In my scribblings, there always seems to be a lot of death. And, as we all know, writing about death is never a pleasant experience. It’s notoriously difficult to write about it without stepping in to the comical, caricature death scene, or making it so dismal it’s easily forgotten. So, as inspiration for that tragic death scene, here are some of the best death scenes in fiction…
Don’t read any further if you haven’t read/watched: Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White, A Storm of Swords, part of the “A Song of Ice and Fire” series by George R.R. Martin, The Subtle Knife, part of the “His Dark Materials” trilogy by Philip Pullman, Hamlet by William Shakespeare, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, or Disney’s The Lion King.
You have been warned…
The No-Nonsense Death
Charlotte – Charlotte’s Web
I don’t even like spiders. In fact, if there’s a spider in the room, I promptly leave. So why does Charlotte’s death get me every time!? The story of Wilbur the pig and Charlotte the spider who helps to save him from the cookpot is one of my favourite childhood tales. It’s full of humour and love and also peril, without really ever leaving the pigpen. You could read in to Charlotte’s death all you like – she leaves once Wilbur no longer needs her help, so could she be a metaphor for a guardian angel? – but ultimately it’s beautifully sad and hopeful all at once. There is no “and then she died”, there is just she is, and then she isn’t. A perfectly written death scene for a children’s book.
The Look-Who’s-Left-Behind Death
Mufasa – The Lion King
This isn’t technically a book, but it’s widely agreed that Mufasa’s death is on of the most memorable, tragic and intense death scenes ever in existence. Worse than that, the scene with Simba afterwards when he tries to wake him is just heart-wrenching. I will never get over Mufasa’s death. And half of that comes from when Simba doesn’t understand – it makes me cry.
The Back-stabbed Death
Robb Stark – A Storm of Swords (A Song of Ice and Fire)
I quite literally sobbed like a child at this one. If you need someone to aspire to when it comes to writing death scenes, George R.R. Martin is your guy. He has no qualms about getting rid of swathes of characters, and the Red Wedding is a perfect example of this. (On a side note, I enjoyed the HBO season 3 version of the Red Wedding, but was a little peeved that they added a certain character in when she shouldn’t have been there – say no more). I have a bit of a soft spot for Robb Stark (it helps that he’s played by the beautiful Richard Madden) and I was definitely rooting for him in the books. I never saw the death coming, and I think that’s what shocked me the most. I’m still grieving…
The Hero’s Death
Lee Scorseby – The Subtle Knife
Lee Scoresby is played by the indomitable Sam Elliot in the questionable film adaptation of The Northern Lights – The Golden Compass. Despite the terrible film, Elliot did Lee Scoresby justice, although the death scene from The Subtle Knife could never be done properly on the big screen. The rough, tough, big-hearted Texan aeronaut is one of the best characters from the trilogy. His death – which he sees coming and deals with in his typical practical manner – is almost two deaths, because of his daemon Hester, who is a character within herself. The thing about Lee Scoresby’s death is that you wish you were there with him, so you could give him a cuddle before he goes, and he’s not alone. He’s a hero to the end, without ever making himself out to be one.
The Invisible Death
Ophelia – Hamlet
A perfect example of a death that happens off-stage. Ophelia’s death is no less upsetting or disturbing for being behind the scenes, in fact, it’s perhaps more so because we don’t see it happen. Shakespeare’s deft skill at writing a death without having to have it acted out on stage is a great example of how to deal with the messy business quickly, efficiently and with the right amount of emotion. You are still struck by Ophelia’s death because of the reaction of the characters on stage.
The Wistful Death
Jay Gatsby – The Great Gatsby
Gatsby dies believing things will be all right in the end, even though we all know they won’t. There is a phrase in the book that talks about Gatsby being the most hopeful man in the world – and perhaps his death reflects that. It makes me sad because he never has a chance to put the story right. It’s an open-ended death in that it doesn’t bring a finality to things. Whatever you may think about the novel, you can’t fault Fitzgerald’s ability to write, and that shines in the final scene with Gatsby. Never a word wasted.
The Unjust Death
Lennie – Of Mice and Men
It was a tough choice between these last two characters. Both are gentle giants, so misunderstood, and their deaths are absolutely heartbreaking. I’m talking of course about John Coffey from The Green Mile, and Lennie from Of Mice and Men. I chose Lennie because I think his death is all the more upsetting because he doesn’t see it coming and doesn’t understand. Another death that I weep like a child at. For such an ultimately simple tale, this is an intricate and beautifully told story, and the death of Lennie is truly a tragic one.
Interestingly, as I went through my choices, I realised that all of these stories (or part of them) have been adapted for the screen! It goes to show how great these books are, and it’s not just the death scenes that make them outstanding.
What fictional deaths have the biggest impact on you?