Rocks Fall, Part Two

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Last week we talked about who to kill off in our fiction.  This week I thought we’d take some time to discuss how we do the dastardly deed. 

When I turned in Mad Kestrel for the first time, it included a character death.  The scene took several pages to complete, because the character was being executed for mutiny, and thus was being hanged in front of the remaining crew.  I was careful to research this kind of death.  I knew how long it took for the character to die, what to expect as each step occurred and what it all looked like.  It’s a fairly gruesome way to go, in my opinion, and writing the scene wasn’t easy, but I wanted the readers to understand that Kestrel, despite being a young woman and new at all this leadership stuff, was still tough enough to take the necessary steps to cement her position.  My editor didn’t agree.  When the revisions came back, he asked me to tone down the execution.  He said it was too explicit, and that it didn’t fit the tone of the rest of the book. 

When you’re ready to kill off a character, you need to give a moment’s thought to your readers.  Who are they?  What are they going to take away from the character’s death?   Killing a character in a cozy mystery is a completely different activity from killing one in a dark urban fantasy.  In cozies, the character never dies in front of anyone, and he’s often discovered in a mildly comedic position – drowned in a pickle barrel in the basement, or asphyxiated by dozens of chocolate chip cookies stuffed in his throat.  In dark urban fantasy, the victim could  be disemboweled by demons, over the course of five pages, with attention paid to which intestines are being pulled out first, what color they are when exposed to air and the distinct smell.  The point is that the type of death and the extent of description must fit the genre.

Once you know what level of description your death warrants, it’s time to decide how to go about it.  Certain deaths are particularly messy, so if your character is hoping to get away with murder, she’d probably want to avoid mess.  Other deaths, especially poisoning, aren’t necessarily messy but can be traceable, assuming the world you’ve built has that sort of technology (or magic capability) available for the investigators.   If you’re hoping to evoke a reaction from your protagonist, a messy death could be precisely what you need.  If you don’t want to be gory, focus on the emotional reactions between characters rather than the physical details.  You’ve done your homework, so you know how it looks when someone has his throat cut, but that’s exactly why you don’t need to write a paint-by-numbers description of the death.  Accidents are a little harder to write, since by their very nature the character mustn’t see them coming.  The reader can have an inkling that something’s wrong, but it’s best to play those close to the vest, as close as you can.  A suspicious rumble in the distance can lead to a rock slide a few pages on, one that the characters mistook for thunder.   

I have some handy research books that are my go-to texts, at least to begin.  Deadly Doses by Serita Stevens, Cause of Death by Keith Wilson and Body Trauma by David W Page are all great writer’s guides, and can get you started.  If you have access to a medical professional who doesn’t mind icky questions and knows you’re not a danger to anyone in the real world, that person can be a valuable resource.  I usually do my best to search the internet and books for the information I need, but when the little details elude me, I call Faith.  We’ve had more than a few conversations involving blood loss and blade damage.  Frankly, I think the stories about the FBI monitoring all our phone calls is an urban myth, because if they were really listening, they’d have come out to my house already. 

We talked about death scenes that worked (and didn’t) last week.  Today I’d love to hear about the ones you’re writing in your own stories.  Do you need help figuring out how to kill someone?  Are you unsure whether you’ve described enough, or too much?  You know where the comments go, so talk to me.

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17 comments to Rocks Fall, Part Two

  • sagablessed

    I get to cheat a bit. As a massage therapist and medical assistant, I got to attend cadaver labs and autopsies, so I have intimate knowledge of the internals and smells.

    I have a character I am going to kill at the end of the book, but not sure if he is going to be shot, stabbed, or other. (spoiler) One character has become a demon with a taste for human flesh. So how to kill him? He has also infected another character (my MC’s boyfriend), so does the bf die or not?

    Of course as this is UF, death does not mean the end, lol. I could leave the question of bf surviving up in the air at the end. I kinnda like that idea.
    Things that make you go “Hmmmmmmm”.

  • Misty, I had to put down my tea for this one, and I cackled out loud at various parts, especially the part about the *distinct smells*. LOL

    Sadly (for people who know me and who question my mental health) I write killer (snort) death scenes. The more gruesome the better. I adore them all, and they are like my macabre little children. What I am careful *not* to do, for my readers’ sakes, is write frightening death scenes. I don’t do psychological horror death scenes, like those from the killer’s POV (except when Beast chases down prey and eats it). My intent is not to terrify my readers but to make them cheer the scene as justice is done. So my care goes into the gore and to protect the reader from nightmares scenes that wake them from dreams.

