Hi! How to make sudden death scene looks tragically-touching? I feel like i've put all my emphaty but still, i don't think anyone will shed any tears. Please help me!
Thanks so much for asking, darling! I know how much pressure these kinds of scenes put on us as writers. There are so many amazing examples of death scenes in fiction already: from deaths as soft-played as in Up or The Hunger Games to the heavy-handed deaths in Titanic or Terms of Endearment, all of which defined their stories from there out. There’s an expectation to “top” other death scenes with our own, but that shouldn’t be the goal in mind. That’s just popular fiction trends making us insecure, as usual.
So instead of thinking about making other people shed tears, focus on yourself. After all, it was Robert Frost who said, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.” That means that no matter how much you cater to the stereotypical tearjerker tropes, if you’re not feeling it, the readers will be able to tell.
What you should do, however, is the question. And there are a lot of options.
How to Write a Heartbreaking Death Scene
Focus on the character involved. Deaths must be tailored to the dying character and their own situation – after all, watching a 90-year old person die of cancer isn’t as heartbreaking as watching a 9-year old die of cancer, because their situations are different. Consider the character’s support system, and how their death will most affect their loved ones; consider the character’s dreams and if they’ve achieved them. Consider how they feel when they die – scared, or at peace, or lonely, or so in shock that they can’t even process it before it’s over. Know what the character is experiencing and you’ll have less trouble finding the “empathy button”.
Fixate on small details. Less is more – less emotion = more emotion. Death scenes are more poignant when the character doesn’t have time to be sad about every little detail of their death, and when they can’t make peace with their loved ones, and when they can’t say everything or do everything they want to do before they go. This goes for sensory details, too! Instead of remarking on the paleness of their skin and the shake of their limbs and the pooling blood or whatever, pick something small… like the way their fingers grasp at the ground because they’re losing feeling. Instead of letting us hear all the reasons the other characters are sad, show us one reason.
Diversify the grieving experience. Many writers default to “sadness” and crying whenever they write a death scene, but these aren’t the only emotions involved. There’s denial, and bargaining, and anger, and terror, too. When a person is dying, they’re not always thinking about the long-term and why it totally sucks that their life is over – they may just be consumed by the pain. They may be so terrified that they’re desperate to say things and get up and fix themselves, but they can’t do anything – they can’t even get words out, and that’s frustrating and agonizing. So instead of Sally feeling sad because James is dying and their future is gone and he didn’t get a chance to live his life, she may be angry because he swore they would be okay.
For a, um, personal and sorta depressing example: my oldest kitty died last year. She was my cat ever since I was in preschool, and as she was dying, I couldn’t really process it? So I just kept… telling her to eat. Telling her to drink water. Getting angry because she wouldn’t just listen to me and just get healthy and just not die, because in my mind, it felt like it should just be a decision. It wasn’t rational – she couldn’t understand, and even if she could, it wasn’t a solution to her disease. It was just where my mind went. Until we actually had to put her down, I was just so angry that I couldn’t be sad. So that mixture of anger and bargaining can be a very real and powerful emotion to invoke in a death scene. Don’t be afraid to mix stuff together and think outside the box.
Use a callback for that extra “ow” effect. We see this most commonly in the form of repeating something that the character said before (e.g. in Tangled: “You were my greatest adventure.”), but this isn’t the only method. Maybe bring up the first thing another person noticed about the dying character – for instance, maybe your character is very confident and smug, but as they’re dying, their shoulders cave and their expression melts and they don’t have that familiar, comforting confidence about them. You can also mirror previous scenes or create an ironic twist – for example, if Casey sails by the stars and falls in love with the stars, it may have impact to let her die under the stars – to stare up at them and see them distort in her vision, twinkling as if they’re laughing at her, or waving her goodbye, or waiting for her up in the heavens. This personalizes the experience so it feels like you’re there with Casey and not just some dying person.
Really emphasize the loss of control. Death is a powerful decision of the body and of nature, and of whoever may have caused the death. It’s one of the most uncontrollable feelings for the person dying and for the people present with them. Reasonably, loss of control is a great source of anxiety for the human mind – so use this to your advantage. Show that the character is running out of time, and that they don’t know what to do, and that they didn’t see it coming (even if you did). Show that no one around them can stop it, and show how much they want to. Avoid predictable tropes, predictable dialogue, or anything that seems familiar or comfortable to the reader (e.g. “I… always… loved you…” or that good old locket-trope: “Take this and I’ll always be with you.”). Make the situation as uncertain and gutting as possible.
