How to Make Your Reader Cry: Anatomy of a Death Scene

Spoiler warning: Major spoilers for Plain Kate in this entry.

I recently fell in love with Plain Kate by Erin Bow. Every sentence is beautiful, and the story is impossible to forget.

Plain Kate is also a very, very sad book. A major character dies at the end, and Bow pulls no punches. I cried when I read it. And being a sucker for punishment, I reread the ending the next day and cried again. Then I started thinking.  People die in my books as well. Why don't my beta readers cry? So, being the cold, analytical psychologist that I am, I went through Plain Kate’s death scene line by line to tease out the elements that tugged at my heartstrings.



For those who haven’t read it, here’s a condensed version of the scene. Plain Kate, the main character, has a talking cat named Taggle. In the climactic scene, it becomes clear that the only way to stop a great evil is for Taggle to die.

“You can survive it,” said Taggle. “And that is all I want. You do not need me. You can find your own place, with your strength alone. . . Katerina, Star of my Heart. Be brave. Lift your knife.”


. . . . And Taggle, who was beautiful, who’d never misjudged a jump in his life, leapt toward her with his forelegs outflung. He landed clean on the blade. There was a sound like someone biting into an apple. . . .


“Taggle,”whispered Kate. His heartbeat slowed under her hand.


“More . . .” His voice was only a breath.


“More than a cat.”


“And I do not regret it.” His eyes clouded. “Could you . . . This itchy bit. . . 


She scratched his favorite place, where the fur swirled above the hard nub of his jawbone. The heat from the fire lifted tears from one side of her face.


[Taggle dies, and Kate escapes the city with her friends. They run into a man named Behjet.]


Behjet tottered to his feet. [His shaving knife] fell and sank its point in the wet earth with a sound that made Kate wince. . . .


“Linay is dead,” Katie said. “And those people in front of the gate, and the ones in the square. And Stivo, and Ciri, and my father, and--” she could not speak Taggle's name. “My – my heart is dead. . . .”


[Kate pushes past him and takes Taggle's body inside.]


[Taggle's] beautiful for was matted with blood. He would hate that. She got out one of the horse brushes. She brushed until the bristles were thick as if with rust, and his fur was perfect. . .


She sat beside him, numb, forever.


She had never been the sort for ghosts, though she had seen too much of them. But she would have cut off her carving hand to glimpse one now. It wasn't there. There should at least be a ghost. But there was no ghost. Only Behjet . . . . 


“Plain Kate,” [Behjet] said. . . . 


“Just Kate.”


“What?”


“Kate.” She was as plain as she had ever been. And over that she was burn scarred and half bald. But Taggle had thought she was beautiful. “My name is Katerina Svetlana. Kate.”

I'm not sure how much of the emotion comes through in the snippit, but believe me, the scene really packs a punch.  And without further ado, here’s my list of death scene elements that make your reader cry.


1. Emphasize the good qualities of the dying character.

Taggle tells Kate. “You can survive it . . . And that is all I want. You do not need me.” The narrative then continues. “And Taggle, who was beautiful, who’d never misjudged a jump in his life. . ” For the reader, it's gut wrenching to be reminded of just how selfless and special Taggle is as he leaps to his death.

2. Draw a connection to a previous tragedy.

When Plain Kate's father died in the beginning of the book, his last words were “Katerina, Star of my Heart.” And this is what Taggle calls Kate in this scene as well.

3. Remind the reader about the character's journey -- how he's grown. 

Taggle starts the book as a regular cat, but a spell gave him the ability to talk. Over the course of the book, he becomes less catlike (self-centered and proud), and learns about love and self-sacrifice. At a few points in the book, Kate tells Taggle that he has become “More than a cat.” And this sentence is echoed as Taggle lays dying.

4. Emphasize close relationships.

Remember my post on how to convey closeness between two characters? One technique was to have them complete each other's sentences. And that's what Kate and Taggle do with the “More than a cat” line.

5. Remind the reader of good times.

Some of the book's comic relief involved Taggle's insistence on being scratched. And here, as he dies, he  requests this one last time.

6. Show how the survivors are traumatized by the loss. 

 When Behjet’s shaving knife hits the ground, Kate winces at the sound because it reminds her of Taggle landing on her knife. She also has trouble saying Taggle's name.

7. Rituals of putting the dead to rest. 

Kate brushes Taggle's fur and prepares him for burial.

8. Show how much the other characters miss the deceased.

Kate is an extraordinarily talented woodcarver who depends on her knife for her livelihood. So it's no small thing when she says that she would cut off her carving hand to glimpse a ghost of Taggle.

9. Have the dying character leave a legacy.

Plain Kate was called by that nickname her entire life. But because of Taggle's sacrifice, she realizes that she deserves a better name.

So readers, tell me. What book made you cry, and why?

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29 comments:

  1. Oh my goodness, you are like the first person I know who has also read 'Plain Kate'. I LOVE this book.

    Confession: I didn't cry when Taggle died, but a couple tears did squeeze out when he lost his voice...

