Death: An Evocative Tropism in Written Works

I’d intended to write something about the power of music and my preferred listening when I write, but I think that will have to wait for another time.  Last night, just a few hours before I began this, I was sitting on the couch, reading an excerpt from Helene Simkin Jara’s Because I Had To, because I will likely see her this weekend.  Jara is the featured speaker at a writers group that I have attended over the past several months.  She is a free-form poet, a short-story writer, an actor, and a director, so she knows the importance of evoking emotions.  She sure did.  One of her poems, as it turns out, is about someone I once knew — or, at least, knew of — in high school.  She’d grown up with my wife, and (unfortunately) has since left corporeal existence behind her.

Death is a sensitive subject for all of us, whether we care to admit it or not.  If we have been lucky enough to have never encountered death amongst our friends and family, we are either very young, very fortunate, or very isolated.  Everything dies (except for, perhaps, some forms of hydrozoa).  Considering the universality of death, it is an important, and poignant, concept to address in fiction.  No, you don’t need to include Hamlet’s soliloquy — and please don’t, that’s been done — but killing off characters is not something to be taken lightly (unless you’re writing a comedy).

In fiction, not all deaths need to be meaningful.  Nobody cares about that lackey that gets offed in the middle of a firefight, but when meaningful characters begin dying willy-nilly, there better be a darned good reason why the character has to go.  After all, the reason why Piggy died in The Lord of the Flies is not because Golding ran out of things to do with that character.

I’ve had to kill characters in my novels, and my latest effort, Their Sharpest Thorns has a significant death count.  However, only a few deaths are meaningful, and addressing those deaths properly has been one of the challenges in trying to cap off this book.  I will venture to guess that the second and third drafts will spend a great deal of time focused on improving the death scenes, and establishing the emotional connections leading up to the meaningful scenes. I also have the challenge of differentiating the deaths that really matter from the deaths that are just a point of fact.

If I succeed in writing a death scene, then I evoke an emotional response from myself as I am writing it, just as I would in writing a scene that is funny or a scene that is heartbreaking.  I seldom do that when I write poetry — not that I have written much poetry.   When I read from Helene Simkin Jara’s excerpt, I realize that Ms. Jara must have written the poem with a heavy heart, because I have a heavy heart when I read those words.  As I scan the words, I don’t see very many big words, and there’s not that many words in the poem, at all.  However, those words that are on the page are arranged in such a way that, when read or scanned, properly represent a tragic death.

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