I had to kill someone last week. I dreaded it as much as I looked forward to it. I wasn’t sure how to do it. I only had vague ideas…with a candle-stick in the library? I pondered the options. Whatever I did, what was more important was the reason I had to kill her. She had become too important, but not important enough. Oh, the contradictions we create when we write! I knew the only way for this person to become important enough was for her to die. So in the end she got it with a heart attack beneath the wisteria.
Writing the death scene was much simpler than I thought it would be. I did my research, and learned the symptoms of a female heart attack (which can be significantly different from typical male symptoms). I re-read what I had written about my character’s situation in the preceding scenes and was surprised to find the warning signs already there, before I had even decided on how to kill her. This tells me I should trust my subconscious. Long ago, I thought perhaps she would need to die in the story, but changed my mind. Apparently, this bug never let go. It became obvious that she needed to die. She was a crutch, making life too easy for my main character, Suzanne. When I finally started to imagine this character dead, I began to see how her death would propel Suzanne, and the story, forward. Indeed, writing the following scene, where she learns of the death of this person, my writing came alive like it hadn’t in a long time. Suzanne did things I never expected, but it was fresh and alive and real.
A few other things surprised me, and taught me how to write the scene, and Suzanne’s reaction to it:
1. From the beginning of the piece, write as if this character is going to live to the end. Develop the character well, and make sure the relationship between her and the main character is strong and clear.
2. If you have developed the character and her relationship to the MC well, details from the character’s life should come out more than the details of the death. Draw out the emotional reaction of the characters to those details.
3. Avoid cheesy exposition. Death often comes as a surprise. Keep the description of the death spare, and let yourself be surprised by what happens as you write.
4. The reason for the death is usually more important than the death itself. Focusing on build up (when the character’s death is expected) and/or follow-up (when it is unexpected) will help readers connect with that reason. The reactions of the other characters to the death should be catalysts for moving the story forward. For excellent examples of this, see J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, which is replete with unexpected deaths followed with brilliant reaction and plot movement.
5. Write to good “death” music. Choose a playlist or a long piece that gets you into the right emotional space of the scene for that character. The suicide death of a teenager in angst (think Everybody Hurts by REM) needs decidedly different music than a mother who is loosing a long fight with cancer (think Albinoni’s Adagio in G). But really, use whatever works to get you feeling while you write. I used music from the American Beauty soundtrack. That story has nothing to do with my story, but the music was perfect for my scene – quiet, somewhat sleepy, private, with a definite tension.
It is ironic that I found so much life in my writing and my process while working on this death scene and its follow-up. Perhaps that is another lesson. Writing is often about touching the center of life, plugging into that electric Source that feeds us, creates us, and helps us create. Death is one of the most profound ways we discover and interact with that Source. I absolutely loved writing this stuff. Maybe that’s why J.K. Rowling wrote so much death in her books. She mentioned in an interview with Oprah that the writing of the series helped her process her mother’s death. And though my characters’ experiences and reactions are not similar to my reactions to loss, the writing of it has given me a new way to consider those losses. It has been cathartic! I laughed. I cried. I’m sure my colleagues with whom I share an office think I’m nuts!
This is the first “murder” I’ve ever committed. I sure hope it isn’t the last! I love being a writer.