Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Charley's Top Five Favourite Uses of Death Scenes

Death scenes are my favourite. TV series, films, books - you name it, if there's a death in, my interest is likely to shoot a good few feet in the air (it might yodel, too, if you're lucky). I tend to esteem things depending on how deeply they involve me emotionally in the story, and you don't get much more emotional than curling up in the foetal position and staring into the void of emptiness that has just opened up under you, threatening to swallow whatever is left of your heart just as it did the life of the unfortunate personage sacrificed for the purpose of creating just this effect.

So, in honour of these moments of glorious emotional desolation, I have compiled a list of my favourite - forgive the pun - executions. Executions of the death scene, that is. I could fill several libraries, museums and countless bedside tables on my favourite methods of providing one.


One: No One Expects the Spanish Inquisition!
The unexpected death easily tops the list of the Most Traumatic Plot Twists Known To Man. When available revelations about your characters' backstories, jumpscare monsters, and collisions with convoluted prophecies are beginning to dry up, there's nothing better than scaring the heebie jeebies of your readers by spraying someone's brains across the wall!

In all seriousness, though, a death that takes place at an unexpected moment has absolutely boundless possibility in terms of emotional impact. Every narrative needs moments for the reader to sit back and breathe, but one that falls into a pattern of "safe" moments, or indicates that a certain number of its characters are likewise "safe" from the worst of the tale's misfortunes, can all too easily lose a lot of its emotional grip. The readers will begin to get comfortable, and as a result the stakes and cost of the plot can lose their tangibility. An unexpected death - from the perspective of the other characters as well as the reader - prevents this: the readers will now constantly be on edge, all too aware that the risks are very present and very real. The victim of this sort of death doesn't even have to be a particularly important character, either. The shock factor will remind the reader that, no, this place is not "safe", and these characters are not "safe". Nothing is "safe". They won't forget it, and they'll be all the more engrossed in the story and its challenges as a result.

Two: What Have I Done?
This one is a particular favourite in narratives featuring some manner of redemptive element. When boiled down to its most basic principles, this death is one that is closely linked to the action of a main character, usually the protagonist, and its effect on them in turn triggers more ramifications throughout the course of the narrative. And I'm not talking about the "if only I hadn't been rude to that talking frog in the forest, its toxic belch wouldn't have poisoned the river that your horse drank from, and your spine would never have been crushed beneath it as it collapsed in its death throes, woe is me!" situation. This death is the character's fault - inextricably, undeniably, and no amount of angsting will make it otherwise.

Similarly to the unexpected death, this death has the added bonus of not neccessarily having to claim the life of another main character, as its primary purpose is to create an effect in the character responsible. Not only does this save the author the trouble of having to develop a character with the sole aim of killing them later, but it also allows for real moments of pathos and engagement with the culpable character. This is especially helpful for characters who, for some reason or another, the reader may otherwise have trouble bonding with, as well as providing an excellent opportunity for further development of said character. On the flip side, though, a death like this could work just as well for a more antagonistic or tragic brand of character, by either starting their downward spiral or acting as a breaking point as a result of earlier buildup. Combining all the best elements of being both traumatic and pragmatic, this death is one that will be haunting the annals of weepy fanfic for eons to come!

Three: Blood Price. Literally.
Dying for a cause is right up there with pixie dust in the list of things that will make the readers love a character. The cause could be anything - personal, political, or something that the character read on a mouldering poster around the back of the bike shed that morning. Or, if you're like me and want to maximise the pain for the sake of indulging your own inner sadist, having a character sacrified by another for the sake of a cause is sure to create an ocean of blood faster than plonking everyone on top of a barricade, aiming the cannons and shouting "FIRE AT WILL!"

Yeah. I made that joke. Sue me.

This death isn't the most common I've seen, but that's possibly due to its very specific requirements. It's not often that an author will want to risk the integrity of a character by having them tread the line between Noble Soul and Utter Plonker (or, if you take the evil route, Cowardy MacCustard, King of the Skin-Saving Guttersnipes). We've seen a thousand and one characters hurl themselves into suicidal situations for the sake of buying time for companions, or else out of a refusal to give up on their guiding ideals, but although these cliches dominate the overall use of this type of death, there is much more room for flexibility. Self-sacrifice in the literal sense can work quite well in narratives with some involvement of the supernatural as an all-too-literal "toll" in return for aid of some sort. That said, like with the culpability aspect from the previous death on this list, this death probably works best if one focusses on the effect it has on the other characters, and by extension the reader, either watching the other give themself up, or watching them sacrifice their companion. Who knows - in the case of the latter option, if they are too upset (or you don't like the sacrifice-er much anyway and want to escape the wrath of furious readers) you could get two for the price of one and fling them into the sacraficial pit after the victim!

