How to Make Your Reader Cry: Anatomy of a Death Scene
Spoiler warning. Major spoilers for Plain Kate in this entry.
I recently fell in love with Plain Kate by Erin Bow. Every sentence is beautiful, and the story is impossible to forget.
Plain Kate is also a very, very sad book. A major character dies at the end, and Bow pulls no punches. I cried when I read it. And being a sucker for punishment, I reread the ending the next day and cried again. Then I started thinking. People die in my books as well. Why don't my beta readers cry? So, being the cold, analytical psychologist that I am, I went through Plain Kate’s death scene line by line to tease out the elements that tugged at my heartstrings.
For those who haven’t read it, here’s a condensed version of the scene. Plain Kate, the main character, has a talking cat named Taggle. In the climactic scene, it becomes clear that the only way to stop a great evil is for Taggle to die.
“You can survive it,” said Taggle. “And that is all I want. You do not need me. You can find your own place, with your strength alone. Katerina, Star of my Heart. Be brave. Lift your knife.”
And Taggle, who was beautiful, who’d never misjudged a jump in his life, leapt toward her with his forelegs outflung. He landed clean on the blade. There was a sound like someone biting into an apple.
“Taggle,”whispered Kate. His heartbeat slowed under her hand.
“And I do not regret it.” His eyes clouded. “Could you. This itchy bit. ”
She scratched his favorite place, where the fur swirled above the hard nub of his jawbone. The heat from the fire lifted tears from one side of her face.
[Taggle dies, and Kate escapes the city with her friends. They run into a man named Behjet.]
Behjet tottered to his feet. [His shaving knife] fell and sank its point in the wet earth with a sound that made Kate wince.
“Linay is dead,” Katie said. “And those people in front of the gate, and the ones in the square. And Stivo, and Ciri, and my father, and--” she could not speak Taggle's name. “My – my heart is dead. ”
[Kate pushes past him and takes Taggle's body inside.]
[Taggle's] beautiful for was matted with blood. He would hate that. She got out one of the horse brushes. She brushed until the bristles were thick as if with rust, and his fur was perfect.