Stylize Your Demise

By the way you make your descriptions poetic or factual, you can manipulate reader reactions.  By giving the facts of a gruesome scene, you can inspire disgust or horror.  By glossing over those facts, you can inspire a more abstract emotion having to do with the way the scene impacts the character– such as sadness, fear, or more tension.  Factual representation gives you an emotional response to those facts, very real and certain.  Abstract representation gives you an emotional response to what this means to the character.  (I covered all this with examples and pitfalls in my post Writing with Style.)

What does this mean for a character death?  In fantasy and science fiction, people die all the time, but the description of that death varies in style.  Sometimes it’s poetic, only showing the gun firing and the character’s battleaxe clattering to the floor as if in slow motion.  Other times it’s very matter-of-fact, showing the gun shooting the character and then moving on.  It isn’t that the factual representation isn’t glossed over– it just isn’t poeticized, shot in slow motion with a tint on the camera and never showing the blood.  It can be gone over in gory detail, or it can be stated and passed over.  All of these styles create a different reaction from the reader.

The poetic style creates, as I said, the question of what this means for the main character.  If Bill’s crossbow-wielding sidekick (Dave) dies, the implications might be manifold: the villain can only be killed by a crossbow quarrel, or Dave was responsible for pulling Bill out of a deep funk earlier in the book, or both.  When Dave dies, Bill must feel terrible– how can he ever find the Mayonnaise Spreader of the Apocalypse without Dave?  Dave saved him, Dave buoyed him up, Dave had far better aim with the pivotal crossbow than Bill ever had.  Dave’s death has implications both for Bill and for Bill’s quest.

But imagine if Dave’s death was described in a few sentences: Bill and Dave are talking around the campfire when suddenly…

Gunshots split the air.  Dave slumped forward, blood staining his shirt red.  Bill jumped up, drawing his penknife and whirling to face his attackers.

A few things happened there.  Dave had a one-sentence send-off, no emotion at all.  He’s been such a big part of this quest, and now he’s gone– and nothing happens.  That’s the other thing: Bill doesn’t mourn.  Since the reader enjoyed having Dave around, he’s expecting sadness from Bill, creating sympathy.  Instead, Bill jumps up and begins to fight without a thought.  Sure, it moves the plot forward, but the emotion isn’t there.

But what reaction does the reader get?  They get shock, a little bit of disgust.  Dave’s death feels very cold through Bill’s eyes– instead of the emotion they expected, they get that quick sentence and Bill goes on to fight.  Sure, Bill might be a seasoned fighter, not sparing the time to mourn, but that isn’t sympathetic.  No matter how seasoned he is, Dave was important to him (at least, he should have been if there was any sympathy up to this point); he should at least have a moment of shock.  That moment of shock would be given by poeticizing the description, slowing it down as if in slow motion.

Gunshots split the air.  Dave started, the grin fading from his face.  He frowned down at the hole in his shirt, already creeping with warm red liquid.  He slumped forward.

“Dave!” shouted Bill.  A bullet split the ground next to his hand and he whirled, whipping out his penknife.

This sequence accomplishes the same plot purpose as Dave’s death before (poor Dave, dying so many times in the same post), but with emotion.  The reader feels the same shock and emotional impact as Bill does, which builds sympathy, instead of passing over it coldly.  This improvement, combined with a weepy moment later in the story, does wonders for the emotion of the story.

However, there are times when you want to pass over a death coldly and quickly.  If Bill led an army into battle alongside an army sergeant and the sergeant is the first to be gunned down, his death would be out of place very emotionally (unless Bill is a really emotional guy).  Instead of describing it in slow motion, you can tell the facts and go over the death.  There are emotional points elsewhere in the story, probably elsewhere in the scene– but pulling on the emotion here and then demanding more emotion later desensitizes the reader.  By skimming over the shock and emotion of the death, you make the battle more real while leaving emotional contrast for later.

The poetic or factual nature of your description can accomplish the purpose your character death is supposed to achieve.  (After all, characters shouldn’t die without a purpose.)  If the character’s death spurs the main character on to new heights, it should be emotional and therefore poetic.  If the death is going to spur the character on at all, in fact, it should be poetic.  If the death is just for the sake of reality, as in a battle, and you don’t want to take too much emotion, so you present the facts and move on.  It depends on your purpose.  However you choose to use your character’s death, make your description work toward that end.

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57 thoughts on “Stylize Your Demise

  1. Okay, first of all, I apologize. My mouse decided to screw up on me, so somehow I ended up publishing a comment that has…absolutely nothing in it except for what I think is an apostrophe. Please, blame my mouse, not me. I swear, it wasn’t intentional!

    Secondly, I agree with everything in this post. I’d add some kind of further comment here, but…I really need to work on writing any description at all before I can really work on writing anything like this. Seriously, my description, when it isn’t nonexistent, sucks. Or maybe it sucks because most of it is nonexistent. I’m not sure which yet.

