How to Write a Death Scene That's Meaningful

Doug Landsborough
April 20, 2023

Death is a universal experience that has the power to evoke some of the strongest emotions in a reader. For writers, death scenes can add depth, meaning, and impact to a story. At the same time, these critical scenes can advance the plot, develop characters, explore themes, and create a sense of loss or change. 

They can also come across as a cheap trick.

Not all deaths are the same, though. In fact, death scenes can take many forms, including physical, emotional, and psychological deaths. 

By the time you’re done with this article, we will:

  • Understand the different types of death scenes and their impact on a story
  • Learn how to research and prepare for writing a death scene
  • Develop the skills necessary to craft a death scene that is emotionally powerful and memorable
  • Gain insights and tips for avoiding common mistakes and writing effective death scenes

These scenes should be some of the most emotional and powerful in your story, so let’s get them right.

Exploring the Different Types of Death Scenes

Death is one of the only certainties of life and has been a central theme in storytelling for centuries. Whether it's a tragedy, a romance, or an epic adventure, death has the power to add depth and meaning to a story in a way that no other event can.

But each type of death brings something different to the table and allows you to, quite frankly, destroy your characters in different ways. But you’re destroying them to mess with your readers, so that’s okay.

Let’s look at the different types of death scenes you can use in your writing.

Physical Deaths

Physical death is perhaps the most straightforward type of death scene. It refers to the end of life in a physical sense, and is often depicted as the end of a character's journey in a story. Physical deaths can be caused by a wide range of factors, like an illness, an accident, violence, or natural causes.

In a physical death scene, the focus is often on the character's condition, the circumstances surrounding the death, and the reactions of other characters in the scene. With this type of scene, you want to consider the why behind the death. For example, a physical death may be seen as a sacrifice for a greater cause, a tragic loss, or a release from suffering.

To make a physical death scene impactful, it's important to spend some time on the emotional reactions of your characters. The way that other characters react to the death can reveal important information about their relationships and motivations. If a character dies in battle, for example, the reactions of their comrades can show the depth of their bond and the sacrifice they’re willing to make for each other.

Additionally, it's crucial to consider the details surrounding the physical death. How is the death depicted? Is it violent and brutal, or is it peaceful and serene? The way you write the death plays a key role in the emotional impact of the scene.

Overall, physical deaths can be a powerful tool in storytelling, but they must be handled with care. By considering the context, emotional reactions, and details of the death, you can craft a physical death scene that is both meaningful and impactful.

Emotional Deaths

An emotional death is the end of a character's emotional journey, rather than their physical life. It can take many forms, such as the loss of a loved one, the end of a relationship, or the loss of a cherished dream. Emotional deaths can be just as impactful as physical deaths, as they often reveal deeper truths about a character's personality, motivations, and beliefs.

In an emotional death scene, it's important to focus on the internal experience of the character. What are their thoughts and feelings in the aftermath of the emotional death? How do they process the loss? Are they able to move on, or are they consumed by grief?

An effective emotional death scene should also consider the impact the death has on the other characters in the story. How does the death affect their relationships and motivations? For example, if a character loses a loved one, it can drive them to seek revenge or bring them closer to their friends and family.

Additionally, the setting and tone of emotional death scenes are crucial factors to consider. A peaceful, serene setting can emphasize the character's acceptance of the loss, while a dark and stormy setting can highlight their struggle and turmoil. Just try not to make it overtly cliché.

Most writers don’t consider this kind of scene a “death,” but emotional deaths can be powerful tools in storytelling, as they offer the opportunity to delve into a character's inner world and explore their emotional experiences. By focusing on the internal experience of the character, the impact on other characters, and the setting and tone of the scene, you can craft something that’s incredibly moving.

Psychological Deaths

Lastly, psychological death refers to the end of a character's mental and emotional stability. This kind of scene can look like a loss of identity, a traumatic experience, or a descent into madness. 

