On Death Scenes

First, Cicero’s Death in HBO’s Rome. Warning: contains blood.

I watched this yesterday and it struck me as one of the most wonderful death scenes I’d seen in ages. It was noble, it was emotional, and the casualness of the ‘job’ seemed very much in line with a culture alien to our own. Most of all, it was immensely poignant. The viewer feels something and is moved.

Death scenes are interesting ones aren’t they? Some writers ham it up massively, others like to spring surprises on the reader and slip a character out of the story in a casual way that will upset their audience.

I think it’s good when death means something, though – that the writer is in control. All too often I read a death scene and you can tell that it’s not been thought through – it’s just a plot point, something that needed to be done to get onto something else. I’m not talking about getting the right level of emotion etc, because that’s something that varies from character to character.

But think how personal death is in the real world. Think how the act of killing affects the families of the deceased. Fantasy fiction tends to be littered with the dead, but how much of it actually means something to the characters around them? (Even if the meaningless of it all is the meaning.) Though the notion of death (especially what happens after someone has died, the afterlife etc.) is something I like to think I’m conscious of, it’s a topic I’ll certainly try to refine.

There’s a related post here on the glorification of killing in fiction, but I’ll save that one for another day.

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About Mark Newton

Born in 1981, live in the UK. I write about strange things.


  1. I quite like the Jack Campbell books “The Lost Fleet”. From what I’ve read, there’s two conflicting views on death. The main character is the fleet commander, and he sticks to the ‘laws of war’, and as such he has a very strong view that death should be avoided, both for his ships and their crews, but also for the enemy. He gives kill orders when he has to, but he always gives his enemies a chance for a non-violent resolution. He’s contrasted by the captain of the ship he’s on, because her view is just as indoctrinated, but is the other side of the coin. They’re the enemies, they have to die. The way to win is to kill the enemy. She slowly changes from that view, but Campbell never makes it an easy nor a simple transition. She constantly flits back to pure joy at the death of the enemy, for example.

    I quite liked the death scene you wrote near the end of City of Ruin. You know which one I mean. That one was brilliant because you didn’t glorify it, nor make a big deal out of it. The dead person was, effectively, just another casualty in the fight.

    The scene you’ve posted above is quite good. He’s not going to shame himself by begging and pleading, and he’s clearly come to terms with the inevitability of it all. He might as well face death on his own terms.

    There’s also that brief scene in Black Death where Sean Bean saves that witch. I think that’s another brilliant death scene, because it brings a level of morality to it. Is it better to kill someone than to save them? Will saving them truly release them, or will it be a brief respite before their death?

    Many death scenes are just “He got stabbed. He died. The end.”, where the dead person just gets forgotten about. Some books, such as Moon’s Ky Vatta series, even go as far as glorifying some of the dead. One character dies in the first book, and the ship gets renamed after him, so he’ll never be forgotten. That was quite touching, I felt.

    Death is… an inevitability. You can’t escape it for long. It’s often treated in a throw away manner, because we get so… Used to it. I generally don’t care about killing scores of troops in games. I don’t even care about hitting civilians in Grand Theft Auto with an airport tug. It takes a special kind of writing to truly make one care about a death scene, and that kind is rarely used. Perhaps it’s better that way?

  2. Yes, very good death scene.

    How do you feel about the sudden “Gerald died that afternoon” at the start of
    a new chapter in EM Forster?

    I think the literary death that surprised and shocked me most was one the main characters 2/3rds of the way through The Big Nowhere by James Ellroy.

  3. I don’t think we’re actually used to death in western culture – quite the opposite, we spend our time running away from it. Perhaps that’s part of the issue, in that death is viewed as something to distance ourselves from, and relegate it to something mundane?

    Black Death, which I enjoyed, also has the most gruesome death scene in a while, which comes quite unexpectedly at the very end.

    Hi James – thanks for stopping by. Now, something like the EM Forster, I think, is quite profound in it being so brief. So very English and restrained, too…

    I’ve never actually read Ellroy, which is something I hope to rectify at some point.

  4. I think you’re right; I read something once about how, although we think the Victorians were repressed about sex, *they* would consider us repressed in our attitude to death and dying. When their society had higher infant mortality, women dying in child-birth etc. they couldn’t “run away” in the same way we do…

  5. But the Victorians weren’t sexually repressed. That idea comes from the later end when Queen Victoria was in mourning, but for the most part they were quite scandalous.

  6. I don’t think James was actually saying that (correct me if I’m wrong); he was commenting about our interpretations of their culture compared to today. Of course, compared to our exposure to modern pornography and sexual imagery through most forms of media, I think it’s safe to say things are a bit different on a cultural level, as they are with Death. High rates of disease etc., probably made Death a quotidian experience back then.

  7. Yes that was what I was trying to say, although you probably put it better…!