In his 2005 commencement address at Stanford University, Steve Jobs said everyone wants to go to Heaven, but no one wants to die to get there. Unfortunately, we all die, and so do many of our characters. Death in literature is a common theme because it's a part of life, but the way we write these deaths can add layers of insight to the character, theme, and plot.
Death is not only about the dying. Death can catapult a story into overdrive as characters scramble to figure out how their lives will change. Experiencing the drama and pain for those around the dying can drive an entire plot.
Pay careful attention to the words used to describe the event. What is the mood or tone? Is it more effective to keep it simple, or do long, quiet conversations fit the characters and the mood? I've seen both done well, and each depends on the type of story you create.
I've chosen a few examples of death portrayals to help you write your next scene. The first one comes from my unpublished novel, but will give readers a little insight into the killer's frame of mind. The set-up is that the woman he drugged and tied to a sinking boat is facing the wrong way, and the only thing he is upset about is that he can't see her face.
“I’ll plan more carefully next time,” he said, as he picked a small blue flower to place in the lapel of his jacket folded neatly in his car.
In A Farewell to Arms, Hemingway also leaves out the emotional aspect of death, but for a completely different reason. "After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain."
In Dead Poets Society, the sound of the gun firing leaves no room for doubt. Neil's father, the man we loved to hate, suddenly becomes vulnerable as the death of his son fills his house, destroying both of their lives.
Describing a death using figurative language can also be effective. In The Outsiders, S. E. Hinton used the sentence “Like a candle with the flame gone,” to describe the body of Johnny Cade, who died a heroic death saving children from a fire.
Is death quiet, loud, or lonely? Does it take place on a battlefield, or in an empty hospital room? Is the dying subject surrounded by a spouse and large family, or a former lover no one knew about? Perhaps a childhood friend, or the son or daughter who hasn't been heard from for decades shows up for reasons not quite clear until making a shocking confession.
Showing who cares about an impending death, and who is there only to be seen by the others can explain character motives. A frail figure in a deathbed may work as another character reveals how the dying character hurt her, and share how much she enjoys watching him suffer. Or a seemingly devoted wife watches helplessly as her husband grows weaker by the day, until the writer reveals that she prepares his favorite meals with a little bit of salt, pepper, and poison.
Edgar Allan Poe said, "The death, then, of a beautiful woman is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world." Poe's life was full of death, and often the topic of his work. A symbol of death may be small, as when a drop of blood appeared on the lip of his beloved wife as she sang. Death had announced itself through that tiny red dot, but the implication was huge, for he knew in that moment she had tuberculosis.
If your character dies at the hands of someone else, what does it say about both of them? Choosing the right weapon can be instrumental in determining the type of betrayal or pain felt by the attacker. Strangling or stabbing is intimate, while shooting from across the room isn't as personal. The death may also explain a code of honor the victim or attacker lived by, or whose love was unrequited.
Death is simple for the dying, but complicated for everyone else. The next time you write a death scene, determine how the death affects the entire story, and not just the victim.
Mary Horner earned The Writing Certificate from the University of Missouri, and teaches communications at St. Louis and St. Charles Community Colleges.