Three Ways to Use Death in Storytelling

Our theme for this month was death, which might seem like an odd theme to encourage young writers to focus on. Is it healthy for Christians to dwell on death? Isn’t the difference between us and the world that we don’t focus on death in the way that it does?

On the contrary, however, death is central to the Christian faith.death_in_storytelling-1

The cross obviously stands central in Christianity. But it isn’t just Christ’s death that is central to the Christian faith. It’s our own deaths as well. Our spiritual death in Genesis 3 sets the whole plan of salvation in motion. And the reality of our physical death urges us to make the most of our time on earth by winning others to Him.

I once heard a pastor say that his goal was to teach his congregation how to die well. Death is, after all, the final test in our lives and the point where we need to have either accepted or rejected the claims of Christ.

Death is central to the Christian faith. By extension, therefore, it ought to be central to our storytelling. Although not all stories that Christians write need to encompass death, it ought to still have a prominent role overall, and when we use death in our stories, here are three ways it can be done biblically.

1. Death Ought to Show Us the Value of Human Life

At first glance, this may seem oxymoronic. How can death show the value of human life?

This arguably depends on how authors decide to use death in their work. Many authors have used death for the reverse effect: telling stories where armies of thousands of nameless individuals are crushed without remorse, or stories where a character’s death is brushed past without impacting the surrounding characters. However, as Christians, a proper view of death ought to lead us to present death in a different manner.

Sierra has already written an excellent article this month on how to portray grief in writing, so I won’t rehash her points here, other than to say that we show the value of human life when we accurately describe how much the loss of someone hurts those around them.

Particularly in war stories, death is often trivialized. One common trope is that the enemy is made into faceless goons without names. Stormtroopers wear masks for a reason. Armies are left nameless and faceless so that the audience forgets about their humanity and thus more readily accepts them as evil. If we actually see the humanity of both sides, not only does it make war more complex, but it makes battles more brutal and less fun.

This isn’t necessarily always wrong. But I think it’s an issue we ought to consider as storytellers when writing battles. If we depict the enemy as nameless and faceless, is that portraying the enemy in a biblical manner? In real life, we too often dehumanize people we don’t like, and this is just another example of that. A robust Christian theology must allow us to portray enemies who are evil, but who are also human. It is too easy to ignore or forget about someone’s humanity, and whether this happens in fiction or in real life, the result is the same: human life is trivialized. We need to seriously reckon with this as storytellers when portraying war.

2. Death Ought to Remind Us of Our Mortality

In many ways, our culture has tried to isolate death from our everyday lives. The elderly used to live with their families, who would take care of them until they died. This made death an ever-present reality and gave children the opportunity to care for their parents like their parents did for them.

Today, however, we all too quickly ship the sick and elderly off to hospitals or nursing homes where we can deal with death in our own terms outside of our own turf. We confine death to a couple institutions and pretend it won’t be existent in the rest of our lives. We forget we are mortal and our lives are short.

We can do the same thing in writing as well. This is why I don’t like war stories where everyone I care about survives until the end of the book. Although it may be a relief as a reader, it isn’t realistic. And it subconsciously reinforces our natural tendency to believe that death could never happen to us—at least not until we’re seventy or eighty. But death can happen at any time and to anyone.

This applies to non-war stories as well. Reminders of death and our own mortality are still incredibly helpful and necessary. Death is just as central to reality as life, and good storytelling should remind the reader of this. As Jess’s story this month  depicts, death is non-discriminatory and strikes the young as well as the old. The more readers are reminded of the ever-present reality of death, the better equipped they will be to handle it in real life.

3. Death Ought to Reveal the Consequences of Character Choices

In good novels, characters undertake experiments in living, where they decide to abide by a certain set of principles. Throughout the book, readers watch as the characters take their experiment in living to its natural end. Generally, poetic justice implies that virtuous experiments in living lead to success and wicked experiments in living lead to disaster.

This doesn’t just apply to a novel’s conclusion. For characters that do not survive until the book’s end, their deaths also ought to reveal the results of their experiments in living.

Perhaps death is a natural consequence of a character’s experiment in living. For example, if a character has been pursuing a path of vengeance and anger, and he is killed in the midst of his pursuit, that will reveal the tragic result of vengeance. Alternatively, if a character has taken advantage of the poor his whole life, killing him off with a mob of people he’s oppressed is pure poetic justice. In both of these examples, the characters’ deaths demonstrate the consequences of their choices, and by doing so, advocate virtuous living.

