escape and to experience things we could never do in our lifetime, and one way to really connect with your reader is that emotional connection. The emotion is the magic that truly brings simple words on paper to life and makes them memorable.

Also, if you’re an introvert and a very private person who prefers to show as little emotion as possible at all times, just because your characters experience bouts of emotion doesn’t mean your readers are going to see you in the story and judge you. Instead, they are going to be so caught up with the story and everything the characters are going through, they won’t see you at all, so there’s no need to worry about it. Let the characters feel what they feel and let them express themselves in the way that they would. Yes, they’re a part of you, but they’re not you, and there’s a freedom in that.