Four: You're On Your Own Now, Sonny Boy!
I'll admit here and now that this death isn't one of the most inventive - heck, it's probably the closest a death gets to being a cliche. Then again, if it ain't broke, don't fix it. This death's main purpose is to sever a character (usually the protagonist, and a younger one at that) from another, typically a mentor figure, or at least an older character who provided some form of leadership, teaching and / or protection in the early stages of the story.

The type of characters killed here are usually the first ones the readers cannon-fodder-o-metre will pick up on; the guide, the guard, the irritating gadfly who is every bit as much of a hindrance to the narrative as much as they are the help. Fair enough, even the more competent of protagonists is unlikely to go through their story in complete isolation, and the odds are that, at one stage or another, they will need to look to their companion to fill in their own weaknesses. This is all fine and dandy; the two characters can learn from one another, and their interaction can create the beginnings of the development neccessary for the story . . . but unfortunately they don't come with an Off switch, and when the inevitable need for separation comes, they are often rather hard to remove.

Admittedly, one does not have to kill them. Even if this character does not have a viable reason to exit the narrative in their own right, a simple incapacitation will usually suffice for prying them away from the story so their companion can hoist up their trousers and Get On With It. Killing them, though, provides a greater finality to the relationship, especially if you are not planning to reintroduce the character, and the time the two characters have spent together will mean that, if handled correctly, there will be plenty of attachment from both reader and bereaved character to make the death painful. Not very original, I know, but sometimes you just can't beat a classic. Especially when it provides such a wonderful personal revenge on the other glorified cliche of a character for being neccessary to the story in the first place.

Five: Traitor! Oh Wait . . .
This one isn't so much a "death" as a slap across the face with one of those irritating foam hands you see all the time in suburban American sit-coms. The readers thought they hated this character - you made sure they did! - and they wanted them to die so badly that they were on the verge of tossing runes into wells in the hope that any ghost ruminating in the bottom will read it and promptly send some manner of otherworldly horror of a death down on the offending character's head while you sit back and laugh until your pancreas erupts. And then, just when the moment of their triumph seems at hand, you snatch it away from them, show them the truth, and leave them crying themselves to sleep for months afterwards.

Pulling off a feat like this is not easy - in fact, it's probably the most difficult death on this list, simply because of how easily it can look contrived or create plotholes big enough to swallow Iceland and still have room for pudding. However, the emotional impact of this death is entirely unlike that of the others. There, the reader feels sad because of the sadness of the other characters, or out of their own attachment to the deceased. This death, however, adds a personal element; they wished death on this character, and now they see that it was undeserved, they feel a certain culpability in wishing for it. This extra twist of the knife is small, but its effect is vast on the reader.

What's more, this character doesn't have to be a traitor, per se, though this is probably the archetype that would most obviously fit it. Nobody's judgement is perfect, and any character, no matter how astute, can still misunderstand the actions of another, especially if these actions seem suspect or remain unexplained in any way. The seeming appearance of these unsettling elements in the other character's behaviour, especially when coupled with supposed links to unfortunate incidents in the story, or even if the character themself simply isn't very pleasant, can provide all the motivation a reader needs to start disliking them. Up the ante, maintain the stress, make sure to drop a few hints in the other direction too, leave to simmer for a few chapters and voila! Not only is your reader spiralling into a pit of self-loathing and agonised guilt, but your story is ten times more exciting, and you've got plenty of wonderful potential for fallout and consequence!


And now, a word from our sponsors - that's you, just so you know. What are your favourite uses of the death scene? Is there a particular way you like to set yours up, or does the difficulty of successfully executing the scene put you off? Which authors, do you think, have most traumatised you by their use of death scenes? Leave me a comment and let me know!

~ Charley R


  1. Okey-dokey. First off, this was amazing. Accurate, hilarious, and about death-- I love it!

    Second of all, there's a book called Deeper. It's the second book in the Tunnels series by Roderick Gordon and Brian Williams, and I don't think you've read any of them but I'm still going to tell you lots of spoilers. Basically, this book is a death-fest. Halfway through the book, there's a "What have I done?" Alongside the two main characters, there have been this pair of wilderness people-- a grown man and his apprentice, a teenage girl. The man is captured by the enemy, and the girl, an accomplished sharpshooter, kills him on purpose to save him from torture. At least, she thinks so. She herself is tortured long after, until the mentor comes back and she realizes that since it was so far away and there was a bag on the guy's head, she actually killed someone else. Whoops. So that was really cool.

