If you want your YA novel to mean something beyond puppy love and schoolyard woes, try weaving in a theme of death through survival, sacrifice, and immortality.
I’m not talking about gruesome crime scenes or even grief– instead, explore the aspects of death that resonate with our humanity; the questions that touch our religious beliefs and our proudest choices.
Check out these 5 ways of looking at death, and craft a theme that inspires readers instead of bringing them down.
1. Explore Immortality
Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Hunger Games all push the boundaries of mortal life. This creates a seriously scary villain and showcases the science fiction and magical elements of the story.
- In Harry Potter, Dumbledore tells Harry that Voldemort is immortal: “He is still out there somewhere, perhaps looking for another body to share . . . not being truly alive, he cannot be killed.” (HP Ch.17).
- In Twilight, the vampires also live forever. Bella comments that “Immortality must grant endless patience. . . . [Alice] simply sat, looking at the blank walls with her timeless eyes.” (TW Ch.20).
- In The Hunger Games, the dead tributes return as genetically engineered dogs. “The green eyes glowering at me are unlike any dog or wolf, any canine I’ve ever seen. They are unmistakably human. . . . I hear Peeta’s gasp of recognition. “What did they do to them? You don’t think . . . those could be their real eyes?” (HG Ch.25).
2. Decide to Fight Death
Our YA heroes are survivors through and through. They stand up against death just for the principle of life. (This is different than the rescue scenes where the heroes fight death in a more immediate way.)
- Harry is famous for surviving Voldemort’s attack as a baby. Professor McGonagall asks: “After all he’s done . . . all the people he’s killed . . . he couldn’t kill a little boy? It’s just astounding . . . of all the things to stop him . . . but how in the name of heaven did Harry survive?” (HP Ch.1).
- Katniss decides she will survive the games for her sister: “I don’t care if we’re rich. I just want you to come home. You will try, won’t you? Really, really try?” asks Prim. “Really, really try. I swear it,” I say. And I know, because of Prim, I’ll have to. (HG Ch.3).
- Though Bella seems very eager to die for Edward, she still hopes she will survive. “There was an annoying beeping sound somewhere close by. I hoped that meant I was still alive. Death shouldn’t be this uncomfortable.” (TW Ch.14).
3. Get Philosophical with Death
Harry, Bella, and Katniss all grapple with the idea that death is sometimes the better of two evils.
- Harry wonders why anyone would choose to drink unicorn blood to save themselves. “If you’re going to be cursed forever, death’s better, isn’t it?” (HP Ch.15).
- Edward and Bella discuss her desire to become a vampire too. “You only have to turn your back on nature, on humanity . . . what’s that worth?” “Very little — I don’t feel deprived of anything.” (TW Ch.14).
- For Katniss, survival and death define her relationship with the boys in her life. “Gale and I were thrown together by a mutual need to survive. Peeta and I know the other’s survival means our own death. How do you sidestep that?” (HG Ch.8).
4. Choose to Accept Fate
After the heroes have pondered the big questions, we see some of them make the choice to willingly face death.
- Harry worries that Nicolas will die without the Sorcerer’s Stone. Dumbledore explains, “To one as young as you, I’m sure it seems incredible, but to Nicolas and Perenelle, it really is like going to bed after a very, very long day. After all, to the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.” (HP Ch.17).
- Bella does not regret meeting the vampires. “But, terrified as I was, I couldn’t bring myself to regret the decision. When life offers you a dream so far beyond any of your expectations, it’s not reasonable to grieve when it comes to an end.” (TW Prologue).
- Katniss would rather than die than kill Peeta: “Then you shoot me,” I say furiously, shoving the weapons back at him. “You shoot me and go home and live with it!” And as I say it, I know death right here, right now would be the easier of the two.” (HG Ch.25).
5. Make the Sacrifice for Love
Underlying all these life-or-death decisions is the idea of sacrifice and love.
- Harry Potter: “Your mother died to save you. If there is one thing Voldemort cannot understand, it is love. He didn’t realize that love as powerful as your mother’s for you leaves its own mark.” (HP Ch.17).
- Twilight: “Surely it was a good way to die, in the place of someone else, someone I loved. Noble, even. That ought to count for something.” (TW Prologue).
- The Hunger Games: Katniss volunteers as tribute in place of her littler sister Prim, even though “the word tribute is pretty much synonymous with the word corpse.” . . . . “but I know I was right about not running off. Because who else would have volunteered for Prim?” (HG Ch.2)
Why it Works
In the YA adventure genre, the death theme is really about the build up, not the result– it is most inspiring when it involves the will to survive or the nobility of sacrifice, rather than the grim reality of loss. (Remember how the hero doesn’t do the actual killing in the final scene?)
Note that “Grieving Death” is not really a common element– only The Hunger Games kills off one of the hero’s friends. Though grief is a powerful theme, (I still own my copy of Bridge to Terabithia) it is not the aspect of death that these bestselling authors focus on here.
Here’s how J.K. Rowling explained the death theme:
My books are largely about death. They open with the death of Harry’s parents. There is Voldemort’s obsession with conquering death and his quest for immortality at any price, the goal of anyone with magic. I so understand why Voldemort wants to conquer death. We’re all frightened of it.”
-J.K. Rowling to Tatler Magazine, January 10, 2006.
It’s true, we are all frightened of death. But the hero?
The hero does what we imagine and hope we ourselves could do– he steps up.
He knows what he’s up against can’t be killed and he faces it anyway. He does it in the name of love. That, my friends, is a theme. Powerful stuff.
Let’s place this theme card in the master outline within Chapter 4 for fighting death, Chapter 13 for questioning death, Chapter 18 for immortality, and Chapter 20 for both accepting fate and sacrificing for love.
Ok, writers, get out there and live it up!