This past week has reminded me about the frailty of life.
I started writing this blog post about how to capture death in our writing two weeks ago, before some of my favorite people in the entertainment industry passed away. Also, my husband’s childhood friend passed away suddenly and we went to the funeral over the weekend. I thought to discard this post because what is my little voice going to illuminate that others have said better? But I’m feeling brave, so here goes.
First off, I loved David Bowie. I loved his theatrics. He made me brave in my art and I’ve listened to him while I create art, music, and words. As a child, I fell in love with him in Labyrinth and then I became a big fan afterwards. Honestly, the Goblin King stirred the first feelings of being seduced to something that seemed wrong, but made my heart race in an unexplainable way. I talk more about that in an old blog post HERE.
Also I loved Alan Rickman most notably, for me, as the Sheriff of Nottingham and Snape. His voice will forever be one that hypnotizes and calls to us beyond the grave.
*This is where my post begins that I started writing
before any of these deaths occurred. *
I have thought a lot about portraying death through writing. I’ve killed off many of my characters and am in the process of learning the best ways to do that. After considerable searching and research, I thought I would share what I’ve learned.
I’ve gone to many, many writing conferences and realized that I don’t recall seeing very often classes available on how to write about death. Yes, there have been crime scene classes and murderous weapon classes, but not really ones that focus on the aftermath of death. So, I did a little bit of digging through old conference schedules and writing seminars and it’s true, this topic isn’t offered much. And yet, so many characters die in books.
The below photo is one of my most pinned images on my Pinterest account. Which tells me that people are searching for validation and understanding about the grieving process. They are searching for an emotional connection.
Let us, authors, give that to them.
How do we honor deaths and portray it properly in our novels?
- First – You, the author, have to care about the character. If you don’t care about them, then your readers won’t care. If they don’t feel a connection, then it will come off stilted, forced, and cheap. “It’s not about the death; it’s about the life.” So breath life into your character before you take it from them.
- Second – Why is the character dying? Sometimes it propels the story or main character forward and is needed. I both love and hate to kill off characters. Most, well all, of the time it is necessary for the story to continue forward.
- Third – Have the dying character leave a legacy. Have their death have meaning afterwards. Show how your character has been strengthened after the death of a loved one. Make them proud.
- Fourth – Don’t leave your surviving characters to grieve alone. I realize that happens in real life, but long passages of isolation in fiction, with only one character, tends to get a bit boring. The reader will start to look for “white space” or dialogue. Your characters can grieve in their own way, but on your timing. Don’t let it go too long with bloated writing. The character might start to come across mopey or whiney and that dilutes a good death.
- Fifth – Take a break from the scene and then come back to re-read. This is important because often times the writer gets too sappy, or the scene is too long, or not long enough. I fully believe that we should write with your whole heart during the sad scenes. Let the words flow. Then come back with new eyes and see if you captured the emotion you wanted or if it sounds forced or unnatural.
Tips to get in the mood.
Let me clarify that this is not the action leading to the death. This is the after effects, the grief. This is the shock, the depression, the denial of which your characters will feel after the murder, or sickness, or how ever your character died.
- Listen to sad, melancholy music. My go-to is Moonlit Sonata by Beethoven (Link to song). On repeat, over and over. I’ll play it on the piano even. Pandora has countless hours of sad melancholy music playlists. I don’t know if it’s physically possible to write about death while listening to poppy or happy music. I’ve found that during these scenes I don’t like music that has words. Except for Darkness, Darkness by Robert Plant. I LOVE that song. Here is the song link. I really hope I didn’t jinx Robert Plant. He’s another old man crush. Even more so than Bowie, more so than just about any musician.
- Pour out your own emotion. If your scene doesn’t make you cry or sad, as an author, there is no hope that it will make your reader cry or feel emotion. So dig deep. Write the scene with all of the emotion and feelings attached. Do not fight, do not filter your words. It is therapy. Feel what you write, if you want it to be felt by others. HERE is a link to a blog post I wrote about crawling out of a hole, especially when writing a memoir.
- You have to be in the right mood. Sometimes I want to write action scenes, or kissing scenes :), or happy scenes. Other times I want to write about depression and sadness and darkness :(. The key is to not force what you are not feeling. It will totally, completely reflect into your writing.
- Go to a cemetery and just sit. Read the headstones, feel the spirits who dwell there. Embrace that death surrounds you. You will hear things, if you listen long enough. Isn’t being a writer observing human nature? So why is that any different than observing the unseen?
- Visit a mortuary. Over Halloween I took a youth group to visit a mortuary. Yes, I’m morbid like that. But it was fantastic! We asked the mortician all these bazaar questions, visited the crematory, and saw the ins and outs of the workings of the place. I learned so much about the proper care and respect that they give the bodies to prepare them for the funeral.
- Attend a funeral. Of all the funerals I’ve attended recently, two funerals in the past five years really effected me. I don’t know how to write about them right now without getting emotional, but I will try:
The first one is about my Grandmother. She collected porcelain bird figurines. Ironically, at the same time as her passing, I was right at the crux of a death scene in my novel Broken Smiles. I had jumped around to other scenes because I was intimidated about writing that scene. Months and months before my Grandmother’s passing I had written about ceramic birds that were touched upon in Broken Smiles, but later became my Christmas novella Eight Birds for Christmas.
So, ceramic birds and writing were a big part of my life at that point. Then my Grandmother’s own death came, followed by her funeral. It was an emotional time for me and I lived far away from my parents and siblings. Deep melancholy had been settling over me for a while before. I felt lonely and sad that I hadn’t seen her the days leading up to her passing.
At my Grandmother’s funeral I spoke and compared her aging body to a cage around a free bird and I paralleled it to her ceramic bird collection. Many of the words made it into my book Broken Smiles. During the plane ride home, the words flowed out of me and onto travel pamphlets and any scrap of paper I could find in the airplane. Here are some condensed words, straight from my book.
She smelled odd, old, and decaying. Her pallor and limp gray hair made her look eighty instead of forty-eight.
Her voice trailed off. It was strange how long she held her breath.
After a few minutes she let go of her life with a sigh. Her hand fell slack, and the wrinkle lines smoothed on her face.
Her spirit ascended like a bird finally being released from its golden cage.
The second funeral I attended was of someone that I had an incredible amount of guilt over. Luckily, about a week before the person’s passing, I was able to make amends. Still, to this day, a huge hole resides where that person used to dwell.
Because of these raw feelings, I was able to relate, fully and completely, with a character I wrote in a novel that murdered someone unintentionally and the guilt that followed. The novel hasn’t been published yet so I don’t want to go into further details, but to me, nothing I’ve written has effected me more. Nothing.
—That is where you need to go emotionally when you write about death.—
There is no skimming around it, no brushing it off. You have to feel the fiery despair of an ernest soul if you want it to be felt by others. You have to live the emotion and recreate it on the page. It is gut-wrenching and hard, but so satisfying.
And you never know how your words will effect a reader. Think back to how many times a book made you feel something, or made you cry. Like I said earlier, people are searching for a connection to understand death. Words tie people together.
I hope I have done this topic a bit of justice. If you have comments or experiences in your own writing or reading, I’d love to hear about them.
Thanks for stopping by!