Okay, the rant on deathbed scenes and last moments. If you notice a seemingly invisible subtitle floating about, which is “How to make them something other than disgustingly sappy”…yes, well, that’s deliberate.
1) Make sure the scene is physically possible.
Yes, an assassin could slit the throat of the protagonist’s mentor to kill him, and the protagonist could come around the corner just as he was doing it, causing the assassin to run. The protagonist will probably also be the kind of person who kneels down to check on his mentor instead of trying to capture the assassin, because they’re all like that.
I don’t think it’s possible that the mentor could make a long speech with his throat cut, though.
Yes, I have seen that. Yes, both with and without the excuse of “he was holding himself together with his magic.” Luckily, it was years ago. But still.
Choosing the method of death is important, at least if you absolutely must have a deathbed scene where the mentor or parent or friend spills out secrets and proud words, until they run out of breath before the most important one (90% of them are like that). A throat wound is not going to result in, “Son, I know I never told you this, but…” so much as “Bubble, bubble, gurgle, bubble.” That’s assuming that the mentor or parent or friend isn’t dead the moment his throat’s slit, of course. Every notice that most villains with slit throats die at once, while it doesn’t seem to work as fast on the heroes?
Then there’s heart wounds—which are kind of stupid for people to aim for, given that the ribs will get in the way and the groin and femoral artery are usually less formidably protected, but I digress. It’s possible, just, that someone stuck in the heart could live for a while. However, this also is not going to result in long, detailed speeches. Does the phrase “severe shock and pain” mean anything to you?
Diseases, poison, and injuries that aren’t immediately fatal, like gut wounds, are all easier to handle. Of course, pain could addle the last communications of the dearly-about-to-depart, and so could any drugs that healers have given them for the pain, and with poison there’s the problem that the victim often doesn’t know about it until he drops dead. So keep an eye on it. Hell, take advantage of it. Play your cards right, and you’ll have not only a convincing deathbed scene but one where the plot information might reasonably become obscure, because half of Wise Old Mentor’s last words were true and half came from the pretty purple bunnies he was seeing.
2) Remember that understatement is just as effective as overstatement.
Because if I never again have to hear sentences of the caliber, “His words emerged haunted, harassed, tainted by the blood that bubbled up from his throat and chest in a river of rich red gore and sprinkled his flesh like carbuncles,” it will be too soon.
Physical considerations first, again: Even if you’re choosing a plague or a heavy wound to cause the deathbed scene, you don’t need to describe every shiver or every drop of blood. The audience will probably provide unique details that horrify them, not all of which an author would imagine. And lavish over-description of fever and foam and jagged edges of wounds and broken bones can seem like sadism, like sludge, like a localized hole in the ozone layer that’s permitted ultraviolet language through, or all three. There are other areas in fantasy that you could say the same thing about, but none, I think, where the balance is so delicate. So try for language that will get across what you want to get across, without giving the impression that you’re licking your lips.
The other consideration is perhaps more important. Deathbed scenes often make me cry—and then I am irritated for crying, because the author hasn’t done anything especially subtle or unique, just mashed common emotional buttons like the “Son, I know I never told you this, but…” trick. I might cry, but when I close the book, the lingering impression is going to be one of emotional manipulation. The ones that cut me apart and which I reread with iron in my throat are the scenes where the author goes, first and foremost, for what theircharacters, dying in that particular way, in that particular relationship to the people/person they’re speaking to, in that setting, would say. Characters get angry, laugh, and love in their own ways, if they’re well-realized. Why should dying be any different?
3) Remember where you are.
Does the hero fall wounded in battle? Okay. Then his true love rushes up beside him, and he whispers the words he always wanted to say to her—probably telling her he loves her for the first time, because I bet you the author is like that—and then his best friend comes up, and the hero repairs the last argument he had with him, and then his horse eases in beside him, and the hero rubs its ears, and then he leaves instructions about how he wants to be buried and closes his eyes.
Meanwhile, I’m thinking, “Um, hello, the battle’s still going on, isn’t it? Anyone? Bueller?”
The world may well pause for the person who sees the hero fall (although, can it not? I hate that cliché), but not everyone in the midst of a battle, or a ballroom dance, or a court, will notice or care. If they do notice, they may press forward, intent on easy prey or worthwhile gossip—probably the first in a battle and the second in a court, although you never can tell. That will make it more difficult for his friend and his horse to get to him. Others may assume that the first person rushing towards the hero is the one who downed him, and get in the way to save his life. Or the battle may simply swirl past and force the heroine to defend her true love’s body, because people won’t stop fighting while the deathbed scene happens
This is just a smaller part of that old “Remember that the world doesn’t revolve around your hero and won’t be still while he’s acting” chestnut. I think it happens more often with deathbed scenes, because of that idea that the world pauses (see? It’s evil!), and because the author is often writing a character whose focus become very narrow and intent at that moment, understandably so. However, the world can’t just stop without an excellent reason. If necessary, you could place the hero’s true love right beside him so that she sees him fall and can get to him quickly, perhaps dragging him off the battlefield. That would be more plausible than arranging for everyone else in the story to freeze.