Psychological deaths can be some of the most powerful and impactful death scenes, as they challenge a character's sense of self and force them to confront their inner demons. And honestly, no one wants to do that.

In a psychological death scene, the focus is on the character's inner world and their psychological experience. What is causing their mental and emotional collapse? What are their thoughts and feelings in the aftermath of the death? Are they able to overcome their trauma, or are they consumed by it?

Don’t forget about your other characters, either. How do they react to the character's descent into madness? How does it affect their relationships and motivations? For example, if a character is struggling with their mental health, it can push their friends and family away or bring them closer together.

To make a psychological death scene impactful, it's important to pay attention to the character's inner dialogue and thoughts. What is the character thinking as they struggle with their psychological death? What are their fears and anxieties?

Finally, the setting and tone of the psychological death scene should also be carefully considered. A dark, creepy setting can emphasize the character's descent into madness, while a bright, hopeful setting can highlight their struggle to overcome their trauma.

When writing any death scene, especially psychological death that deals with mental health or illness, make sure to do your homework and treat it in a responsible way. These scenes can be powerful, but they can also be harmful if written poorly.

Crafting a Death Scene

Now we’re going to  dive into the process of crafting a death scene, including tips and advice to help writers create powerful and impactful death scenes. 

No matter which kind of death you’re writing, there are key elements that must be considered in order to create a scene that is both memorable and meaningful. 

Researching Death and Death Scenes

Before writing a death scene, it's important to do your research. This can involve learning about the different types of death all the ways death might come about for your characters. Understanding the physical, emotional, and psychological impact of death can help you create a death scene that is authentic and impactful.

It can also be helpful to read and analyze other death scenes from books, movies, and TV shows. What makes these scenes effective or ineffective? What are the key elements that are included in the scene, and how do they contribute to the overall impact of the scene?

Additionally, you may want to research cultural attitudes and beliefs about death. How does society view death and the dying process? What are the common rituals and traditions surrounding death, and how do they influence our perceptions of death and dying?

Truly understanding the different types of death will better equip you to write a scene that is both authentic and impactful.

Creating the Setting

The setting of a death scene isn’t just a backdrop for your characters, but it can impact the tone of the scene. The setting should reflect the mood and atmosphere of the scene, as well as the emotional state of the characters.

When creating the setting for a death scene, consider the following:

  • Location: Where is the death scene taking place? Is it in a hospital room, a battlefield, or a peaceful forest? The location of the death scene should be chosen based on the type of death, the mood, and the atmosphere you want to create.
  • Time of day: What time of day is it? A death scene taking place at night can create a sense of mystery and tension, while one that takes place during the day can create a sense of clarity and peace.
  • Weather: The weather can also play a role in setting the tone of the death scene. A dark, stormy day can reflect the emotional turmoil of the characters, while a clear, sunny day can reflect the peace and tranquility of the death.
  • Surroundings: What is the environment like in the death scene? Are there trees, buildings, or other structures surrounding the character? Are there any objects in the scene that are particularly significant, like a religious symbol or a family photo?

Above all else, remember the setting of a scene isn’t just where it takes place. Like everything you write, the setting should play an important role in your story. For an ultimate guide to writing a setting, click here.

Highlighting the Character

The character at the center of the death is perhaps the most important element in the scene, so the death of a character can be a powerful moment in a story, one that can have a lasting impact on the reader or viewer.

When developing the character for a death scene, consider the following:

  • Background: What’s the background of the character? What has led them to this point in their life, and how does their past impact the death scene? Is anything unresolved?
  • Relationships: What are the relationships between the character who’s dying and the others in the story? How will their death affect the other characters, and how will the relationships between these other character change?
  • Personality: How does the character react to their own death or the idea of it? If the dying character isn’t the narrator, how does your POV character react to someone else dying? Are they stoic? Understanding? Terrified? Inner monologue and thoughts are central to an effective death.
  • Goals and dreams: What are the goals and dreams of the character, and how do they relate to the death scene? Does the character's death mark the end of their journey, or does it mark a new beginning?

As you can probably see, the most important parts of a death scene are the reactions of people—the character themselves, those around them, and the reader. Leverage this to make your scene meaningful.

Writing the Death Scene

Writing a death scene can be a challenging and emotional experience, but it can also be a rewarding one. The key to writing a death scene that is powerful and memorable is to focus on the emotional impact of the death, rather than just the physical act of dying.

When writing a death scene, consider the following:

  • Show, don't tell: The death scene is a moment for showing, not telling. Instead of simply describing what is happening, use sensory detail and dialogue to bring the scene to life. Allow the reader to experience the scene through the characters' emotions and actions. Get some show, don't tell practice here.
  • Emotional impact: The death of a character is a significant event, and the emotional impact of the death should be at the forefront of the scene. Explore the emotions of the characters involved in the death scene and show how the death affects them.
  • Atmosphere: The atmosphere of the death scene should reflect the mood and tone of the scene. Use sensory detail and descriptive language to create an atmosphere that is intense, peaceful, or somewhere in between.
  • Themes: The death scene can also be an opportunity to explore themes in your story, such as life and death, loss and grief, or hope and renewal. Consider how the death scene relates to these themes and use it to deepen the overall meaning of your story.

Writing a death scene is an opportunity to explore the emotions and themes of your story, not just shock or upset your reader. Make sure you use this type of scene to its fullest potential.

Common Mistakes to Avoid When Writing Death Scenes

While writing a death scene can be a rewarding experience, it can also be easy to fall into common traps and make mistakes that detract from such a pivotal moment. Here are some common mistakes to avoid when writing death scenes:

  • Overdone melodrama: Death scenes are emotional moments, but it's important to avoid overdoing the melodrama. Avoid using clichéd phrases or overly sentimental language, and focus instead on showing the emotions of the characters through their actions and dialogue.
  • Lack of emotional impact: The death of a character should have a significant emotional impact, but it's important to make sure the impact is real and genuine. Avoid making the death feel like a cheap plot device, and make sure it has a lasting emotional impact on the characters and the story.
  • Poorly developed characters: A death scene can be a powerful moment, but it will only have the effect you want if the reader cares about the character who is dying. Make sure the character who’s dying is well-developed and the reader has a reason to care about them before the death scene takes place.
  • Shocking for shock's sake: While it can be tempting to write a death scene that is shocking or unexpected, it's important to make sure that the death makes sense in the context of the story. Avoid making the death feel like a cheap trick and instead make sure that the death is an organic and meaningful part of the story.
  • Ignoring grief: The death of a character is a significant event, and it's important to acknowledge and explore the grief that follows. Avoid making the death feel like a footnote in the story, and instead explore the impact that the death has on the characters and the world of the story.

Do you know what’s way worse than your favorite character dying? Your favorite character being written off in a lazy death scene. Don’t do it!

A Fourth Type of Death?

Now that you’ve made it this far, I want to introduce you to another kind of death: article death. It’s when you reach the last part of an article, like right now.

All jokes aside, I hope this article has opened your eyes not just to the effect death scenes can have on a story but the different types of deaths and how you can write them.

The next step? Actually writing. And for that, Dabble’s got your back.

With all the tools a writer needs—without any of the learning curve or distractions—Dabble is the best platform for fiction writers to bring their book to life.

And you can give it a try for 14 days, absolutely free, without even putting in your credit card info. Click here to get started with Dabble, and go kill some of your characters.

Doug Landsborough

Doug Landsborough can’t get enough of writing. Whether freelancing as an editor, blog writer, or ghostwriter, Doug is a big fan of the power of words. In his spare time, he writes about monsters, angels, and demons under the name D. William Landsborough. When not obsessing about sympathetic villains and wondrous magic, Doug enjoys board games, horror movies, and spending time with his wife, Sarah.