Thursday, August 5, 2010

Only So Many Ways To Die

I have been writing a lot of death scenes lately. Not surprising considering that the manuscript I am working on is a war story and I'm near the end. It's the climax. It's supposed to be dramatic but I'm worried that's its just coming off as numbers. So many at once seem to take the significance out of each individual's death. All the scenes are the same. The battle wound. The death tremors. The unseeing eyes. If I'm bored I'm sure the reader will be but how many other ways can I write a death?

There are only so many kinds of weapons. Only so many places on a human body for them to penetrate. So some of my characters scream and others don't. Some die instantly while others go feverish and rave. Some die off stage and I only have to describe their death grins and lifeless complexions. It doesn't feel like enough. The deaths are still mechanical. How do you convey everything involved in the loss of a life with mere words.

Maybe that's what I want. Maybe I want me readers to be sick of death to the point where they feel numb. Still, just because I want the to feel the repetitions of people dieing doesn't mean I want my writing to be repetitious.

The most effective death scene I have ever read was only two sentences (spoiler warning. If you have never read The Kestral by Lloyd Alexander go do so now and come back):

(paraphrased because I don't have a copy of the book handy) Theo saw a lump of something like a side of meat. It took him a moment to realize that it was Stock.

That's it. Two sentences. The death even happened off stage (I really think the Greeks may have been on to something there)

I say two sentences but really it was much more than that. The impact of those sentences were supported by the rest of the book.

First, the reader is irrevocably fond of Stock. He is enthusiastic, good natured, amusing and has for the last chapter or so been the only person Theo (the viewpoint character) can really call a friend.

Second, the scene before featured Stock doing nothing particularly heroic or companionable. No last huzzah or random oaths of friendship to tip the reader off. He was just there and now he isn't.

Third, (and this is very closely connected with second) shock. This is where Lloyd Alexander breaks the rules. He begins the passage leading up to the death with “The next week Stock dies”. Yes, yes he does. He tells. I had to read that sentence again the first time. But it gets worse. He then proceeds with narrative summery as he explains how Stock left on a routine raid, how long it took of him not coming back before the commander decided to send a party after him, how Theo insisted on being in that party, how long it took them to find the remains of the battlefield. All in a paragraph or two while the reader hopes illogically that they misunderstood the sentence in the beginning of the scene because it was so straightforward and had nothing (apparent) leading up to it. Then Theo find what you knew he would and it is Stock and he is dead.

Fourth, (or maybe this is the reason those two sentences needed to be so poignant?) is Theo's reaction. Until this point he has been as much a pacifist as someone technically fighting a war can be. He winces when spies are shot and prisoners are interrogated and hasn't actually killed anyone himself. But when he sees his friend's body he takes charge of the scouting party and slaughters the enemy soldiers responsible. The reader doesn't blame him. They loved Stock too.

Could I write six death scenes this strong in the closing chapters of my manuscript? I'm not sure I should try. For one thing it would be exhausting. For the reader as much as for me. But mostly because this was a major turning point in The Kestrel's plot. Six major turning points in the last five chapters? Too much. I can only focus on the deaths in the way that they impact the surviving characters and shape the direction of the plot. Anything else is going to be repetitive.

1 comment:

  1. I've never killed anyone, but I've killed plenty of characters. I've found that reading other similar novels (mostly about war) can give me ideas on how to tweak a death. If the character dying isn't really central to the plot it doesn't probably need to be a huge scene.

    There's also the idea of where you start the scene- before, during, or after the death. I've used all three in my writing to jazz up death scenes.