Go for the absolutely traditional four-poster deathbed surrounded by friends and loved ones if you must. Just make sure, if you really need an environment where no one can intrude, that you don’t set it up in a place where people would have reason to intrude.
4) There’s plenty of place for the less attractive emotions.
Right now, as I am at this moment, if I knew that I had two years to live, I would be scared. And sick at the thought of my body physically degrading. And pissed as all fucking hell that I wouldn’t get everything written that I wanted to write before death took me.
Death lurking just around the corner does not turn the person dying into a saint, especially if it’s painful. They have every right to feel fear, hatred, self-pity, anger, uncertainty, regret, and the urge to go smash walls with their right fist. And they have every right for it to get worse if the other characters immediately start to scold them, or tell them that other people have it worse yet, or that they have to stay incredibly cheerful and upbeat to preserve the innocent ignorance of the special teenager studying down the hall.
For some people, cheerfulness, or stoicism, or productive rage, or calm and serene wisdom, is what results when they can feel death approach. But not for everyone. If I have to read about one more hot-tempered character who transforms into a plaster saint because he’s told that the prophecy will kill him at midnight on the first day of summer, I will scream my head off. Shut the fuck up, wise old mentors who smack him down with talk about how one life doesn’t matter next to thousands, and authors who think this sort of thing is necessary. Don’t give me this bullshit about how the fate of the world, or the special teenager’s relationship with her parents, or the fact that the hero will die quickly, should control the dying character’s emotions. You might, possibly, be able to make a case that he or she should behave a certain way. You can’t insist that they’re stupid and wrong for feeling a certain way.
And then you turn it around.
5) Not everyone grieves in the same way.
Imagine living with and loving someone for sixteen years and then being told that they’re dying. But you can’t grieve in the open. You’re supposed to smile and smile, because, after all, your children/the special teenager/the dying person will depend on you.
Again, some people can manage that. Others can’t. And the more prolonged the process of death, the more it wears on the survivors. Old guilts and regrets float to the surface. Resentment follows them, pretty easily, and then more guilt for the resentment. If the very, very long process also eats up, say, family funds, or if the survivor feels compelled to attend the dying person due to a sense of duty but no real affection, the waters get murky.
I would have intense sympathy with an eldest son who knows that he’ll inherit on the death of his father and is frantically trying, among all the other things, to learn to manage the family properties, settle old debts, arrange for the best healers for his father, comfort his mother, see what he can do about his siblings, entertain his father’s friends when they come to visit, fend off misguided offers of help, and maintain a cheerful façade. The younger son who only has to sit and talk with his father every day? He’s not the better heir because he spends every moment at his father’s bedside, or because he’s the one that his father wants to speak to alone right before he dies. If nothing else, he’s not out there comforting his mother and siblings and entertaining his father’s friends.
I fucking hate it when a character’s grief is to used to make, or justify, judgments on their moral character. The one who cries at the funeral is not necessarily the better friend. The child who held his father’s hand as he died is not necessarily the more dutiful son. The one who shares his last moments could be someone as totally random as the family dog or a healer. And a character who explodes during the long, long process of death because he’s busy, or even screams, “Fucking die already!” is not necessarily experiencing less grief than the one who makes tea and never loses her temper and spends all day thinking of her father.
Watch this, please. Plaster saints who grieve prettily and are always right because of the pretty grieving just make me think the author has never experienced death. And I know that’s not true most of the time, so I tend to put it down to lack of thinking instead, and doesn’t enough of that plague fantasy already?
6) ‘Sudden death’ has a nice ring to it.
Do you need a deathbed scene?
Quite often, the answer is “no.” Far, far too many of them turn into an excuse for cheap sentimentality, for last-minute—and forced as all hell—reconciliation or redemption, and for revealing plot-important information that the character could easily have learned through other channels. And then there are the ones where the character muses about having discovered love, or where the mourners actually see the dead person’s soul ascend into the afterlife. Those match Lifetime television for hilariously awful sap and drama.
Think about your motives, think about how hard the deathbed scene will be to arrange, and think about the merits of understatement rather than overstatement, again. Think about a sudden death snatching the character away.
Yes, of course those can still be bad. The ones where the author insists on the hero seeing his best friend die and later finding him “with his face untouched and calm above the broken and bleeding body”, for example, or the distant death that causes the protagonist to spend a chapter beating himself up about, “I never got to say goodbye! *sniffle-sniffle*”. But that’s because of cheap sentimentality, which needs a deathbed scene of its own with a rusty waffle iron anyway, wherever it occurs.
Sudden death in battle, or a swift-acting dose of poison in a cup, or a character committing suicide with little or no warning, can devastate a character and a reader as well as any lingering deathbed scene. It lends itself naturally to understatement. The dangers of plaster grief or plaster death get removed. And the shock can come home far more strongly than much overplotted mourning does.
Do consider it. It isn’t always the best solution, but it deserves to be used more often than it is.
Perhaps parts of that were excessively bitchy, but considering how much of a big fat purple pustule on the ass of fantasy most deathbed scenes are, I don’t think so.