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.