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  2. I love all these. Great ways to show the emotional impact rather than finding seven different ways to talk about sadness and grief twisting around in the character's stomach or something. I'd also add another one from your BFF closeness list: characters make plans for the future. The prospect of having all that cut off is really impacting for me, and also helps to avoid telegraphing that a character is doomed, I think.

    I don't often cry in death scenes when I'm reading, I think because so many characters are marked for it by the narrative, but I have to admit, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is one that did actually. It wasn't Cedric dying, but the moment when his spirit asks Harry to take his body back to his father. It even manages to get me in the movie. Geez... can I seriously not think of any bigger deaths I cried at? I guess not. Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak made me cry, for satisfaction at the end, and Therese Walsh's The Last Will of Moira Leahy had a beautiful, emotionally purging climax that sucked me right in with the characters.

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  3. The last book? Marley & Me. I'm sure everybody knew it was coming, certainly by the time that chapter begins, and yet it still 'got' me.

    As far as how to make it work - my money's on #5. Remind the reader of the good times, or give them a punch of scene-appropriate comic relief. When I read [watch movie, etc] I can be pretty good at holding back the waterworks until, for some reason, there's a clever reason to laugh. Adding a well-timed jab of comic relief to the tension of a death scene can be like popping a cork on a bottle of shaken champagne.

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  4. I’ve never cried reading a book. It’s not simply because I’m male and we don’t do stuff like that because I’ve cried watching films but I guess I don’t engage with literature that way. I have written stuff that has brought people to tears, a poem and a novel that I know of personally. The novel involves a death scene. A man finally gets to know the truth about himself then goes to bed and dies. The death is not especially heralded or expected and that was the whole point that by the time he made sense out of his life he had no life left to do anything with the information. The same scene made another reader actually angry. “How dare you…” she said to me. She was outraged on my character’s behalf. That was when I knew I had a book worth finishing – she was the first reader of the first draft of my first novel – because if I could get under someone’s skin like that I was obviously doing something right.

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  5. This was very informative. So much that I might print this out on a page and stick it to my wall (if I can find a working printer...).

    I think another important thing is to stretch out the scene a bit. Not just kill off the character in one sentence.

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  6. This is a fabulous break-down. You really show how a scene can be written to invoke fiercely-felt emotions.

    The last death scene that made me cry? Rue's death in The Hunger Games. I've read the book twice and bawled both times.

    And yes, Suzanne Collins uses many of the techniques you lay out here... including the decoration of her body (Rue's not the author's) with flowers, and the legacy of the song she taught the Mockingjays. I'm going to go and read it again and apply this break-down more thoroughly to see how many other boxes are ticked.

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    1. I cried so hard when I read that! Strangely, all the books that I've cried while reading were written by Suzan Collins

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  7. What a great post! Love this...

    I personally only ever cry when I finish WRITiNG a book, not reading one, but hey! The closest I came was (believe it or not) one of the Odd Thomas books by Dean Koontz. *shrugs*

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  8. Don't worry, the emotions come through in that snippet. When someone good must die to prevent evil seems the hardest death to write.

    I struggled with a scene in my sci-fi trilogy (no, I'm not here to plug it) when my protagonist kills an innocent young woman because she will grow up to become the evil empress. She had no idea what experiences in the coming years would change her in that direction.

    I'm a guy and I'm the author, yet I still got choked up while trying to portray her sweetness and his guilty feelings as he killed her. Trying to change history is always tough. Back to Lit Fic, I guess.

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  9. I have a friend who refuses to read any books where animals die; I have to admit, they get me too. But when it's not done for shock value (like the stereotypical show-how-evil-this-character-is-by-having-him-torture-animals) I think it is a valuable part of the human experience. Like you said, it's part of the character's journey and learning about loving.

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  10. I once had a dream where my cat talked. I want to read this book now, even knowing the cat dies. Thanks again for great writing tips. I just bought your book!

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  11. I'm coming into this cold, having not read the book, so I feel it is fair to say that you've missed something. I don't think the actions at death, or even after death are anywhere near as important as the events prior. That is, a death in a novel, or anywhere, is only powerful if you've come to care about the character and or their journey. An untimely death, or an unfair/unjust death will always resonate when the character is loved by the reader. The trick is getting them to love the character, with their actions in life - all of the impact "energy" originates there.

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  12. Really good comments. It seems that the common denominator is that the death must cause specific, irreparable, concrete change in the lives of characters in areas have been developed over the course of the book. So the grief has to be
    'earned.' As Hayley mentioned, merely showing a character writhing in grief isn't moving at all.

    A scene in Michael Ondaatje's Anil's Ghost, as novel set in war-torn Sri Lanka made me cry: A young, abused girl has been rescued by an elderly outcast and taken to live in a forest refuge; as I was wondering what she would do when the old man dies, Ondaatje immediately tells you: of the simple things she will do for his body, and how then she will simply walk into the forest and keep on walking....

    Interestingly, I heard Ondaatje read twice in about 6 months, and each time this was the passage he read from.

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  13. 1000.monkey - I also cried when Taggle lost his voice. That was just one long, tear filled section.

