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Okay. In the story there's a flashback where one of the main protagonists loses his best friend in a battle where he was the only survivor. His best friend is a important character and, because of that, I want him to go out a bit dramatically. But I fear that the scene will become overdramatic, especially when the protagonist has to promise that he'll live to his dying friend.

What are some mistakes I can avoid when writing such a scene?

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    Be careful not to take it too far the other way, you could make it look like your other characters don't care about the victim. The TNG episode Skin Of Evil was disliked by a lot of fans for exactly that reason, they killed off a regular character in a manner normally reserved for a redshirt. – GordonM Sep 21 '17 at 13:49
  • Is the friend character somehow presented in the novel? You mentioned him dying in a flashback, so in the past; I'm assuming that the readers didn't have the chance to know this character (correct me if I'm wrong). If that's so, no matter how beautiful the death scene is, they will not feel invested with his death because they do not know him. It will work if you show properly how important he was for your protagonist - since the audience should root for him - before showing his death. – Liquid Nov 11 '18 at 8:44
  • One thing that I read commonly occurs to soldiers when their friends die is that their first thought is "I'm so glad it wasn't me," and later, they get really guilty about being selfish and uncaring, which can psychologically destroy them. – Richard Smith Nov 13 '18 at 3:36
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Over-dramatizing situations is one of the most common pitfalls I see early-stage writers fall into. My best advice would be to give it to another person and have them read it. If they blush, grimace, or act embarrassed for the characters, it's likely too dramatic. Some points to remember though:

  • Remember the five stages of grief. You can incorporate one (or more) that suit your character into the scene. If he is angry, it will seem real. Realism does not often prompt drama, and your reader focuses more on not crying than they are on criticizing the drama.

  • Don't be stupid, keep it simple. This saying works well here. Instead of telling the readers about the amount of blood on the ground, tell them of the main character's pounding heart or the chills down his or her spine.

  • How does your character die? Is it kicking and fighting and never giving up? Or does he accept it and move on. Give plenty of consideration to this question, instead of going with a traditional death scene that we may see from Hollywood.

  • Focus on the emotion. This will likely be one of the most emotional times for your characters (and for your reader). Tug at the heartstrings a little instead of thinking about the characters.

I hope this helps you. I wish you luck in your writing endeavors! Let me know if I can help you out any further.

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The impact of any turning point in a story depends not on how the scene is written but on how invested the reader is, in how much they are hoping for or dreading or startled by the turning point.

Over dramatic writing is the result of not having created the conditions in which the reader will react to the event in the way you want. Remember that the core art here is not writing but storytelling. The real impact comes from the structure of the story. Writing is merely a medium to tell stories.

Your death scene will be as dramatic or as anticlimactic as the structure of your story makes it. Focus on that, not the prose.

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My most memorable death scene from a book came from R.A. Salvatore's signature character, Drizzt Du'orden (or thereabouts), who simply stated, "And so I die." Of course he wound up living, but it showed more honor, courage, and intensity than 10,000 words of drivel could ever accomplish.

  1. Be in the moment. There is nothing else happening. Guns go silent; screams are unheard.

  2. People rarely change their personality at death. They die as they had lived.

  3. Everybody sees the white light. There is a moment of Clarity towards the end.

  4. Dudes cry when their dog dies. Whether they cry and show emotion in your regard in the moment should be approached as a writer with extreme caution.

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Did the friend die quickly and unexpectedly? Or did your MC have at least a minute or two to realize everything was ending for his friend? That makes a big difference in how it goes.

This may sound creepy, but it may help to think of death almost as if it were sex. It's likely the most intense, intimate and personal time anyone ever has. There's an old saying I remember that goes "Everybody dies alone." Which means that even when you are with some one who is at your side, there's a moment just before you die where your body cannot experience anything at all except for the dying process. The people around you will just watch you breath a few more times and maybe you'll stare off into nothing until it's all over.

I read a true story written by a med student about watching a geriatric patient die. He compared all of the blood draining from the old man's face as if he were watching the tide going out. I wish I could write a death scene as well as he did. It was profoundly simple but so powerful. I'll never forget it.

Maybe up instead of focusing on dramatics, you should focus on the smallest things. Listen to the simply breathing. Maybe he was struggling and fighting for air, but slowly relaxed and stopped trying. Maybe his eyes were darting around in fear just before they stopped in a cold, fixed stare.

Maybe the characters tried to act as if one of them wasn't dying. Maybe they made some lame efforts to tell a joke or two. Maybe the MC thought of several things he wanted to say, but they were all pointless and didn't need to be said. So they just watched the guy fade away.

