Writing about the Afterlife

Writing about the afterlife is tricky. It does not always go well.

Bookstooge recently reviewed a book that was set entirely in the afterlife, and it failed (at least, based on his review, it failed) because writing about the afterlife immediately brings out the limitations of the author’s understanding of: God, eternity, human nature, human embodiment, space, time, etc.

Some of these limitations on our understanding can be fixed with better theology. (For example, the TV show The Good Place could have benefitted from an understanding that the human heart is deceitful and desperately wicked, and who can know it?). Others of these limitations can’t be fixed because they are a consequence of our inability to imagine an existence that transcends space and time. New Age accounts of “out of the body” experiences immediately lose me when they describe things like “a cord coming out from between my shoulder blades that connected me to my body.” (Pro tip: if you are out of the body, you do not have shoulder blades.)

But despite these pitfalls, I find it irresistibly attractive to follow my characters just a step or two beyond death. Perhaps it’s because the moment of death is so poignant in a story, or because there is an opportunity to address unfinished business. “Wrong will be right/when Aslan comes in sight.” We are all longing for that wrong will be right moment.

The 11-minute song below is a ballad that successfully (I think) follows a character slightly past death. I find it very moving. I hope you do as well.

For the comments: when an author attempts to write about the afterlife, do you start rolling your eyes or do you go with it? What are some of your favorite post-death scenes in books or movies?

7 thoughts on “Writing about the Afterlife

  1. If it is internally consistent with the rules setup, in a fantasy, I have zero problems with even problematic afterlife stuff. It is fantasy, fake, not real.

    But with something like “To Your Scattered Bodies Go”, it purports to start in our world, so even if the rules get broken, they need to be broken consistently and inline with a world view that is consistent already. You can’t just say “Surprise, Aliens!” and then do whatever you want…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “Surprise, aliens!” Ha ha ha

      This is really complex. We say that “it needs to be part of a consistent system” … but what if the aliens were the POINT of the consistent system and we just don’t like the point? I think internal verisimilitude is piece of it, but there’s also the piece about whether we like where the author is going with this. If it’s super internally consistent, but is too far from the way we understand reality (or for whatever other reason we have stopped trusting the author), then we are going to call it preachy.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I don’t believe in an afterlife, and usually that is a real turnoff for me. That said… there have been exceptions. Lovely Bones is one, The Whole Town’s Talking is another, and right now, I’m reading a book where a dead homing pigeon from WWI is one of the narrators. Mind you, that last one isn’t really, you know, heaven or hell, just a dead bird telling her story. Strangely enough, I’m liking it very much.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your opinion!

      Yes, whether we agree with the author’s premises about the afterlife can make a big different to whether we are willing to follow them.
      I have heard of the hero WWI pigeon but did not know someone had written a story with her as narrator. That sounds awesome!


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