Friday, August 24, 2012

Authors, Why Death Scenes Often Suck!

Welcome Guest blogger Daniel C Chamberlain today!

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Authors, Why Death Scenes Often Suck!


I’m no longer a cop. I’ve retired.  Instead of rushing to a death scene and investigating it, now as a nurse with a close association with Hospice, I often watch people die, literally before my eyes.  I suppose it’s a curse that now, when I watch television or read a novel, I’m highly critical about how death is portrayed in those media.  It’s so seldom based on reality, that I fear even our most popular writers and directors have a fairy-tale romance with the fantasy of death.

Let’s talk about violent death first.  With the exception of perpetrators who are shot by police (a stunningly rare occurrence), seldom do police officers actually witness the death of a person from violence; only the aftermath. Most victims of violent crime have expired long before the police arrive, or they manage to survive until placed in an ambulance or taken to a medical facility. However, in several cases where I was present when people who were fatally injured just happened to expire, I was struck by how slow the process actually was in relation to how it’s often artistically portrayed.  

The human organism goes through various stages between being conscious and talking, to being unconscious and “circling the drain.”  One thing is nearly universal, short of being blown into tiny pieces; the process of death is seldom instantaneous and hardly ever simply “momentary”.  Be it gunshot to the head, heart, or lungs, or blunt trauma, knives drowning or flame-thrower, the dying more often than not take their own sweet time exanguinating!  That time can seem like interminable minutes to literally hours as in the case of our own President Abraham Lincoln.

Since many of our literary protagonists are also killers, either by profession or incidentally, we have to wonder how it is, each and every one of their victims manage to dutifully expire on cue since it is not the spirit that lingers on, but rather the organism that is determined to survive at all costs!

I once watched a film from WWII about Marines defeating Japanese machine gun emplacements.  They were using flame-throwers to roast the defenders alive.  Let me recreate the scene.

After the concrete bunker was inundated with a flaming jellied gasoline mixture the defenders exited one by one, only to be shot down each in turn.  One; however, was not shot, exiting looking much like a grilled hot dog, no longer clothed, skin blackened, grossly split and peeling.  His lungs, internally roasted from breathing super-heated air within the bunker were no longer exchanging carbon dioxide for oxygen in amounts necessary for survival.  

At first, he stood there trembling amongst the Marines, but slowly, inexorably, strength left his limbs and he was forced to sit, quivering uncontrollably.  As the Marines gathered around smoking and talking, his eyes went from man to man, I suppose hoping for assistance or perhaps in simple resignation, until – due to oxygen deprivation – his eyes began to lose focus and mercifully, consciousness began to ebb.

Toward the end, his body began to list like a stricken ship, with only his left elbow supporting his flame-ruined torso. His head, too heavy to be supported any longer by his oxygen-starved muscles, searched for a place to rest.  

The man’s dying took nearly ten “agonized” minutes.  In the end, agonal breathing hinted that his moment had arrived. Still, the organism struggled to live.

I’ve seen similar things up close where major trauma or catastrophic illness has made further life-saving efforts moot.  The dying, whether or not they are ready to go, can’t stop the organism from clinging to life, often long minutes after the last breath is drawn.  People do not simply sigh, close their eyes and die.  Occasions where last words are uttered, whether intelligible or not are so rare as to be nearly statistically irrelevant. 

So, if you’re going to write it, understand that if it’s not realistic, it will always be total “fiction!”
More About "The Long Shooters"
In the grinding death mill of the trenches of Petersburg, Virginia, in the closing days of the Civil War, a Union sharpshooter – a “long-shooter” named Ballou – emerges as the best sniper in a war where wholesale slaughter became the norm. Ballou perfected the art of the judicious killer. His ability with his cherished Stephens target rifle is legendary, making a nearly miraculous shot that no one else – North or South – could accomplish. After the war, he disappears…

Samuel Roark is a small-time rancher and part-time lawyer. One personal tragedy after another leaves Samuel gripped by periodic bouts of depression. When a hidden marksman of uncommon skill murders his son, the death leaves Samuel on the brink of total madness.
Roark’s wife Sarah, a woman of strength, grace and startling beauty is now both emotionally and physically exhausted by the tragic circumstances that have beset her family. After discovering her husband’s quest for revenge, she does everything in her power to prevent what she fears will ultimately destroy him.

Matthew Shaw is a known manhunter and soldier of fortune that people call on when they’re willing to pay someone else to deal with obstacles in their lives. When required, Shaw reluctantly uses his considerable marksmanship to achieve those ends. Now Shaw finds himself caught between a job he truly believes in, and a very good reason to walk away when he realizes he’s falling in love with Sarah, the wife of the man who hired him.


  1. Wow! What a great post. I've only actually witnessed death twice, where I literally "gave permission" for one to go ... and gave amateur last rites to another (because there was no time to get a priest). I tried to capture the peaceful last moments of death in "Infinity Quest," when the mind has passed and the body struggles to survive. In the case where I gave last rites, the person did not know she was going to die ... and soon. Confusion gave way to shock, an expression I will never forget. When there is no time, when death is at the door, the only thing I could do was be honest about it and tell her straight out. She died in minutes as the shocked look faded and she accepted her last few minutes to make peace with God. I've never written about that. Somehow, it seems better if people know they are dying on their own.

  2. This raises important questions about the relationship between life/death and art. Writers seek to serve both reality and their work, and it's often impossible to serve both masters. For example, we portray a relationship that in real life might take years to deteriorate as dissolving in weeks or months. What sort of book would it make otherwise? Yet, for TV the same events must be wrapped up in twenty minutes. When we see/read these truncations over and over, do we and our audiences not come to expect that life will imitate them? The old life/art who's imitating whom syndrome? I think it's a difficult thing to accomplish, this business of making our art mirror reality without destroying our art. I have no solution for how to do it, but I do think we need to take it seriously.

  3. The artful expression of dying, be it in a clinical setting or a violent scene need not be drawn out excruciatingly, but much of today's art is predicated on the writings of Victorian times where death was described in pale euphemisms like: "With a smile on her lips" or "Slipped from this earth peacefully" or "Uttering her name with his last breath." It's all a bunch of bull crap! While someone may pass "easily" the passing is seldom peaceful if one considers the rattles and smells. I don't suggest that a death scene should contain every descriptive detail, but that it should remain as ugly in literature as it is in person. One does not witness any death without being marked by it permanently. I believe as a writer, my readers should carry a bit of that mark with them as well.