How to Write a Death Scene

I hope you guys can forgive my little mini absence, again. I just finished moving over the weekend, and I’m hoping to be starting a new-old job here in the next week, so it’s been a little crazy. I haven’t been blogging, but I have still been working on my manuscripts, so it hasn’t been a total loss of time in terms of productivity. And really, isn’t that the test of a writer—how well you can keep writing when everything around you goes to hell in a hand basket?

So today’s post is going to be like a part two to Culture and Death. We’re going to look at techniques and tips for actually writing the death scene once you’ve figured out all of the cultural details that are going to come into play. These tips go along with the idea that the dying is surrounded by loved ones, but that of course is not always going to be the case. Most of what’s here though, you can apply to whatever kind of death scene your story is going into.

  • Keep the manner of death real

Whether your character is going to die of sickness or a mortal wound, you need to be sure of the details. What actually happens when someone is stabbed in the stomach? Is a wound to the chest or head instantly fatal? Know the details of a real world sickness if it’s going to take a life, and if you’re creating your own Black Plague, you need to create a timeline of decline for those infected.

  • Go for the descriptive, surreal details

As the character lay dying, take a bird’s eye view of the scene. Describe feelings and understandings in an abstract way that almost doesn’t make sense to the reader, because that strange confusion is what is felt when you watch someone die.

  • Go for the nitty-gritty details

Couple the overall feel with small things, like breathing and movement. Describe the frailty of the hand the main character is holding, how pasty a complexion is. Fatal wounds are messy things—the blood, the smell. Don’t shy away from these tidbits because they are what make the scene real.

  • Be reminiscent

If the dying character is lucky enough to be surrounded by friends and family, those still living are going to be remembering the parts of that person’s life as she passes on. If she dies on the battlefield and news is delivered to loved ones after the fact, they’re still going to be flooded with memories.

  • Understand the stages of grief

The stages of grief are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. It’s a long road, and one your characters do not need to go through all in the first ten pages after the death. I might expect an emotionally closed warrior to jump to anger first, and denial second, but he’s still going to move through these general stages. Understand each character inside and out, and their personalities will dictate their initial reactions to the death.

  • Remind readers how the character has grown

Especially if the character being off’d did any developing in-story. Let a little bit of backstory be told through remembered details. She stood at the water’s edge, the waves rolled in cold against her ankles, but it was a familiar tingling. She and Kyle had played in the frigid water every day as children, and she had never questioned that they would one day watch their own children do the same.

  • Don’t stop the dying character’s personality quarks

If he liked calling people by annoying nicknames no one else used, he’s going to continue that even on his deathbed—and likely, what annoyed the daylights out of everyone else before will now bring fond tears to their eyes. If he held strong convictions, whether political, moral or religious, he’s probably going to try one final time to impart his views on those he loves the most. Let the character be himself up to the very last minute.

  • Consider the legacy being left behind

A poor woman who worked hard for every cent she ever held isn’t going to leave an estate to her children, but she’s going to leave strong ethics and ideas of how one should act. There are different kinds of legacies, and not all need to be made readily available to readers. Weave concepts like honor, trustworthiness and loyalty into the very fabric of the living characters, and then sometime after the death, one of them might stop and smile, and realize her mother taught her to be that way.

  • Less is more

Be descriptive, get into the details, cry your heart out, mourn the dead, and then get out. There’s a fine line between telling the death and dragging in out. This isn’t to say that the dead shouldn’t play a role in the rest of the story—in fact, they should. But the death and the impact are two different parts, and require two different writing approaches.


21 thoughts on “How to Write a Death Scene

  1. All good ideas. I’m gonna have to review these. I have a habit of killing characters. One scene I wrote, where the hero had to kill his love out of mercy, I had to put myself in his shoes. What if I had to do to the same for my wife? I couldn’t do it! Neither could he, at first. Then he tricked his mind and did it and instantly regretted it, trying to undo what he had done, but it was too late. I thought it was pretty good myself. Heh. 🙂

  2. Oooh… very good. There is so much to think about, things that will certainly help me in my writing, point #5 and #7 especially. You are proving to be a great resource. :0)

  3. I’m writing a fantasy where the protagonist’s sister dies early on in the book, gets brought back, and then dies AGAIN, this time for good. I’m having a hard time writing Death #2 because I don’t know if I should drag it out and make it torturous to read, or make it quick and leave the readers in a kind of shock. Any advice?

  4. It’s most tragic when a character who calls everyone annoying nicknames dies.
    Lame example: The bullet peirced John. We all knew he would die. He tilted his head and looked at me. “Remember me, Carrot Top.”

    Just thinking about death makes me tear up!

  5. I’m currently writing a story begining with character death, then said character spends a few chapters as a ghost and is resurrected and killed again. So I got two tries to make it epic ^.^

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