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Monday, January 28

All Is Lost: Four Kinds of Death in Fiction

dark moment, whiff of death, killing characters, save the cat
By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Death comes in many forms, especially when you’re writing a novel.


With the popularity of Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat beat sheet, the “Whiff of Death” moment has many writers asking, “Do I need to kill someone every book?” Of course not. You also shouldn’t do it just because a popular story structure format says you should. But for stories that will benefit from a “death” for emotional or storytelling impact, the All Is Lost moment is a great opportunity to grab a reader by the feels.

While the death part of “whiff of death” suggests we actually kill someone, it’s not recommending an actual death every time. Death refers to a loss, usually profound, for the protagonist. That can mean a character bites the dust, but it can also mean the loss of hope, or the loss something once held dear.

Most structures use some type of All Is Lost moment toward the end of the story where things are the most dire and the protagonist suffers the most. It’s bleak, it’s terrible, and it triggers a change of some type. It’s a vital moment for the character arc, and often an important turning point in the plot. But not every story needs it, or uses it, because it’s all about the emotion—and not every story taps into that emotional arc.

If you do decide to use a death, you have options if a literal death doesn’t suit your story.

Physical Death

dark moment, whiff of death, killing characters
Does a character need to die?

The physical death is exactly what it sounds like. Someone dies, and the loss of that person affects the protagonist and the story in a significant way. The death has meaning to them, even if it’s a “meaningless” death. Often the death is a result of a sacrifice, though it can also be the result of the protagonist making a mistake. Someone dies, and that death causes as a change in the protagonist.

However, be wary of killing someone off just to motivate the protagonist to act or to shock readers. If there’s not enough build up and development of the character, the death won’t mean anything and the change in the protagonist can feel flat or even forced.

(Here’s more on if killing a characters makes readers care)

Emotional Death


dark moment, whiff of death, killing characters
Whose heart can you break?
The emotional death is a loss that hits the protagonist on an emotional level. Their spouse leaves them, they lose something that matters to them, they’re betrayed and hurt. Whatever the loss, it’s something that breaks their heart or crushes their soul. It’s a huge blow, and it has significant ramifications for the character.

This is common in romances or stories with strong characters arcs, as being badly hurt in some way is often what’s needed to create the necessary change in the protagonist.

(Here’s more on brainstorming your character’s emotional wound)

Psychological Death

dark moment, whiff of death, killing characters
Do you need to break your protagonist?

The psychological death is a loss that affects the personality of the protagonist. A loss of confidence, or trust, a sense that who they are isn’t what they thought. It rocks them on a personal level because it crushes the core of who they are. It touches and hurts their sense of identity and where they belong in the world.

This is a common death in character arcs that require the protagonist to grow to overcome flaws. They need to lose the aspect of their personality in order to move forward or force a change of thinking or behavior.

(Here’s more on pushing your character past the breaking point)

Philosophical Death


The philosophical death is a loss of ideals, and shatters what the protagonist always held as true. It’s the realization that the world is not what they thought it was, and everything they believed in is wrong. This differs slightly from the psychological death, focusing on the external views versus the internal ones.

This is a common death for stories that focus more externally than internally, where the change comes from how the protagonist sees the world and their place in it. To change the world, the protagonist needs to be stripped if their veil and see things as they truly are.

(Here’s more on finding your character’s breaking point)

No matter the type of death, it creates a change in the protagonist that results in their ability to face whatever issue the core conflict needs them to face. It’s the death of the old, followed by a rebirth of the new, moving the protagonist closer to the climax and the end of their character arc.

Plot-focused stories tend to have more physical and philosophical deaths (literal deaths and death of ideals), while character-focused stories typically use the emotional and psychological deaths (broken hearts and deaths of personality), but any one of the four can work with any novel.

Do you have a favorite type of death? 


For more help on plotting or writing a novel check out my Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure.

Go step-by-step through plotting and writing a novel. Learn how to find and develop ideas, brainstorm stories from that first spark of inspiration, develop the right characters, setting, plots and subplots, as well as teach you how to identify where your novel fits in the market, and if your idea has what it takes to be a series.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure offers ten self-guided workshops with more than 100 different exercises to help you craft a solid novel. Learn how to:
  • Create compelling characters readers will love
  • Choose the right point of view for your story
  • Determine the conflicts that will drive your plot (and hook readers!)
  • Find the best writing process for your writing style
  • Create a solid plot from the spark of your idea
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure also helps you develop the critical elements for submitting and selling your novel once it’s finished. You’ll find exercises on how to:
  • Craft your one-sentence pitch
  • Create your summary hook blurb
  • Develop a solid working synopsis And so much more!
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is an easy-to-follow guide to writing your novel or fixing a novel that isn’t quite working. 

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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6 comments:

  1. I'm working on a story that has a psychological death. I was thinking about putting a physical one in too but after reading this post, I don't think it would add to the plot.

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  2. My favorite is definitely philosophical death. Since I'm a professional philosopher, this is unsurprising. The stage I find most interesting is what happens between philosophical death and rebirth, often some version of nihilism. For example, probably my favorite scene in all the Narnia books is in the Silver Chair, where the witch convinces the protagonists that the world above ground doesn't even exist--the more the characters lose faith, the more impressive it is when they come back.

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    1. Great example. I do love the more emotional/mental ones as well. There's more meat to them and often they're more relatable for readers.

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  3. To me, the cool thing about different types of death is that with all, except physical of course, you can devolve and evolve that character that suffers one of the forms of extinction. A character can suffer a philosophical death, and then fight to keep from dying psychologically or emotionally, which might mean creating a new philosophical paradigm, which might cause more trouble than they were just in...

    Great post, Janice. Wonderful how many 'murders' will happen now in WIPs across the nation? :O)

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    1. True! Layering them would really pack an emotional punch.

      LOL We can only hope!

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