My neighbors are under the misguided belief that I’m an ordinary sort of person with…generally…a kind disposition. Little do they know that in addition to romance and history, I plot nasty murders and heart-breaking death. And not just for my villains. My favorite deaths are those of my favorite characters.
Can you hear it? A maniacal laughter as I gleefully rub my hands together concocting another death scene. My neighbors may not rest as easy if they knew about my delicious macabre side.
As Rachel mentioned last week—we readers want to experience the characters’ significant loss, as long as we have a big hope to carry us along.
- Hope in an entertaining fictional novel gives us hope to face the real losses in our life.
And there’s no greater loss than death.
Imagine yourself on a train travelling through a long, dark tunnel. Sunlight blinds you as you exit that tunnel.
- Life and hope feels that much brighter after the healing that comes long after the passing of a loved one.
- Rescue and relief feel that much more exquisite at the demise of an enemy.
Whether the death is of a hero or a villain, a good death scene needs:
- Weight—build throughout your story a love for that sacrificing hero, or a deep hatred for your villain, so the reader will feel the weight of that eventual death.
- Pathos—show the variety and immensity of the emotion at the passing of this character whether it be relief at the death of a villain or loss of a hero.
- Detail—death has so many aspects; research what happens to bodies when death occurs and add those details.
- Stop Time—Slow your scene way, way, way down so the reader can feel the very last breath of the dying character.
Below is one of my favorite death scenes, the first death I wrote. I can’t give you many other examples from my books as that would have too many spoilers.
This scene is Miriam’s point of view (the older Miriam, an Indian woman) from Shadowed in Silk. In the following scene Miriam watches as a true-life event unfolds in 1919 in the city of Amritsar, Northern India, when under the instructions of a British soldier, General Rex Dye, his Indian troops fire into a crowd of thousands in a garden called the Jallianwala Bagh:
Bullets made an odd kissing noise as they sped past Miriam, slamming into the mud walls. Buffalo that had been lying in the sun brayed when bullets tore into their flesh. The sound of a thousand human voices screamed. Miriam crouched low and ran toward Zakir.
He came alive at the sight of her and ran to her. She caught him, and whirled to run with him back to the ladder when searing pain knifed into her back.
She fell, dropping the child. “Go, go!”
Zakir got up from his knees. He made it to the ladder that would take him out of the sunken grounds, and Eshana pulled him up the rest of the way. Others from the bagh climbed the ladder, over the wall and into Eshana’s waiting arms. At last Eshana retreated into the mission. Good, good, my daughter. Go inside to safety. Protect the children.
Miriam’s breath came in spurts. Blood covered the front of her sari, and she gave a little moan. A bullet must have passed through her. Ignoring her pain, she looked across the grounds and froze. People shrieked, jumping into the well to evade the hail of bullets. With nothing to hold onto they slipped beneath the water.
Her blood turned to ice when over the din another voice reached her. Eshana came down the ladder and dropped to the ground.
“Go . . . go back," Miriam croaked.
The rifle fire stopped. The cries of the people seemed to cease, as if they held their breath. But fresh magazines clicked into place as the rifles were reloaded. Father. Father God.
Soldiers aimed toward the area beneath the peepul tree where Zakir had taken shelter. Her vision had not clouded, yet all color had gone. She could see well enough when the rope ladder broke under the weight of too many people trying to clamber up. There was no way for Eshana to climb to safety.
Eshana dashed behind a pile of bodies.
Dear God, make the dead a shield for her.
It seemed hours passed, but it must have been only seconds when her beloved daughter took her in her arms and touched the spreading constellation of blood on her sari. Miriam’s chest burned like fire.
The firing stopped. Barked orders echoed across the bagh, and the soldiers marched out. Moans of the dying replaced the sound of gunshot.
She compelled Eshana to look at her. “Light of my eyes, forgive . . . they do not know . . . what they have done. Forgive.” She sank into Eshana’s arms, and her gaze was drawn somewhere beyond the tree above them. A bubbling noise came from the back of her throat, and she tried to speak. “Bring healing, Eshana . . .”
She felt Eshana’s tears drop onto her face and tried to lift her head in the direction of the mission, but it landed in the dust. Her sight dimmed and died as the stench of burnt gun powder lay like a cloud over all.
Brightness penetrated her closed eyelids. The pain in her chest began to lessen and leave. Scents of blossoms infused the air, orange, almond, roses, jasmine. She no longer felt Eshana’s arms around her.
Miriam opened her eyes. A man walked toward her from the far side of the bagh. A soldier? He was not dressed in khaki or like a British civilian, but robed like any man of the east in clean, flowing white, the sun flashing behind his head. He walked among the bodies and those clinging to life. He touched many with his hands, his face heavy with sorrow.
He stopped, and his searching gaze found her. He smiled, and she understood that sense of love and joy she had felt earlier. A cooling breeze entered the grounds, and rose petals danced a wild, joyful dervish upon it.
He beckoned to her with his open hands—hands that bore scars of their own.