Don’t tie things up with a neat lil’ bow. Death is rarely a case of perfect timing, resolution, and peace – not if it’s sudden. You don’t have to tie up every plot point for that character. You don’t have to fully evolve their relationships with every character for maximum impact. Sometimes, the knowledge that everything is unfinished – that he really could have been a father figure for the main character – that she really could have changed the world if she’d just had one more day – that everyone could have survived if he had just made it through that door – can be much more devastating. Let it leave you with that feeling of emptiness, and that question: “Why them? Why now? Did it have to be like that?” Because those are real-life feelings, and real-life feelings are the scariest kind.
And I’ve rambled on like crazy, but this topic is very important to me so I wanted to go into it! I hope this helps you with your story, nonny :) If not, be sure to send another ask with more information and I’ll gladly get back to you. Good luck!
I LOVE playing as Emily Kaldwin. I just … I need to tell you guys that. She’s such a rare sort of video game protagonist, a lady who’s not sexualized.
Shit, she’s even WEARING CLOTHES I WOULD WANT TO WEAR. That NEVER happens in games! Like, I think Lara Croft in the new games had a couple of cool, optional outfits, and some of Commander Shepard’s outfits were all right (boob plate though). But Emily’s clothes are a power fantasy for me.
Obligatory disclaimer: there is nothing wrong with super feminine or revealing clothes, and if that’s what you like, more power to you. But as someone who has complicated feelings about gender, who enjoys dressing androgynously, Emily’s clothes are a damn revelation.
The black boots! The long, dark coat with gold detailing, shiny buttons, and high collar! The hint of a crisp, tailored white shirt underneath. Pants! A big ol’ belt! It’s so cool. It’s how I’d dress every damn day if I was a literal empress.
AND SHE GETS TO FROWN. Sweet Jesus, she gets to sound tired, and frown, and grunt in a fight.
Look at my girl, RIGHTEOUSLY PISSED.
She’s taken seriously by the story, by her enemies, by everyone, as a real threat. And she gets to look damn good taking back her throne.
The Second Detail is early 90s Forsythe and is unforgiving choreography. Not only is it technically difficult and fast, but a tilt of the head or shoulder angle different from the rest and the entire package looks off. Packed with gymnastic-style athleticism, there were legs flown wide open, as the choreography requires, but without the cool control that gives Forsythean work its real punch.
The group has taken to constantly ragging on the cleric for his “sad by a tree” moment, and we just like to mess with his player in general. The cleric and I are both unable to attend the game one day, when this conversation happens in the group chat.
Player: “We found Buttons.”
Cleric and I both start freaking out, because he loves Buttons and I love when ridiculous shit happens.
Player: “He was delicious.”
The group continues tormenting the cleric with the details of Buttons’ fate, and while I join in on the heckling, I suspect that this conversation is happening just to torment him, so I private message the player who found and ate Buttons.
Me: “So did we really find Buttons, or are we just harassing [cleric]?”
Player: “No, this all happened. Nat20 on Survival to locate small prey, and since [DM] lets us narrate nat20s, I found Buttons. And then I fireball’d him.”
Okay, so I feel I have to address an issue, I, as a thoroughly ignorant Brit, didn’t know until now.
WHY DID NO-ONE TELL ME MARTHA WASHINGTON WAS A FASHION QUEEN?
Now, granted, I’ve not had much exposure to American history, outside of my gran showing me Gone With The Wind, and the little I gleaned growing up from Alvin and the Chipmunks, The Simpsons, and National Treasure. Watching Turn and having international friendswho are enthusiastic about their history was a massive epiphany for me. Wait, there’s a whole new arena of history I haven’t explored? Sweet!
But on of my pre-conceived notions from all that pop-culture was that Martha Washington was a Founding Grandmother. You know…
Looks like little Red Riding Hood’s granny…
Look, granny! Carries knitting in one hand (possibly patriotic knitting. After all, Betsy Ross doesn’t just get dibs.)
Why Grandmamma, what big 1780s caps you have! (all the better to be First Lady with, my dear…)
From the paintings and iconography of Martha Washington, I’d have been very surprised if she didn’t own a rocking-chair. And I’m sure, in later life, she did. But that wasn’t ALL there was to Martha….
Wait, THIS is Martha, too?!
At first, there seems nothing to connect the staid, sensible-looking old lady in the first few portraits to this reconstructed painting of young Martha Washington, or the “Widow Custis.”
One of the first things I was struck by was that for a long time, Washington wasn’t really “George Washington” pre-Revolutionary War. He was the ‘Widow Custis’ husband’.
Now, according to Wikipedia:
“Martha Washington has traditionally been seen as a small, frumpy woman,
who spent her days at the Revolutionary War winter encampments visiting
with the common soldiers in their huts.”
I think the Widow Custis’ rather fabulous wardrobe would beg to disagree!
See the colours up there? Blue - especially that deep indigo blue - was tradionally one of the most expensive dyes available. No-one who could afford indigo is EVER going to be accused of being frumpy by 18th century peers.
