Everybody loves a good death scene. But they love it in that weird, “I-hate-it” sort of way.
Because good death scenes (or near-death scenes) are meaningful. They are impactful, and they’re heart-rending. They make us feel things, and that’s why we read, is it not? We read for the feelz. I read a quote once that said, “I read—not because I don’t have a life, but because I choose to live many.”
I’ve read a lot of death scenes in my life. I’ve written a lot of death scenes, and near-death scenes. Probably over half of the percentage from both the read and the written scenes came out….wrong, for some reason. Probably lots of different reasons, actually. I didn’t feel anything, or, if I did, it was the wrong thing. Usually, the feeling I had was that the scene was too dramatic, and so it was flat and unreal. It was distant.
Over-dramatizing death scenes (or any other major disaster scene) is all-too-easy to do. I’ve done that so often without meaning to. And if you’ve been writing any length of time at all, or written any number of death scenes, you’ve done it too. I mean, come on – we’re writers. Drama is our specialty. We’re SUPPOSED to put mass amounts of emotion into our death scenes, right?
Well, the answer is that we’re supposed to give our readers mass amounts of feelz; and that doesn’t always mean loading a death scene with an abundance of colorful drama. It usually means just the opposite, in my opinion. As my highschool writing teacher said, in regards to emotion, less is usually more. And yes, that does seem backwards, I know.
Another thing that is difficult with death scenes and/or near-death scenes in my experience, is avoiding clichés. However, clichés and drama usually go hand-in-hand. I’ll use one of the most common clichés from near-death scenes as an example here: “My life flashed before my eyes!”
Um. Hold up for a minute. Let’s say you’ve just had a brush with death. You’ve been shot at on a city street by a man in a car with tinted windows and an automatic rifle. For the sake of assumption, let’s just say that this drive-by shooting took less than a minute; and you say that your whole life flashed before your eyes in that time? Really?
Anybody who has actually HAD a near-death experience will tell you that your life does not flash before your eyes. You do not automatically begin to lament every bad thing you ever did, nor do you think about how many things you never did at all. Deep ponderings are not a part of near-death experiences, contrary to popular belief. And often, it’s those deep ponderings and long monologues about the “could have been” that make these types of scenes cliché and melodramatic. I know, because I’ve made that mistake far too often.
Also, I have in fact had a near-death experience before, and for the sake of example, I’ll share it, because I don’t mind. Once, my family and I were driving down the highway, leaving the city near where we live. We were going through an intersection that was under construction, and rather difficult to navigate. I was on the passenger side, when a huge truck/trailer combination comes swerving towards us from the right, coming within six inches of broad-siding my side of the car. No way I would have survived if it hit us, considering that it was going 65+ mph.
Now, this all took less than 30 seconds. Probably less than 15 seconds. And I thought two things: 1. When he hits us, all the glass in going to shatter out of the window, and get stuck in my clothes and hair. Then I’ll look terrible! 2. The car is going to be a mess. They’ll have to clean off all the blood from the seat and dashboard. It’ll probably be ruined, and we just cleaned it! They might even have to buy a new car.
Probably not what you expected to hear, huh? I mean, I realize that it’s stupid to think those things when you’re about to die, but that’s what I thought. (Besides, everybody knows that it’s important to look stunning when you’re dead.) Yesterday, after getting off of a big rollercoaster, I was talking to a friend of mine about this very subject (not because we thought we were going to die the rollercoaster, mind you), and I told him that story, to which he replied that, “I guess it means that the small things really are what matter.”
Going back to the drive-by shooting; in that 45 seconds as the car is going past, and the bullets are flying, you’re more likely to be thinking things like, “Oh gosh, these bullets are going to hit my car, and I just had it painted”, or “Oh great, now there’s mud all over my clothes—and it was my best dress!”
As strange as it may seem, I think it’s true—small things matter. They matter a lot. It’s the little things in a scene that make it dramatic. One of the best death scenes I ever read was from a book my highschool writing teacher showed me (can’t remember the name), when one of the characters was about to die either of an illness, or from starvation. They are near a well, and the protagonist is going to get water for the dying one, and she turns around, says the character’s name, but the only response is silence. When she looks down at her, in the prose, I believe it said she appeared to be sleeping; and the apple she had been holding rolled across the ground with a single bite taken from it.
That tiny detail made the scene. There was no ceremony, and no drama. In fact, the author never even had to say that the character was dead. But we knew anyway. The scene worked because of the small things.
I was having tea with my writing teacher at Panera Bread one day, when we had a conversation about emotional/death scenes. I had written one, and he did a critique of it for me. That’s when I realized that I had it all wrong. In two words: Too dramatic. The scene was of a wounded soldier coming home to tell the protagonist that his father had been killed in action. Things were way too drawn out and omniscient. Nothing was close; nothing was intimate or personal. It was all drama; it was all emotion—forced emotion.
But one of the things he suggested be put in/changed in the scene was this: That the Hero see the wounded man walking up the road, wearing a military cap, and carrying a second cap in the one hand he has left.
It was the last thing I expected him to say, but it made perfect sense. Right there, in one sentence, I could have said exactly what happened without saying it. And because I never said it, the emotion would be greater, because the reader would realize it on their own, before the messenger ever says a word to the Hero. It’s all about show-don’t-tell.
Over-description and over-dramatizing gives the reader too much time to think about what has happened. Making things large and impersonal basically acts like a vacuum, sucking emotion from a death scene. In my opinion, good death scenes should be quick, and unforgiving, taking notice of a few small, key details.