    Then, at the end of that book, the characters follow a trail of blood to where the main character's mother is dying. They have to leave her for dead, but she follows them and sacrifices herself to pull the two antagonists down a giant sinkhole. So there's your blood price. Then the main character's brother tries to surrender and gets shot, so there's your "Spanish Inquisition". It's all very, very cool, and a lot more morbid than it seems.

    The traitor death was really badly done in the last book of the Beyonder's trilogy by Brandon Mull. The one person who has tagged along with the group for a while who could be a traitor-- and has been on several occasions-- shows up near the climax and points a crossbow at the one guy who can finish the plan. Then they talk and make friends again and blow themselves up for the good of the kingdom. Supposedly, this was supposed to accomplish both a traitor death and a sacrifice at once, but that conversation ruined it. If the traitor had pointed their crossbow at the character, then set off the bomb himself, perhaps he would have been a good traitor. Perhaps.

    And then, of course, there's the "Fly, You Fools" death you mentioned fourth on the list. It's cliched, but sometimes you need the characters to do stuff for themselves.

    I think there ought to be a disclaimer in here somewhere: deaths are not the answer to everything. I have killed so many characters in my two finished novels, and about half of them were necessary. Do not kill someone for the sake of killing someone. Kill someone for a good emotional wrench, as in the traitor case; kill someone to get the main character on his own, as in the mentor case; kill someone because he's wearing a red shirt, as in the unexpected case; but never kill someone because you don't like them and whoops, man overboard.

    1. Aah, I read Tunnels a long time ago, but didn't like it all that much. Second book sounds like carnage - can't say I like the sound of it that much. Sounds like a James Cameron movie.

      Indeed - gratuitious death is NOT a good thing. If the character is a pain, do something with them to make them useful. Whether or not that involves killing them is a different matter, but a plot needs to be tight enough to make the deaths worthwhile. Otherwise you defeat the point of them and just make them boring.

  2. Oh good, I'm not the only one who likes death scenes. :D They make me cry and sometimes mentally scream at the author, but I love them anyway.

    I like use #2.

    And as for authors who most traumatised me because they're big fat CHARACTER-KILLING MEANIES... probably Rowling. Tolkien. George R.R. Martin (that worries me because I've only read the first book...still lots of people left to die).

    1. Haha, I can only agree with you on all counts. Also, brace yourself. Death is coming. Just like Winter.
      "A Storm of Swords" left me nearly comatose with grief for an entire afternoon. DAMMIT GRRM. WHYYYYYY.

      But I shall stop there, and agree on all your choices. Those authors owe me my humanity back. Although Tolkien has the highest bodycount thanks to the Silmarillion.

  3. "one of those irritating foam hands you see all the time in suburban American sit-coms" He he! We don't get poked fun at enough over here, apparently, if this made me laugh more than anything has all day. :)

    Anyways.... awesome list! I now feel an urgent need to kill off some characters... seeing as I really haven't yet. Well, I did once... though it doesn't really count since I resurrected him. :)

    1. I'm very glad! I never quite worked out if those were a real thing or not. Are they? They seem so . . . preposterous.

      That said, I'm very glad you enjoyed the list! And do give a death scene a go - they're surprisingly good fun once you work out the hows and wheres!

  4. I use number 1 & 2 a lot in my book. Tolkien and Collins are really good at the whole "death" thing:)


    1. Hello there! Welcome to the blog!

      Ah, yes, one and two are pretty handy, eh? And I couldn't agree more on the Tolkien and Collins count. I'm still bearing scars from the end of "Mockingjay".

    2. Oh yes, Mockingjay *shudders*. In the next chapter of my book I have to kill of my favorite character *sobs* using the number two technique. Even the chapter name makes me sad... "Blood on My Hands." Poor Nimueh, she's going to go crazy after this...:( I love your blog, by the way=D


  5. I've definitely done the first three (by Hamlet, you know I've done the first one. You were furious. As for the other two... that's just Watching in a nutshell), and I've played with four and five. I write too many death scenes :)

  6. I haven't actually ever killed a character before but I'm planning quite a few nasty deaths. Is it crazy that I'm really excited about one of them? One of my all time favorite characters! Why would this bring joy to me? No matter. It will be dreadfully beautiful!

    By the end of this post I planned almost three deaths. Thank you! I hope they shall work out. (And by "work out", I really mean "I hope they are so heartwrenching that I cry whilst writing them". hehe)

    I think I might try number five...*braces self for probable failure*