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How To Write a Death Scene

by BLH on January 3rd, 2010

People often visit Creative Writing Corner searching for answers about how to write a death scene, so it’s about time that I gave my thoughts about it. I was first given the assignment to write a death scene as a stand-alone piece when I was a freshman in college, in my very first creative writing class. I chose to write a creative non-fiction piece about a relative of mine. The piece ended up being fairly successful; it was published in my college newspaper and I received a lot of very kind comments about it. Here are a few things I learned from that writing experience:

It’s not about the death; it’s about the life.

For someone witnessing the death of a beloved person, the scene is not just about the way the person is going. Few of us get to choose how we go, and if it’s ugly, or painful, or drawn-out, that still has little reflection on how people feel about the person dying. When a life is at its end, we think about the life. Start thinking about what that life meant in the grander scheme of things, what the survivors will be losing.

After the jump: more things to do in a death scene.

Avoid Schmaltz

It’s very easy to get cheesy in a death scene, instantly robbing your story of its tenderness and emotion. Err on the side of spare. What I mean by that is, just describe the person’s death; don’t go soaring up into the rafters with analysis and lofty analogies to angels, ascending to heaven, or on the other side, descending to hell. It is a human being, who is dying; there is enough profundity in that simplest of observations to make your readers feel moved.

Go for details

What made people respond to my written piece and call it poignant weren’t the heavy-handed bits or the sweeping generalizations, but the details. I took care with them, mentioning my grandfather’s mode of speaking, the songs he used to hum, his fondness for cleanliness and order. These little things made him live on the page, which is what a death scene is really trying to do. The details make a person seem real. For a reader to feel sad about a character’s death, the character must first live. Choose your details carefully to add poignancy to your scene.

These are a few tips for writing a death scene in your own story or novel. Be tasteful, be spare, be tender, but don’t be cheesy. Good luck!

From → The Writing Life

6 Comments
  1. I’m the author of Police Procedure and Investigation, A Guide For Writers. If I can ever be of assistance with police procedure, forensics, or CSI, please let me know. Or, feel free to search my blog, The Graveyard Shift (http://www.leelofland.com/wordpress/), for answers to your law enforcement questions.

  2. Love the idea that “it’s not about the death; it’s about the life.” Of course that is true, and it seems so obvious upon reading it….but it had never occurred to me before.

  3. Maeve permalink

    I am in the process of writing a novel, and (at the risk of sounding like a psychopath) have a detailed death scene planned for one of my characters. When I imagine it in my head, I love it (or hate it, depending on your point of view: the point being, it was effectively sad/moving, and I felt connected to the scene and characters).
    The thing is, I’ve started trying to write it, and I just can’t get it in the right mood. It doesn’t look right, it doesn’t feel right, it doesn’t sound right when I read it out loud. Maybe it’s just my writing style (still in the process of development) but I feel like I’m doing something wrong.
    Would anyone be able to help me on this one? I pride myself on dreaming up and planning sad scenes and characters, and it’s so frustrating that I can’t seem to be able to write them effectively.

  4. Well, I learned a really important lesson here: It’s not about the death; it’s about the life.
    Obviously, I had some trouble writing a death scene in my novel- which is why I stumbled on this webpage.
    This share definitely helped me clear some hurdles in my writing. Thanks.

  5. jennifer raifteiri permalink

    Howdy,

    I am trying to find information on what happens to the human body when it is crushed to death but striking out so far. Anyone know of any websites? And for future stories, I just love the ‘it’s about the life’ comment. Very poignant.
    Thanks to all!

  6. I like the helpful information you provide for your articles.
    I’ll bookmark your blog and test again here frequently.
    I am moderately sure I will be informed many new stuff proper here!
    Best of luck for the following!

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