How to Write A Truly Tragic Death Scene
By Allison Grace
“Noooo!” The hero runs across the battlefield to his fallen mentor. Falling to his knees beside the body, he begs his mentor to stay.
The mentor weakly opens his eyes for the last time and gasps, “You are the Chosen One. Fulfill your destiny.” Then he dies.
Cue the tragic soundtrack with haunting vocals.
If we’re honest, we’ve all written scenes like that.
We’re just trying to make the death feel real. But in the process, our readers wind up rolling their eyes instead of sobbing.
Frankly, our character’s death turns into a writing tragedy. We fall into melodrama and clichés.
But there is hope.
There is a way to avoid cheesy death scenes. Let’s take a look!
Spoiler Warning: Before you read on, know there are some pretty major spoilers ahead. I’ll be talking about Star Wars: A New Hope and Revenge of the Sith; Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame; Spider-Man: Homecoming; Captain America: Civil War; and The Fellowship of the Ring. You have been warned.
In general, your characters shouldn’t die out of the blue. Yes, you may want to shock your reader but when they look back, they should realize his fate was inescapable.
For example, before watching Endgame, I knew Tony Stark was going to die (I’m still not over it). But Marvel did an excellent job of foreshadowing it.
Just think of all the other times he almost died saving the world. It only made sense that at some point he’d fall in the line of duty.
Excuse the poor wording, but his death was inevitable.
Gif credit: Tenor
Your reader doesn’t want their favorite character to die randomly. They want to look back at the events preceding his death and see your hidden hints.
Some good examples of foreshadowing are:
- Tony’s death was specifically foreshadowed when Captain America said Iron Man would never be the one to make the sacrifice play in the first Avengers movie.
- Spider-Man: Homecoming foreshadows Peter’s death when Tony says that if the kid dies, it would be on Tony’s conscience.
- Anakin Skywalker becoming Darth Vader was foreshadowed over numerous events in the prequels and the Clone Wars TV series. Most notably was when he slaughtered the entire Sand People village.
Give It a Point
Characters dying for no reason is really irritating. In real life, death is devastating (but we as Christians have hope after death!). It should be the same in your fictional world.
Their death should do something. It should move the plot along. Instigate a change in the main character. Force the other characters to come to grips with their own mortality.
And your point should not simply be to make the reader sob their eyes out. That’s not nice, okay?
At first glance, Peter Parker’s death in Infinity War seems to fit the category of “hehe, let’s watch the fans wail” but it has a deeper purpose than that. Once you watch Endgame, you see that Peter’s death is what drives Tony Stark to solve time travel and reverse the Snap. Without his death, Tony wouldn’t have been motivated to help the Avengers.
Gif credit: Tenor
(Whoever made this, it’s amazing.)
So yes, make your readers cry, but give their tears a purpose.
Avoid Gushy Emotions
Our first instinct when writing the aftermath of a death scene is to go on and on for pages about the characters’ grief. But this actually isn’t the best way to handle tragedy in writing.
My college creative writing textbook quotes Anton Chekhov: “When you describe the miserable and unfortunate, and want to make the reader to feel pity, try to be somewhat colder--that seems to give a kind of background to another’s grief, against which it stands out more clearly. Whereas in your story the characters cry and you sigh. Yes, be more cold.”
The author of the textbook, Heather Sellers, explains, “‘Going cold’ means that the more intense the emotion is [that your characters are feeling], the less intense the writing should be.”
Oftentimes, your character won’t have time to focus on the tragedy.
Think of when Gandalf died fighting the Balrog. The Fellowship didn’t stop and cry for ages. They had to keep moving.
Or when Luke Skywalker watched Vader slay his mentor. He had to finish rescuing the princess.
So don’t slow the action for pages wallowing in sorrow. Doing so brings the pacing to a screeching halt.
As you do so, remember your characters should feel something. If they are too cold, it will be just as unrealistic and frustrating as pages of sobbing.
And sometimes, the best reactions to a death scene are not the emotions but the way in which the surviving characters change because of it. Like after the Snap in Infinity War. All the Avengers handle their grief in a different way--Tony focuses on his family, Thor starts drinking, Steve counsels others, Nat keeps trying to protect the world, and Clint...well, he goes a bit crazy.
Actions speak louder than words and emotions. Any character can cry but only those truly affected will change.
Don’t Focus on the Death
Rather than writing pages of melancholy description, try focusing on one small element that stands in stark contrast to the death.
K.M. Weiland has a good video where she explains this concept:
Snag a tiny detail and use it as a magnifying glass for the whole scene. Instead of describing the smoking ruins, focus on the American flag still flying. Instead of dwelling on the blood-soaked battleground, note the picture of a soldier’s family lying in the mud.
These are the details I will remember when I close your book.
They reframe the sorrow of the scene and make us see it in a different light. By showing your reader an innocent detail, such as the butterfly Weiland mentions, it makes everything else stand out.
Avoid Cringy Dialogue
One of the ways we make our death scenes really annoying is by drawing out the character’s last words. They usually say something along the lines of “I love you,” “I’m sorry,” “Go on without me,” etc.
But what if their last words aren’t sappy? What if they don’t get a chance to say anything at all?
When Gandalf falls into the pit, he yells, “Fly you fools!” It’s definitely not what one would expect from a dying character. But it has become iconic.
Gif Credi: Giphy
Or what about when Tony Stark dies? Surely as he’s sitting there surrounded by his friends and family, he could say something. Yet he doesn’t. And it makes the scene all that more tragic. (Here’s an article explaining why he’s silent.)
Remember, a character’s last words are important. Most of the time, the character knows they are about to die and choses their words carefully. Whether you give them an opportunity to say them or not is up to you.
It Doesn’t Have to be a Physical Death
This last point might seem a bit off-topic, but I assure you, it’s not.
When we think about a death scene, we think of someone (probably the mentor) getting stabbed and dying in the hero’s arms. Then the hero proceeds to mourn and vows to take vengeance.
But what if you tried a different kind of death scene? What about the death of a dream, a relationship, or a treasure?
Everyone has experienced this kind of death. Everyone has a hope that got crushed, a dream that vanished into darkness, or a friendship that crumbled.
Sometimes, this type of “death scene” hurts more than if someone physically dies.
Remember the fight between Anakin Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi at the end of Revenge of the Sith? Neither character physically dies. But it still hurts.
Or take the battle between Iron Man and Captain America in Captain America: Civil War. In this scene, there is no death. But you can see the characters’ friendship crumbling with each blow.
So before deciding your best bet is to kill a character, consider if turning them against the hero might improve the story.
As you prepare to write the death of a beloved character remember these few tips:
- Make the character’s death inevitable by skillfully utilizing foreshadowing.
- Don’t let them die in vain. Their sacrifice should drive the hero onward.
- Go cold. Don’t wallow in the grief.
- Focus on an unusual detail that stands out against the tragedy.
- Know when to use last words and when to remain silent.
- Sometimes the death of a dream or relationship hurts way more than physical loss.
- Bring lots of tissues.
Here are some more resources on writing death scenes:
Top 5 Myths to Avoid When Writing Grief
Allison Grace used to hate writing.
Now she can’t imagine a world without telling stories.
She has written several short stories and completed a novel. Her favorite themes to write about (fiction and nonfiction) are identity, faith, and redemption. She also has a whole stash of unfinished fan fiction no one is allowed to read.
Besides writing, Allison loves to crochet stuffed animals and dolls to give to charities. She is a shameless Star Wars and Marvel nerd and can carry on an entire conversation solely in movie quotes.
She blogs atallisongracewrites.com
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