How to Write Death Scenes

When approaching grief, it’s not just about having a sad thing happen in a scene and calling it a day. You have to tackle how your characters react to that misfortune, and it’s often the reaction that truly tugs at your reader’s heartstrings.

For example, (not spoilers—literally in the blurb) Reine’s parents die in Pantheon, my book. Obviously, I could have chosen to focus entirely on their actual death during their death scenes, which is an effective technique. If I had written the scenes from their perspectives and we only saw glimpses of Reine, we could’ve gotten their desperation for survival, a first-person perspective (technically third-person limited, but you know what I mean), and even dying wishes/last thoughts. This way, I would have left it up to readers to interpret how Reine felt, and important messages don’t have to be spoken to be understood.

However, this book is about Reine. Not only that, Reine is the one who has to live with the consequences of her parents’ deaths; the readers are the one who have to live with the consequences of her parents’ deaths. So isn’t it more fair for them to share that grief with Reine, to share that raw, in-the-moment experience rather than see how it affects Reine later? I’m not saying the first option I gave is bad, by the way. In fact, I’ve already used it effectively in my second book, and I’ve read so many incredibly touching death scenes by other authors that I know each one can seem fresh and unexpected. Writing from the perspective of the person dying is an opportunity to give the readers some peace if the characters themselves accept their fate, and no death is more real than one you experience.

But what if you wanted to do the opposite? When Reine’s mom, Amy, dies, Reine goes into a state of shock. Her brain literally refuses to remember, to acknowledge, what she’d just seen. And yet she’s crying. A tear is sliding down her cheek, and all she feels is numbness.

What I just described is called an altered worldview, where an event is so traumatic that the character literally has their world turned upside down. They slide back to normalcy eventually, of course, but some part of them will always have to live with the fact that they’ve changed forever. Because what happens when a character dies? The dead don’t have to feel sad anymore (unless your world has an afterlife); it’s the living that carry on their legacy, and that includes the impact of their death.

An altered worldview doesn’t have to be as blunt as shock, of course. Maybe your character finds the world a little more . . . cynical after a best friend’s passing. Maybe they notice wrongs in the world they’ve always ignored. Maybe they begin to see their own life as more valuable—or less. All of these are excellent ways to help readers accept that a character is really dead. They might be in a stage of disbelief, searching for clues on whether that character has survived or will even make a comeback, but seeing the survivors adjust to deal with loss can add a finality to any death. Reine’s parents weren’t just wiped off the face of the earth. Their actions—both the good and the bad—will continue to change the world through the people they affected; they just won’t be there to see it.

Happy Writing!

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: