03 October 2013

Let's Talk About Death...

by Brian Thornton

 I write about death.

Don't get me wrong, I write about a lot of things: love, greed, laughter, longing, joy, avarice, pretty much the entire landscape of the human heart.

But because I write crime fiction, I also write a fair bit about death.

And lately, I'm pretty conflicted about it.

Crime writers tend to run the gamut between the two extremes of those who treat their writing like they're transcribing a particularly violent videogame, with resultant high body counts and appropriately gruesome descriptions of the violence being done within, and those on the other end who need a conveniently dead body with a minimum of blood and no one to really mourn them. The axiom seems to be something like this: "No dead body, the stakes aren't high enough, and no compelling mystery."

I suppose that I, like most crime writers, fall somewhere in the middle of that spectrum.

I've been doing this for a while, and I've had hundreds of conversations about "the craft," and one of the things that tends to come up when a bunch of working writers is sitting around talking "shop" is that someone invariably says that in order to get the reader invested, you've got do something bold nearly out of the gate, to, you know, "raise the stakes."

This invariably leads to someone saying, "How do you do it? Kill more characters."

With all due respect, I think it ought to be harder than that. It should be difficult to kill off a character. Even (especially?) the villain(s) of the piece.


Let me put it this way:

Last summer, my uncle died after a long fight (and I do mean FIGHT) with cancer. He was 63. That's young. (And for those of you out there thinking it isn't, wait till you celebrate, oh, I don't know, your fortieth birthday, and then come talk to me). When my wife and I went to say "goodbye" as he lay in his deathbed, I thought of all the lives my uncle had touched during his time with us. A football coach for decades at one of the local high schools, he was a beloved figure in the community. When he leaned up in his deathbed to hug us both, I could see, and not for the first time, how his illness had hollowed him out piecemeal, and the terrible toll his fight had taken.

My uncle's passing was a brave, terrible moment, wrenching as hell for him, his family and all those who loved him.

A dear friend (also a writer) was recently diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. She'll be lucky if she lives out the week.

Nearly 80. Widowed. Always ready with a smile to light people's day. Possessed of some of the strongest and most evident and most shining and most beautiful faith I've ever seen. A formidable intellect and keen insight wedded to the kindest of hearts. Irreplaceable.

We would meet for lunch and laugh and talk, and interspersed with all that joy she would matter-of-factly drop stories from her life: tales of the sorts of tribulations that would cause me to gasp in wonder at how she weathered them. And when I would say something along those lines, she would laugh and shrug, and wave a hand, and say, "I'm a tough old gal, ain't I?" And that would be the end of it.

I got to say goodbye to her earlier this week. She was her typical cheerful self, asking about my wife and about our baby, and telling me how much my friendship had meant to her over the years. I unburdened my heart to her then, agreed about our friendship, assured her of how I treasured it, and did my best to put into words how much that friendship means to me.

And afterwards I hugged my wife and son.

My point is that death in real life is hard. It seems to me that it ought to be difficult to write about, as well.

After all, art imitates life. And in life, Death's wide swath tends to leave a welter of chaos in its wake.

So many writers don't give death its due. It, like love and hate and all the furies loosed on humankind when Pandora opened the box, ought to be arresting, affecting. It ought to hit the reader the way the happy resolution to a romantic subplot does.

Because that's real life.

And that's real death.


  1. Brian, I feel the same conflict. After my mother died, I couldn't write for two years, but I'd like to add another thought to your insightful article this morning.

    In January, 2009, my best friend was beaten to death during a home invasion. I feel that we, as writers, should take greater care not only with the deaths we create, but also the effects they have on survivors.

    Please accept my sympathy on the loss of your uncle and what your writer friend is enduring.

  2. Good points.
    As I get older, I find myself more interested in the aftermath of violence and death than in the 'exciting' stuff.

  3. The unfortunate thing is that even a large number of editors will ask for more bodies to the point where it looks like a Schwarzenegger movie from the early 1990's, where the characters killed are disposable because, hey, we need corpses.

    Another thing is that the average killer only does it once. Which means murder should really mess with the killer's head more often than it does, since that is the hardest line for someone to cross.

  4. Beautiful post! I have always had difficulty with mysteries in which the death of any character is treated as merely a means to an end. And after a woman I knew was murdered in a robbery attempt, I found I couldn't even watch television for over a year. Our culture's casual treatment of death as a plot point, without any real consideration of its more profound significance, is more terrifying than any fictional horror story.

  5. Whether it's one death or six or eight or fifteen, it's all about character. Just as sexual tension is sexier than sex in storytelling, "good" murders in mysteries are about what brought the killers and the victims to that moment. The moment itself can be interesting, but unless we know the specific mix of motives and psychology and impulse and interpretation, we're going to be less emotionally invested.

    I recently read a fine mystery that consisted of one murder (offstage, in the opening pages) and a suicide (at the end of the second act). The rest of the story was about the investigator slowly and patiently peeling back the onion layers of interconnected history between characters, confronting them with selective information, and standing back to see what happened. The pacing was plodding by Lee Child standards, but the story was fascinating because I was given room and time to develop an emotional investment in every important character. I loved it.

  6. In my novel, currently looking for a publisher, about eight people get killed. Most of them die offscreen or are disposed of in a sentence. The character I hope readers like the most (of those who die) gets a graphic, ugly death. That's my attempt to take the phenom seriously.

  7. Great post, Brian. I watched "Skyfall" last night and it was a classic example of piling up the body count, explosions, gunfire, etc. - knowing that in the end it would be Bond v. Bardem, which made all of that killing and gunfire boring, just killing time until you got down to that bit. And it shouldn't be like that.

    Even sicker was the presentation of Bardem's "girlfriend" - who we meet tied up outside, ready for Bardem to kill her to (supposedly) show Bond and us how crazy he is. Except we already know that, so the real reason it's shown is a little soft-core violence porn - low cut dress, smoldering blacked and blued eyes, full lips a little bloody, artistic bondage - and then she's dead. And, since she never speaks, she has no impact on anyone... Very common in currently movies/TV shows. Very sick.


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