    “The Silence of the Lambs” and “Red Dragon” by Thomas Harris were different kettles of fish, with a precision of detail intended to terrorize to the reader, scenes to carry away into the night.The writer was successful at his job, BTW, just in case you have been living under a rock and didn’t know.

    That balance was difficult to attain, and I am careful even now to make sure my readers do not feel negative energy from the death scenes.

  • Megan B.

    Great topic. I’m glad you opened it up to discussion of our own scenes. Maybe someone will have some advice for me.

    I’m thinking about two deaths in my WIP that take place in the past. These characters are not introduced until the chapters in which they die, but since the chapters are flashbacks, and they are both important to the development of major characters, I hope it won’t feel cheaty. In one case, the victim is found dead. I describe him as having blood all over his shirt, being seated with his head leaning back (so from behind it looks like he fell asleep in the chair), and he is not warm to the touch. I never say what the wound is, but I had in mind a stab wound. The scene is written from the perspective of a child who doesn’t fully understand what is going on. The killers left a note, and may have placed the victim in the chair after killing him elsewhere.

    The other character dies of an arrow to the back of the neck during a fight. I don’t go into detail, but describe him falling to the ground and his eyes closing as he releases his grip in his sword. I don’t know if he ought to twitch or anything like that? Maybe someone can help me on that detail.

  • Thank you, Misty, for such a timely topic. I’m in the midst of revising my fight scenes, and trying to figure out that precise question. Exactly how much graphic violence should I show on the page? The Urban Fantasy genre is not sissies, but the damage done by claws and fangs isn’t pretty, either. Do we rip their windpipes out, spraying the room with arterial blood, or merely bite our victim? Do we swallow in hot, clotted gulps or drink deeply? Will choosing one path over the other keeps us from getting the nod from an agent/editor/publisher, or is this something we write as we feel best and let the editor guide us after the contract? Oy.

    In terms of WHO to kill; I have less of a problem. The character who is more dangerous by leaving alive, gets to live. The character who makes things MUCH worse by dying has to go. Like I said, Urban Fantasy ain’t for sissies.

  • I get to read medical textbooks as I’m editing them for digital audio output, so that’s been useful information to file away. :)

    For my YA high fantasy, I’m pretty sparing with the details when it comes to slaughter, so far. Partly because it’s part of my MC’s voice to be sparing. I just use a few key ones to make my point.

  • I have the same books you do, Misty — Deadly Doses, Body Trauma, Cause of Death. And, like you, I have a certain urban-fantasy-author/medical-information-source-par-excellence on speed dial. In the next Thieftaker book (this would be number 3, since number 2 is already written) I have to kill off several people in the midst of a smallpox epidemic. And it has to look like they died of smallpox to the doctors around them. But of course they didn’t die of smallpox, or else there really wouldn’t be much of a story there. Still trying to figure this one out….

  • Interesting. I realized thinking about it that I have never killed anyone in front of the camera, as it were. The death and the details of how it occurred and how it must have felt are later imagined by another character–which in some ways makes it more visceral; the “what must it have been like” response.

  • Razziecat

    Wow, can you say “timely post”? I’ve got to write a death scene that I’ve been dreading–I love the character, but his death enables the rest of the good guys to win in the end. The tricky part is that he dies by magic, in a way that drains his vitality but leaves no wounds. So I have to figure out what this looks like to the other people in the scene, and a lot of this is going to be about emotional reactons on their part.

    And frankly, Misty, those two “mildly comedic” deaths you mentioned creeped me out..especially the cookies! :(

  • sagablessed

    COOKIES! C is for cookie, that’s good enough for me! (choco-chip, of course!)
    David, a little thing here: in medieveal times there was a thing called a smallpox-rose: a rose or other flower cursed to deliver small-pox. Or you could use poseys -ironic as poseys were supposed to ward off smallpox and the Black Plague. Or a hand of glory? Or why not small-pox? Do unto them as British brigades did to the Native Americans: the victims were given blankets from those who suffered smallpox, just having a curse that ensured the disease would catch? Just thoughts common then.

