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