Does Your Story Need a Tragic Death?

A friend was talking to me about stories in which a child dies. he asked, “Is a child’s death in a novel just a cheap narrative device?”

Well, it depends.

  • Depth of Characterization. How well do we know the character? Do we know and care for the child? Does the story involve the child and his/her hopes dreams in any way? If we care for a character, we’ll be more likely to be emotionally affected by the death; and it will seem more like a part of the story and not just a cheap narrative device.
  • Minor v. Major characters. If a minor child character dies, a throw-away character, the audience won’t care much, unless you’ve given the character big eyes with long eyelashes. But even that bit of specificity in the middle of a scene might not make the reader care. Because it’s a kid, it may be worth some shock value, and killing a kid simply for shock value does count as a cheap narrative trick.
  • Suffering, jeopardy, suspense. Has the character suffered or does this come out of nowhere? Orson Scott Card talks about jeopardy, putting a character into a position where there is danger, and suspense, holding back only what happens next. It may be enough to put a child in increasing jeopardy, where things are dangerous, but the character must still act. Or, it may be enough to built a suspenseful scene where we worry about what happens next. Some death scenes could be replaced with either of these and still be effective
  • Symbolism of a child’s death. Does the death of a child represent the loss of innocence and faith in the future? Depends. How did you set up the symbolism of THIS child? I don’t think you can generalize here, because the language used to describe the child, the actions of the plot – these can all affect symbolism. To say that a child’s death always equals loss of innocence is too glib an answer.
  • Author’s Tolerance for Death. When Leslie dies in Bridge to Terabithia, it’s tragic and awful; I didn’t feel like the author had tried to manipulate my feelings, it was just a horrible accident. But I once went to a conference where an author was talking about the death of a child when it occurs in a story. The author said she hated going to schools, where kids would inevitably ask, “Why did so-and-so have to die?”

    Tired of the plaintive question, she decided to never write another story for kids in which a child died. She was in the process of writing a story where a baby was sick and in the hospital. With her decision made, she started working on the next chapter and wrote, “The baby opened her eyes.”

    Was she protecting herself from the questions? Was she protecting her audience from the emotional depths to which stories can take a reader? Was she protecting the baby? I don’t know.

In the end, you have to decide where you and your stories will fall: will you allow tragedies, even to the point of death; or will you hold back to protect yourself, your readers and your characters? What does the story tell you to do?

  • Julie Gonzalez
    May 11, 2009

    I had a friend who would not allow her elementary age children to watch Disney’s Bambi because she felt the death of Bambi’s mother was too traumatic for young kids. I disagree. I feel that it is important for children to learn to grieve through books, movies, etc. so that when they are faced with a real-life tragedy, they have some of the tools necessary to get through hard times. That doesn’t mean writers should shove tragedy down the throats of readers. But avoiding it for fear of the readers mental state seems dishonest.

  • Darcy Pattison
    May 11, 2009

    Julie –
    I’ve never avoided reading a book to my kids because of the death of a character; but I certainly understand parents who do so. In the end, we have to do what we’re comfortable with, both in the writing and in the reading.