Death isn’t always a result of negative character choices, though. Perhaps a hero decides to sacrifice himself to save someone else. Perhaps a character has been struggling with fear and cowardice the whole book, and when he eventually fights against the enemy, he is killed, but he recognizes that dying in battle is better than hiding in cowardice. In both of these scenarios, death can be a satisfying conclusion to a noble character arc.

However you use death, the last moments of your character are crucial. So much of life is about preparing ourselves for our final moments. So in your character’s final moments, who does he reveal himself to be? Use that to make death significant in your stories.

Writing as a Christian

Writing as a Christian doesn’t necessarily mean shying away from the dark aspects of reality. Rather, we are called to shine the light of Christ upon those dark areas and exemplify how Christians should view them.

We don’t need to cheapen death, shove death into an isolated corner, or view death as proof of the meaninglessness of life. Instead, let’s view death as full of meaning because it shows us how meaningful the rest of life is. Death doesn’t have to be the end; in storytelling, it can be the moment of revelation, where a character’s righteousness or wickedness is fully unveiled and manifested to the reader in a final moment of reckoning.

Profile photo of Josiah DeGraaf
Josiah DeGraaf is a high school English teacher and literature nerd who fell in love with stories when he was young and hasn’t fallen out of love ever since.
He writes because he’s fascinated by human motivations. What causes otherwise-good people to make really terrible decisions in their lives? Why do some people have the strength to withstand temptation when others don’t? How do people respond to periods of intense suffering? What does it mean to be a hero?
These questions drive him as a reader, and they drive him as a writer as well as he takes normal people, puts them in crazy situations (did he mention he writes fantasy?), and then forces them to make difficult choices with their lives.
Someday, Josiah hopes to write fantasy novels with worlds as imaginative as Brandon Sanderson’s, characters as complex as Orson Scott Card’s, character arcs as dynamic as Jane Austen’s, themes as deep as Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s, and stories as entertaining as Wayne Thomas Batson’s. In the meantime, you can find him writing articles here or short stories at his website (link below) as he works toward achieving these goals.
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  1. Yes! I love this! I was especially struck by your ‘experiments in living’ example— that’s an awesome way to look at it. *goes and writes that down* I shall remember this. Thanks muchly. 😉

  2. I like this whole article, but especially the part about portraying the bad guys as human. I watched captain america for the first time recently and was really disappointed when the villain threw away his mask. He lost 90% of his intimidation at that point.

    It’s interesting how all the old fairy tales were about people dying, whereas now we try to remove any trace of that from them. Shall we call it a conspiracy? I don’t know, but it’s certainly a trend and a bad one.

    • Those older fairy tales are fascinating. Certainly not material that most parents would give their kids today. =P I think that we often underestimate children’s ability to deal with death and harsh endings. We have a tendency to think those sorts of poetic justice are too harsh for them, when actually children really want to see villains get the just fate they deserve… I could talk at length about that, though, so I should probably stop now. ;P

  3. This article makes a grand finale to October’s theme. 🙂

  4. Excellent article, Josiah! Your comment “Stormtroopers wear masks for a reason” along with its associated remarks really stood out to me. Our world isn’t as simple as Tolkien’s is for the most part (our enemies are humans in need of salvation, not orcs) and we could do with more writers who show that.

    • Thanks Sierra! Great thoughts. It’s definitely something I’ve been trying to think about a lot more, especially with regards to applying it to my own work-in-progress!

    • Yeah, I agree — for a long time, I thought the Stormtroopers were actually robots. In The Force Awakens, the simple fact that Finn took his mask off really personified him and made me think, “That’s the person I’m supposed to root for.”

      • That’s definitely one of the things I really liked about Force Awakens: how they finally began to personalize at least one of the Stormtroopers. I’d love to see that trend continue in the future movies!

  5. This is really timely for me. I’m planning several deaths and a big battle in my current book. You reminded me to emphasize the impact of the deaths.

    In the Prince Caspian movie the Calormene soldiers wear helmet with masks. Makes them scarier and easier to kill.

    • Glad to hear it, Anna! And good example. It was really surprising to me after I first read about the mask technique, how often I could see it showing up in literature and movies. But it shows up a lot!

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