    Yes, I am meddling. Sorry.

    Meh, right now I am in the mind-set of “kill-em all, let the gods sort ’em out.” Save how would I write a sequel? lol

  • MaCrae

    Shot through the heart and you’re to bl–

    Sorry.

    I want to write a death scene where the reader knows its coming but still goes *GASP*. The one I have so far is the MC is going toe-to-toe with the BBU and she’s getting her butt handed to her. The BBU is way more experienced and deadly than the MC, and more sadistic. The BBU draws it out and but the reader knows the other MC is running to help and they’re hoping the other MC will save her. But when the other MC actually reaches them, he causes the MC to look away from the fight (because he’s not supposed to be there anyway) and the BBU stabs her through the heart.

    I don’t want it to be overly gory (there’s plenty of that in the rest of the book) but I still want it to be hack and slash fight scene. Do I do a slow death for the MC or BAM! Insta-death! ? (Not to slow because she has been stabbed in the heart…)

  • PeterLast

    Obviously the book and setting have a lot to do with what type/style of death scene you will write, but I’ve found in my own writing that most often understating details of the death is the best way to go. The death itself is rarely the important aspect of scene rather the feelings/actions/etc of the dying, killing, and surrounding characters are far more important to get right. My advice to anyone who is debating is to not focus on the details and realism of the death so much as what surrounds it.

  • Saga, to the question of the infected BF dying, I’d say try writing it both ways. That way you’ll be able to see which course works for the story. Good luck!

    Faith, you’re right – Thomas Harris’ early books were gorgeously terrifying. When I read something that’s supposed to frighten me, I want it to affect me down deep. And he did.

  • Megan, I don’t think that’s cheating. You may not be killing characters that are important to the reader, but they’re important to the protagonist so their deaths are necessary. A flashback can be a tricky situation, since you’re essentially stopping the forward movement to tell a separate chunk of story. I’d recommend not using them too often, if you can help it. But if you can pull it off, fabulous!

    Pandora, I think you said it perfectly – write it as you feel is best. Since you’re writing UF, you’ve presumably read a reasonable amount of it, and have an idea of how other writers in the genre have handled these sorts of scenes. With that in mind, write the scene and try not to worry.

  • David, I’m going to admit my deep dark secret…I’m completely fascinated by epidemics. I’ve read far more about plague and its different forms than is probably healthy, but illness is just too interesting. Which means I can’t wait to read about your ‘smallpox’ victims! Even if it isn’t real smallpox.

    MaCrae, I’d say let the scene move slowly even though the death itself is a quick one. You want to build the tension even if it’s clear that the character’s going to die. When I read a story and I know someone’s about to die, I still want to deny it until the last second.

  • For my WIP, the MC is a former Killer investigating the murders. At the beginning she is only interested in the technique used by the murderer but slowly begins to see the deaths as something with an emotional component. This means the deaths are described after the fact, and I’m trying to keep the details very technical while showing how the MC starts dealing with the effects of the deaths rather than just her professional opinion. The first two deaths are characters who mean nothing to the reader (we first see them dead) but I hope the reader grows to know them and care about them as the MC does. The deaths will all take place “off screen” so I don’t plan to be too gory with the details.

  • rebnatan

    During the first scene of my novel, I mention a danger of life in the arctic, that the ice underfoot can break off and float out to sea; a cold, slow death. Then far enough into the book that the reader’s forgotten about it, it happens to a major character. The drama though, is in the response of the people around the character.
    Another scene is written from the POV of the dying character, who only realizes she’s dead when she’s welcomed to the abode of the dead by her long-deceased father.
    I also have stabbings, beheadings, mutilations, tactical nuclear weapons, etc., but those deaths are more humdrum.

  • Thank you for this post (and subsequent comments). Like many others, it comes at the perfect time. One of the things I’m trying to do in my current novel (going for an epic fantasy feel with a soft SciFi backdrop) is to only have a single act of violence in the entire novel. A gunshot that causes a death, a death that reverberates throughout the rest of the book. I thought the hardest part would be not writing action sequences, but I’m finding more and more that the hardest part is writing that single gunshot and making it actually ring around in the reader’s mind. Thanks to you (guys), I feel I have a much better grasp on what I need to do in order to accomplish my goal. Thanks, again!