Also - I could write a whole essay about Martha Washington and the colour yellow.
This particular shade, known as “Imperial yellow” ,was a big thing in both 18th century East and West. Like the fad for Chinoiserie that was prevalent at the time, this was a cultural fashion import from China.
According to an article by the University of Nottingham,
“Yellow, as one of the five colours derived from the Five Elements Theory surpassed
the other colours when it became the emblem of emperor. It was thought
that the emperor was located in the centre of the five directions and
the centre was represented by the element earth and the colour yellow.
The idea struck a chord with the 18th century west, and yellow became an increasingly popular colour in gowns for the upper class, gradually filtering down to the middle classes towards the end of the 18th century. Back in the 1750s when Martha was the young, attractive, fiery Widow Custis, this would have made one heck of an impact, especially in the colonies. It showed her wealth and status in one go as well as - her ability to source fabrics from the other end of the earth.
I’m also going to add that when marrying Washington, Martha’s wedding gown of choice?
Imperial Yellow. Plain and frumpy this ain’t. Martha’s practically wearing a solid gold dress.
(Reproduction on display at Mount Vernon)
And, keeping up that ‘indigo blue/purple’ is one of the most expensive dyes around theme?
May I present the First Lady’s extremely sassy wedding shoes? In purple silk and gilt thread - and with that ahem, ‘imperial yellow’ silk lining peeping out there?
to quote the excellent @americanrevolutionhotties, these were the ‘Manolo Blahniks’ of their day. And they certainly say “you are one LUCKY man, Georgie boy” in spades (although George was by no means a shabby dresser himself, the gorgeous red-haired dork.) Martha was 27 when she married him, a young, attractive widow and businesswoman with two children and an incredible inheritance from her previous husband. This must have been the powerhouse wedding of the century!
Being an absolute costume nerd, I did a bit more research into Martha Washington’s wardrobe. What else did this fashion forward woman have in her linen press?
This gown’s an absolute confection! Pink, embroidered satin, muslin and fine lace sleeves - and don’t froget, touch of yellow in the florals there. Martha still kept her style!
It’s sometimes incorrectly named her ‘inaugural ballgown’, as it’s part of the Smithsonian’s First Ladies Inaugural Gown collection. Martha strongly disapproved of George being President and actually didn’t show up for his inauguration. She was at home, busy ‘packing’. (So you can add strong-willed and independent to the list of amazing things Martha is, too)
There’s also this rather fantastic gold brocaded ballgown. The colours have faded, but you can see traces of the original colour in the bodice -and can you imagine it glittering by candlelight at a dinner table?
In her later years, Martha adopted a simpler transitional 1790s style that’s mostly commonly shown in the portraits of her as an older lady; practical, in keeping with her status, but a little more restrained (as befits a sober older lady, by the standards of the time) Still, amazingly classy in silk…
(Also, plus-size, and still rocking it. You go, girl!)
Loving the button detailing, very chic.
Sadly, these are the only gowns that survive intact from Martha’s wardrobe. Martha was nothing if not practical and a lot of her and George’s clothes were cut up and distributed to admirers and friends. But luckily, Mount Vernon has a great collection of these remnants of finery, so I’m going to post the “scraps of history” here, with a few thoughts on what they might have been…
Gorgeous red brocade with blue and gold trailing flowers! You can still see the folds where it was pleated, probably into a robe francaise. According to Mount Vernon, the little circle you can see cut-out is too small to be an armhole. It was probably used by her granddaughter to make a pin-cushion.
MOAR IMPERIAL YELLOW. YESSS, MARTHA. WEAR ALL THE YELLOW.
And this lovely green damask - hey, there’s something that probably looked like the gown Martha wears in Turn! Full points, costume designers!
AMAZINGLY similar lace, saved from Martha’s wedding gown. The exquisite lace sleeves would be re-used on other gowns as an accessory. Again, 10/10, Turn costume designers!
one of my favourites out of the Mount Vernon collection. The peach and white and brown… oh, would look stunning on a brunette! I can only imagine this in an open robe, or a robe francaise, or anglaise, or…
*grabby hands at fabric*
well, look who’s rocking 18th century fuchsia and imperial yellow together! DAMN IT MARTHA, GIVE ME YOUR FASHION SENSE.This is my other favourite, in case you couldn’t tell…
and finally, this gorgeous white handpainted silk. You can only imagine what this must have looked like in a gown.
Fashion history lesson over, kids. Spread the word. Martha Washington was an outrageous, daring, fabulous fashion queen.
Black wool and mohair with long silvery threads, short sleeve dress having gold metallic floral brocade yoke with small V-neck and bow, set-in waist and narrow skirt with kick pleat, matching fitted peplum jacket with ¾ sleeve, self buttons and interesting seam details