    Hayley – Great point about the future plans. I wish I could think of some examples of that. I'm sure there are.

    Joe – I like the champagne metaphor :-) it's really true, somehow the juxtaposition of good and bad emotions packs a big punch.

    Jim – I remember reading on Dean Wesley Smith blog that if your critique group disagrees sharply and starts arguing about it, then you know you've hit gold.

    Jake – yeah, I think that's true about stretching out the scene. I tend to err on the short side too, because I'm afraid of getting melodramatic. It's hard to find the balance.

    Jo -- I didn't cry when Rue died, but you know what got me, was when Katniss and Buttercup cried together at the end of Mockingjay. That made me tear up.

    saffinadesforges - I've never cried when writing fiction. Although I've cried when writing some personal essays. Maybe that means I'm not feeling the fiction enough.

    Stephen – I can definitely feel the emotion in the scenario you described. And I haven't read anything!

    Angelica - I went through this phase where for a short time I kept on reading all these books with animal sidekick died at the end. It was very depressing. I guess everybody uses it as a metaphor for growing up, but it's so sad!

    Elle - definitely read it. It's really good, as long as you're prepared for sad things to happen.

    jesse - Yeah, it's definitely about what's happened before. It's no coincidence that a majority of the elements listed in the article involve reminding the reader somehow of events, relationships, and bonds that have developed over the course of the book. Although, I've seen a few fairly effective death scenes that occur in the first chapter. The scene where Kate's father dies, for one, and also the prologue of Pillars of the Earth has a death that really tugged at my heartstrings. I wonder how they did that.

    Helen - good point about grief being earned. There have definitely been some deaths where I just got mad at the author because it seems so pointless or random.

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  14. Phenomenal post. Thanks so much for sharing this.
    Two books I remember bawling in (though I've cried in many others)
    -Little Women when Amy die
    -The Book Thief

    Great post!
    -Ellie

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  15. Liv,
    Perhaps it called back moments of your own past, or played to your fears?

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  16. I am a man and cry when ever I watch a war film and see men die G siddall

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    1. G Siddall? I have two cousins that are both technically "G Siddalls"

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  17. In Percy Jackson Mark of Athena. Him and Anabeth have to let go and fall into tartus (basically worse than hell) and the things that made me cry were this:
    "Together?"
    "Together."

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    1. I read it too. I cried so hard after I read those two words.

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  18. I love this article and now I want to read the book.

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  19. The death of Lee Scoresby in The Amber Spyglass, His Dark Materials, is really sad :(
    Also, I am suprised that no one has mentioned borimirs death thin Lord of The Rings

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  20. Excellent advice. I'm writing a dying scene in my WIP and your list is extremely helpful!

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  21. I cry at books ALL the time. I must be a huge baby. Animal deaths get me the most for some reason. Did anyone else sob when Sam has to die in I Am Legend? I was a royal mess and had to leave the theater to spare the other viewers. I also ugly-cried at both the book and movie of Les Miserables... such perfectly descriptive and sad writing just gets me right in the dark, dank places...

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  22. I cry at books ALL the time. I must be a huge baby. Animal deaths get me the most for some reason. Did anyone else sob when Sam has to die in I Am Legend? I was a royal mess and had to leave the theater to spare the other viewers. I also ugly-cried at both the book and movie of Les Miserables... such perfectly descriptive and sad writing just gets me right in the dark, dank places...

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  23. For me, it was Rue's death in The Hunger Games, Tick's death in Gregor the Overlander, Kelsier's death in the first Mistborn book and Vin and Elend's death in the last Mistborn book. I also came pretty close to crying when Dollface in the first Night Angel trilogy book got her face cut up, even though she didn't die. Really, if Brandon Sanderson or Suzanne Collins wrote it, I cried at some point.

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  24. A few techniques I've used that seem to really get to people is to shock them. Like create a suspicion earlier in the book that someone's going to die, but do it in a way that makes them believe one of the more minor, less important characters will die and then slap them in the face by having the main character or a close second bite it.

    Also if you're writing an action story that involves violence, you can make it unexpected. Have everything going according to plan and then BAM all of a sudden "Reko's" brother gets brutally destroyed. I had someone test reading my book and when they get to that point they actually throw the pages down yelling "WTF was that?! You killed him? He can't really be dead!"

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  25. A few techniques I've used that seem to really get to people is to shock them. Like create a suspicion earlier in the book that someone's going to die, but do it in a way that makes them believe one of the more minor, less important characters will die and then slap them in the face by having the main character or a close second bite it.

    Also if you're writing an action story that involves violence, you can make it unexpected. Have everything going according to plan and then BAM all of a sudden "Reko's" brother gets brutally destroyed. I had someone test reading my book and when they get to that point they actually throw the pages down yelling "WTF was that?! You killed him? He can't really be dead!"

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  26. in The Book Thief when Leisel's foster parents, best friend and neighbours die from a bomb but she lives cause she was reading in her basement...tear tear. Also in the movie Bridge To Terabethia, WHY DID SHE HAVE TO DIE LOOKING FOR HIM!?!?!? tear tear.

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