7

I'm looking specifically into the written medium (NOT screenwriting) and the death of an important friendly character.

It's supposed to be a scene to make the reader scream "please, don't", not "yes, die, idiot!"

Are there any known tricks for writing such a scene?

14

We scream "please don't" because of about half a book's worth of endearments, and making the character like somebody we would like in our own life, or at least in our life if WE were a character in this book (like the protagonist, or somebody else we identify with).

There are some "automatic" endearments for most readers; particularly children. Because they are presumed loved, innocent, weak, less comprehending, and with a whole life ahead of them so they lose so much more: first romances, accomplishments, marriage and/or children, and so on.

Beyond the automatic, what endears us to characters? Humor, bravery, daring, altruism, cleverness (not necessarily brilliance, which can be off-putting or even villianous), and most importantly that they are loved by the main character with whom we identify. By "loved" I mean all forms of it: Parental (and parent-like for grandparents, aunts, uncles, teachers), non-romantic friendly love (with sub-categories of sibling, peer, mentor, mentee, student, teacher, favorite co-worker or teammate), romantic sexualized love (consummated or not, e.g. a spouse, a sexual partner, or a love interest that has not yet progressed to sex, or perhaps sexual congress is terminated (a divorce or illness or frailty prevents it, but the MC is still in love)).

We scream "please don't!" when the loss of the character is a huge loss to another main character we identify with; or if the reader imagines themselves as a friend of the dying character in their world, and loves that character in some fashion.

But that loss has to be built up in the book. The death scene itself can be a few lines: Our beloved character's last words can be "I'm hit." and then he falls down. Or nothing: Many people IRL die without ever realizing they are about to die, they get no last words or gestures, and hear nothing that anybody says to them.

Don't try to write a "death scene." Write a regular scene in which the character dies, and portray as accurately as you can the emotions and actions of those around them, and with them, especially anybody that loved them. Most often, due to human nature, this is NOT instant grief, but shock and denial. Or anger if the death can be blamed on somebody else. Follow the seven stages of grief, it takes TIME for people to realize that death is really death and permanent, and TIME for all the ramifications of not having this person around to come to light in their mind. We cry, both for the loss to the world of a positive force, and the loss to ourselves, including the loss of all future opportunity to share life with the one lost, to vicariously enjoy their successes and joys, to have new adventures and experiences with our friend or our love.

That is real life, and fiction needs to emulate that: If you want us to love and mourn the character death, give us a lot of good reasons to do that, spread out over a hundred or two hundred pages. (You can't do it all in one lump right before you kill them.)

  • Seven? I thought there were only five stages of grief. – F1Krazy Nov 20 '17 at 8:49
  • 2
    @F1Krazy Seven is more useful; especially for writers. See <a href="recover-from-grief.com/…> (1) Shock & Denial (2) Pain & Guilt (3) Anger & Bargaining (4) Depression, Reflection, Loneliness (5) The Upward Turn (6) Reconstruction & Working Through (7) Acceptance & Hope. (However, the end of grief does not ensure a return to Happiness.) These stages (described in the link) provide a better template for characters working through grief, they are based on a more detailed psychological analysis of actual grievers. IMO, of course. – Amadeus Nov 20 '17 at 11:47
  • 2
    Something wrong with that link, I can't figure it out. Here is the link for seven stages of grief; or Goog 'Seven Stages of Grief" if this also does not work: recover-from-grief.com/7-stages-of-grief.html – Amadeus Nov 20 '17 at 12:04
  • 1
    @Amadeus You can't use HTML links in comments, because you can't use HTML in comments. Instead, use Markdown links or just paste the URL as-is (as I strongly suspect you did in your second comment). A Markdown link is used when you want a descriptive link text, such as [this](http://www.example.com) rendering as this. – a CVn Nov 20 '17 at 17:18
20

As is the case with any scene intended to evoke strong emotion from the reader, 90% of the effect is achieved via the setup. If the reader is going to scream "please don't", it will not be because of how the death scene itself is written. It will be because of how they have come to feel about the character over the entire arc of the story prior to their death. Dickens inspired international mourning with the death of Little Nell without actually describing the deathbed scene at all. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Old_Curiosity_Shop)

This is part of a more general principle which I would describe like this: The power of story is far stronger than the power of words. Indeed, if words have any power at all, it is only because they invoke stories. The emotional moments in your story will get their emotional punch from the shape of the story, not the words you choose to describe them.

Indeed, the struggle to describe an emotional moment is really just a symptom of not having set it up properly. If the moment had been set up properly by the shape of the story, pulling the emotional trigger would be simple and straightforward. If you pull the trigger and nothing happens, it is because you failed to load the gun.

9

Why do you want the audience to scream "Please, don't!"? Is it because:

  1. we are supposed to identify with the character, or
  2. because we think we need the character within the story for some reason?

Spoiler in The Lord of the Rings:

(When Gandalf died, I was primarily upset because it made Frodo's task that much harder, not because I identified with Gandalf.)

For case 1, if we are supposed to identify with the victim at hand, and want the victim to live because death is too bad of a fate, then be sure to set that up as Mark describes.

But, there are other reasons we might scream "Please don't," - and these might be more of the tricks that you are talking about.

For case 2, perhaps the victim has information we need, and the death loses that information. After the death, the protagonists must go through many more struggles, because that information was lost. If only that person hadn't died!! So, give the character that private information.

Or, perhaps the victim was misunderstood. I like when characters are known by the audience to be good and true but thought of as villains by some in the story. Think Snape. Perhaps the person was thought to have been a horrible person, and we learn later that no, the person had other motivations entirely, good and true.

Since this begins to feel like idea generation, I'll stop here.

  • You can just like a character (as having an emotional liking to it) without identifying to it. – GlorfSf Nov 20 '17 at 15:19
  • 1
    I think that maybe you should just say “Spoiler about The Lord if the Rings” rather than mentioning a specific character. You are, after all, talking about death in the post so mentioning a character’s name is a spoiler in itself :) – wgrenard Nov 20 '17 at 17:29
  • @wgrenard Ya, that was not my edit and I am rather doubtful that it is a spoiler, but it does make me LOL that it was edited to call it one. – DPT Nov 20 '17 at 17:48
2

As others have said, buildup.

Killing the character just before they are about to accomplish their goal. Character has been on his way home "half the book" to say good bye to his dying mother (so we have had time to build a relationship with him and his dying mother and understand her value to him etc). He have went through blizzards and other hardships, but just before coming to the house [he or his mother] dies.

Now the reader feels "Noooooo, he never got to say his final words to her :'("

Another way is to kill a likable character [that you don't expect to die?]. e.g. Walking Dead

Glenn

  • >"Another way is to kill a likable character" We have to distinguish "how to make people care about death" from "how to make readers sad". If your story requires a character to die, you want this death to make an impact on the reader. However killing a likeable character just to invoke sadness is a cheap tactic. Even worse when the character was created just so they can be killed. – user31389 Nov 20 '17 at 16:51

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.