Write great protagonists!
I'll be at LDSPMA
Tips organized by topic
Read about me
Editing Services
Read Testimonials
Learn the "bones" of story

Monday, August 24, 2020

Utilizing the 3 Types of Death


Last week I was reading a writing book by James Scott Bell, and in it, he made the claim that every story is really about death (or the fight against it). 

I admit, my first reaction was to challenge it. Death? Really? Every story? Really? Even if you are talking about a figurative death, there must be plenty of stories that have nothing to do with such a thing!

But then I kept reading. 

. . . and I changed my mind, in a sense. 

Every story is about death, but there are three types of death: physical, professional, and psychological.
And it can be quite useful to know about them, particularly through the middle of your story (well, at least it was to me). 

So here are the types.



This is pretty much self-explanatory. This is death, death, as we know it. In a lot of stories, the protagonist’s actual life is at risk. Thrillers, survivalist stories, often dystopias . . . You get the idea. But sometimes worse is the prospect of a loved one dying (which can tap into the psychological).


I admit, I really want to call this one something else, like “vocational,” because it’s not always about an actual job or profession. But then, I guess if it were called that, we wouldn’t have the three Ps (physical, professional, psychological). A story about professional death may indeed be about the protagonist having his job or profession at risk. But it can also be a vocation or calling at risk, such as possibly being expelled from school, or turning out to be a bad parent, or losing your lifelong dream to be the best ballerina in America. In a sense, this is the protagonist’s life role in danger of dying. So you might find this in stories about lawyers, or artists, or athletes . . .



A psychological death is when someone dies on the inside. She becomes a shell of a person. What's at risk in the story, is that person's livelihood--who he or she is. In romances, it may begin to feel that if the couple never gets together, they'll suffer an inward death. They'll never be who they were before. And they'll never become who they could have been. 

But it can be about something else too, like a loss of identity or a traumatic shift in a worldview. It can even be something the character has been battling with for his or her whole life, like toxic gender roles, which kill him or her on the inside.


For a story to be satisfying, it needs to be about fighting some kind of death.  This is in part because if there is no death, then the stakes aren't high enough. We need high stakes for the story to matter, to have meaning. Because if nothing significant is at stake, then what happens doesn't really matter. Which means the story doesn't really matter.

And many stories will be about the protagonist fighting off more than one death. When looking to strengthen stakes, it might be helpful to look at how to bring in another type of death. 

When it comes to structure, the death will be introduced at the inciting incident. By the end, that death will be confronted in the climax. But the middle. The middle is where the protagonist reacts to and tries to fight off that death (generally speaking, in some form or another). Which means, through the middle, you need to think of ways to escalate that death into something more formidable or painful. 

Maybe in the inciting incident, your protagonist realizes he could die on this journey. 

Then through the middle, you put in more life-threatening things. Or perhaps you escalate it so that not only could he die, but his whole family could. Or perhaps the way he could die becomes more traumatic. Or perhaps the timing he dies could be more damning. This obviously becomes problematic.

But in the climax is when he must face that death in the most dangerous way. Will he succeed? Or fail? Well, that depends on the kind of story you are telling. 

So I guess, yes, in a sense, every story should be about death. Because if something is not at risk of dying--of reaching an end, a judgment, a state that cannot be undone--then the story misses out on reaching its potential. 

So, think about what kind of death is key in your story, and if it is threatening enough. 

UPDATE: Hi everyone, recently I realized that a lot of stories that have a sort of bittersweet ending, have one in part because one form of death has come as a cost to victory. For example, in Lord of the Rings, Frodo succeeded, but he suffered a psychological death of sorts--he can't go back to his previous life in Hobbiton. In Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, Ed succeeds, but suffers a professional death as a cost--he can't do alchemy anymore. And in some stories, the protagonist or a key character will actually die.

Of course, you can write a story that has no bitter, in which case, there probably won't ultimately be a "death." And you can write a story where there is no "sweet," in which case, there probably won't be a painful "death." I guess I would also add, it's possible to create this effect by also having a relationship "die." However, one might argue this connects into a psychological death.


  1. I'm writing in the action genre, so most of the threats are physical. But I can also see a psychological death in his internal arc.

    1. Hi Lissa,

      In my project I am also dealing with physical and psychological. Thanks for stopping by. :)

  2. I was contemplating death tonight. No, not what you think! Writing a biographical novel using three deaths as a theme and ran across this blog. I'm glad I found it. Now I just have to decide whether to use Tolstoi's Three Death, Biblical deaths, or these in you blog. Hmmm

    1. Hi Rokrobin, glad it was helpful. Hope the writing goes well!


I love comments :)