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