  • It reminds me of a book I read called How We Die written by a surgeon. It showed provocative insight into death and dying. – Stu W Jan 6 '16 at 3:40
  • I think that might be the book! It been several years so I don't remember the specifics, but I do believe he was a med student when he watched the man die. I didn't even go into that rush he said seemed to blow through him, suggesting that it might have been the man's soul. It was an incredible and powerful description of death for me. (Just an aside. Autocorrect turned soul into shoulder. So if you read before the edit, I apologize for the confusion. Feeling the shoulder of a dead man is very much NOT a profound moment.) – Keobooks Jan 7 '16 at 2:30
  • "think of death almost as if it were sex." Well, I did not expect to read that sentence today! – Matt Hollands Nov 12 '18 at 11:37
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Not meaning to be trite, but avoid the promise. Been there, done that in too many stories already. But if you need an example of how to do it well, go watch Saving Private Ryan, for Tom Hank's character's last few words, or those of Buster Kilrain in the movie version of Gettysburg.

Pretend the death scene is EARLY in a movie.

Maybe all the dying friend does is move his hand towards a pocket, in which your protagonist discovers a letter he feels obligated to deliver to some one, or something which forces the hero into "I must survive" mode. If it's a war movie, maybe there's a radio call which announces "more enemy incoming..." etc. or your hero realizes that he has been framed for killing his friend and has to get out of there, etc. etc. etc.

That's reasonally dramatic, but doesn't require much "screen time" even if the screen is my imagination as I'm reading your book.

  • +1 Definitely agree with "avoid the promise." It is a lie, really, a promise you cannot keep because: A) Death is inevitable, and B) your friend's death proves it can't be kept, and C) keeping such a promise may require cowardice or the sacrifice of somebody else, including innocents, children, or somebody the MC also loves. – Amadeus Sep 26 '17 at 13:25
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I would keep one eye on what provoked the flashback - on why the character is remembering his friend's death now. What is it about what's going on around him that made him remember?

This will affect the parts of the flashback that will seem most important, and will tie it in with the rest of the story.

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    I'd add that the reasoning needs to make sense. I've read flashback scenes where the prompt is clearly artificial and the flashback is spliced in. Make sure to listen to your characters as you write. – Neil Fein Sep 22 '17 at 19:41
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+1 Mark, insightful as usual. Agree with StarPolisher; avoid the trite promise that cannot be kept.

That said, promises can be made, promises that are at least plausibly able to be kept if the MC does not give up, takes risks with his life, etc. For example:

"Promise me you'll take care of Karen", Roger said. "Don't let her mother take her. She's the only reason I'm here, and I've failed her. I failed my baby. Promise me."

"I promise. I won't let that happen. On my life, Karen will be safe."

Roger seemed to breathe a deep sigh of relief; but did not inhale afterward. Nor did he blink, and as Roger's eyes dulled; Stan knew he was gone. As he laid Roger's head gently to the ground, he said once more, "On my life", and rose to walk into the jungle, his face resolute.

Any promise to survive is implicit: A necessity to keep his other promise, to sacrifice his own life trying to save Karen.

Of course your story can be different, but instead of making a vague promise to live for its own sake, make a specific promise. The dying friend doesn't just want the MC to see a good movie or get laid in Paris, he wants something very specific and very important, one thing, that is most important in his life that he knows he will not accomplish, and the last favor his friend can do for him is to make it happen.

That is the motivation for not giving up, for risking his life instead of playing it safe, for breaking his own hand to escape from the cuffs that bind him.

In other words, "promise me you'll live" is a self-centered promise, and the MC may find himself in such pain (emotional or physical), or in such despair over his own lost loved ones, that he truly doesn't care to live and continue that pain. But "Promise me you'll protect Karen" is a sacrificial promise, once made it makes no difference how you feel or what you want in life, you made a commitment to perform an act and you don't get to choose death until you have definitively succeeded or failed.

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A friend of mine was part of the revolution in Iran that ousted the Shah. He had two stories I will never forget.

He and his best friend were in a street, the friend lay dying - shot - and told him to leave. He had to remain free to fight on. He did, with great reluctance, leaving his friend to die in the street alone.

The Chief of Police was a family friend, dining with their family often. The police station was considered an appropriate target as it was an arm of the government. The mob surrounded it, screaming for blood. My friend hoped to reach and perhaps rescue this good man, but was unable.

He watched in horror as the Police Chief stepped toward the mob, his men fleeing out the back. He was torn limb from limb by the angry mob and later, my friend found only blood where he had died.

My point is that what haunted my friend for decades was more the manner of these deaths than the fact of them. He saw many die, but these stayed with him and lent a flavour to his life, needing to be worthy. Being worthy of great sacrifice is a burden of itself.

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