A Quick Look at Death

If I told you that all stories are about one singular thing, would you believe me? Your doubt is palpable, but bear with me, this is important.


All great (and quite a few terrible) stories are centred around this final reality of the human condition. For a story to be emotionally engaging and interesting the primary plot ‘mover’ must somehow involve death. Now, this doesn’t mean that the character must be literally facing death, but there must be something death-like in the balance.

The Three Ways a Character can Die

One – Physical

This one is pretty obvious. If Frodo doesn’t get the ring to Mordor everyone will die, if Luke can’t shoot a torpedo down an oddly well-placed air vent everyone will die, and if little red riding hood isn’t careful she’ll be eaten by a wolf. This form of death is very common, and no less relevant than any of the others.

But, you don’t have to put your characters in front of the firing squad to write compelling fiction.

Two – Professional

If <insert well-known, fictional lawyer’s name> doesn’t win this case his career is over, if Dr.House can’t save this patient he’ll lose his medical licence, if Caesar the dog-trainer can’t get Mrs.Pretty-Princess to stop pissing on the couch… you get the picture.

Professional death, when presented properly, is as compelling – if not more so – as physical death. John Grisham made a career of the compelling nature of professional death. Professional death can be likened to a loss of total identity – John Grisham’s characters are lawyers, without law they’re nothing. The obvious unhealthiness of linking one’s entire self-worth to their career aside, professional death has made a tonne of great stories come to life.

Three – Psychological

I can’t live without <insert girl/guys name>, without him/her I will die, if I don’t win <insert contest, award, athletic event, etc.> I will be unable to go on, if I can’t lose 50lbs Tom Sellick will never fall in love with me. Psychological death is the most open form of death a writer can employ.

The beautiful thing about psychological death is it doesn’t have to be a rational death; a character can psychologically die because of something most would find ridiculous. For example, Moby Dick is literally a book about a homoerotic sea voyage where some dude tries to kill a mystical white whale; Ahab’s motivations are irrational at best, and his resulting psychological death are a primer in the finer points of insanity (with totally gay undertones.) My point is this, if the character thinks he or she is going to die, and you can sell this to the readers, you are working with a compelling form of psychological death.

How to use Death to Develop a Primary Conflict

This handy table – adapted from Writer’s Digest – will help explain:

Chain of Conflict

James Scott Bell calls this “the links in the chain of emotional conflict.” [1] To explain, the primary cause of your story’s plot must put a character’s life (professional, physical, or psychological) at stake, the action is comprised of the steps a character takes to avoid dying, and suspense is how well these steps perform.

For example:

Boy wants girl, without girl he’ll – psychologically – die (conflict). Boy decides to send girl flowers (action). Girl doesn’t like flowers (suspense). Boy writes girl a song (action). Girl loves song, but is already dating boy’s arch-nemesis (suspense). Boy tries to convince girl that her boyfriend is a crazed axe murderer (action). Girl decides boy is correct and marries boy (emotionally satisfying experience).

This structure can be employed in 1,000,000’s of ways. Every story ever told follows some interpretation of this structure. It is easy to think “I’m going to break the mould, I’m an author/snowflake” and fight this tyrannical mode of storytelling. And that’s fine, but if you want your readers to have an emotionally satisfying, engaging, and compelling experience with your writing, it’s in your best interest to follow this format. How you interpret and utilise this structure is what will make you a great storyteller.

Do you want more examples? How about a closer look at how death is integral to the development of conflict? By becoming a $10.00 level patron of The Quill you will receive access to in-depth articles examining the finer points of writing — our board of editors writes four columns every month. Your donation will help to support writers just like you. Go to https://www.patreon.com/user?u=4758932 for more information.

[1] Bell, James Scott. Conflict & Suspense. Writer’s Digest Books, 2017.


Josh Harkema

Josh is a English major studying literature and critical theory at the University of Calgary. An avid writer of both science fiction and philosophy, Josh is comfortable writing both fiction and creative non-fiction. As an editor, Josh has worked on multiple works of short fiction, as a copy-editor at The Gauntlet, and is currently working on a study of temporary identities in online communities.

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