    1. Would you like me to delete the comment? If not, we can immortalize it as a poetic description of a death scene. A fly’s death scene. From far away.

      Yes, of course. I understand.

      1. Hehe, either one will do, I suppose.

        Good. Now I don’t feel quite so bad. One day, I really will have something interesting to say. I promise. I don’t, however, promise anything about that day being soon. Unfortunately.

      1. (I doubt anyone cares anymore, but yes, the mayo is for moisture. And I’ve had such a cake. Tasted perfectly fine.)

  2. Is it just me, or have you been focusing on sympathy and style quite a bit lately? Anyway, it’s fun to read. I really do enjoy talking about style, and this post about character deaths really hit the spot. Character deaths are difficult to write. I’ll be killing two of my secondary characters in this novel.

    When you killed Dave the second time–(that’s something I say in my novel, when people come back to life and die again xD)–when you say he “slumped down” and the grin fell off his face, it reminded me a lot of Fred’s death in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. I thought the scene was exceptionally well-written.

    Liam, I have a request. Could you possibly do a post on sympathy and villains? If not, could you help me out a bit? I have a villain with a pretty sad past, and it’s not so hard for me to make him sympathetic. However, I feel like once the reader starts relating to him, he loses a great part of his villainous aura (?). When J.K Rowling talked about Voldemort’s backstory, my dad felt like he’d become less of a monster and more of a man, and therefore, didn’t like Voldemort as much as a dark lord. (My opinions of Voldemort being a boring villain are another thing altogether…)

    I will have to detail out my villain’s backstory sooner or later. I’m pretty worried about it because I’m already having problems with him. He’s a great character and everything, but one of my alpha’s described him as “passive aggressive”. Maybe that will change because he’s going to actually murder people in this novel…I don’t know. Either way, I’m quite concerned. I don’t want him becoming too sympathetic, but the backstory is too important to just gloss over.

      1. Um, Liam, I have another favour to ask of you…
        When you have the time, could you please skim through a story on Wattpad? My friend’s been working on it and she wanted me to have a look. I’m glancing through it now, and apart from the obvious, there is something extremely off about it. A certain stiffness. I can’t really describe it. It would mean a lot to me if you could look at it whenever you’re free. Maybe I can link it to you when I see you on the chatroom next.
        Let me know if you can do this.
        Thanks so much! 🙂

  3. I definitely agree. And the poetic/factual line is a really tough one to walk, methinks. Like you said, the factual deaths tend to disgust the reader because without the emotion or proper way for a character you’re most likely invested in to go, you’re left feeling pretty empty. Not sad–just empty. (This happened to me semi-recently with a certain, not-to-be-named trilogy end.) But on the other hand, if you add in too much emotion, the plot can really just drag, and it can even take away from the empowerment of the surviving character. I always like it when authors slip in obvious moments of mourning throughout action, and maybe fade to black with crying or some kind of memory of the dead character after a big scene–stuff like that where we have real, palpable emotion without sacrificing plot.

    Great post!

  4. Good post! I have not yet had to kill anyone off (well, that’s not entirely true, but the one death I had I cut because that death served no purpose), but I should think this same concept would work in other emotional situations as well. The character just found out that their best friend has been lying to them, for example.

    Algernon looked at Bunbury in surprise. “You’ve been lying to me all this time?”
    “Yes.”
    Algernon stalked away. He had work to do.

    Okay, so crummy example, but I still think this concept would work. If Algernon just goes about his daily routine after this, then he isn’t very sympathetic. The reader would expect him to feel betrayed, and in turn feel betrayed by the author for not delivering the correct reaction.

      1. “Of course it’s a good point. I don’t go around making bad points.” — A character in the first draft who got the axe. (Metaphorically speaking. I didn’t actually kill her with an axe.)

  5. I tend not to go into gory or emotional detail with characters who end up kicking the bucket. You had really good examples of different ways to whack off a character! (Though, I admit, I had to stop myself from laughing out loud when poor Drake died the third time when I first read this post. Later tonight when I thought about him again, I kept thinking of that guy who shouts “I’m not dead yet!” from Spamalot.)

    Thanks! I’m going to enjoy killing characters more after reading this! 😀

  6. Eek! A post about dying!

    It’s true, though. There are different ways of killing characters and different authors with different styles do things different ways. (That’s got to be the world record for number of times “different” is used in a sentence. Okay, maybe not quite.) Sometimes it works, sometimes…well, it can feel rather aggravating to the reader. At least in my opinion, but maybe I just get annoyed too easily when characters die and not a word is said about it. After all, I’d like to see me try. Or…maybe I wouldn’t. I don’t like killing characters. I still don’t think I’ve ever really done it…though I have had characters that died before the book even began…but that’s a whole other story.

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