On Violence in Fiction

Violence

Violence is a very seductive tool in a writer’s arsenal. Most good fiction involves some form of conflict and although not all examples lead to an act, or acts, of violence, most do, including mine, but my thoughts on writing violent scenes have changed during the writing process.

In the first draft of Second Chance I had people committing acts of violence all over the place. There wasn’t an argument that didn’t lead to some form of physical altercation. Characters were swinging at each other at the slightest provocation. Too much sugar in your coffee? Bam! Didn’t like your haircut? Kerpow!* The longer the book went on, the more violent it became.

And it was a blast to write. It had action, pace – there’s nothing more satisfying than ramping up the tension to the point it explodes – and my word count rocketed as I went from one conflict to the next, giggling to myself at my inventiveness.

Then I got to one scene, set in an office, where two characters came to blows and it hit me**. I’d worked in an office environment for 25 years and, despite some very stressful, tense and emotional moments, not once had I seen people come to blows. Not once. I’d seen seething anger, shouting, gritted teeth and exasperation, but never physical violence. It made me ask myself a simple question. Why am I writing in this way?

In the western world we have a very strange relationship with violence. On the screen or in a book, we celebrate violence and those that partake in violence. We justify this hypocritical (and I count myself in this) stance of violence categorising it into two different camps: ‘bad’ violence: strong preying on the weak, and ‘good’ violence: strong stopping the bad people preying on the weak or weak standing up to the strong. On the screen, especially, we glamourise violence by putting it to music and creating almost balletic fight scenes. We cheer the good guys and boo the bad guys. It’s entertainment.

Yet in real life, most of us rightly abhor violence. While not unknown, witnessing violence first-hand is a thankfully rare occurrence and most people are shocked and appalled by violence in even its mildest form.

So why was I writing this way? Why so much violence?

The simple answer was because it was easy. It didn’t take much thought. It meant I didn’t have to deal with nuance, or depth, or any of those other things that are hard to convey in words. Rather than treat a scene realistically it was easier to go straight to the action. It was lazy writing.

I’m not saying all violent scenes are unnecessary, but using violence as the first resort, as opposed to how it is in real life, a last, is pure laziness. And not only that, it’s perpetuating the myth that violence is a solution, as opposed to a failure.

I went back through my manuscript and took out the majority of violent scenes. I searched long and hard for other ways to increase tension, only resorting to violence if there was no other plausible alternative. But at the same time I made another decision. If there was to be violence I wanted it to be realistic. I wanted it to be shocking. I didn’t want it to be toned down, or glamorous, I wanted it to be ugly and brutal. I did this not because I enjoyed writing that way but because I abhor violence.

As writers we have many choices, not just about what we write but how we write it. It’s very seductive to follow the cultural norm, to be swept along with what everyone else is doing without necessarily questioning the consequences of what we do.  By watering down violence in literature***, or even worse glamourising it, I believe we are perpetuating the myth that violence is OK, that it’s not too bad, that it’s honourable.

I realised I wanted to show the true impact of violence and its corrosive effect on society. And not just its effect on the victims of violence, but on those that perpetrate it too. I wanted to show how believing violence is a solution, whether the perpetrator believes it is justified, takes away their humanity. I wanted to strip the glamour from violence to show it for what it is.

Not everybody will agree with me, and not every reader will want to read violence depicted in this fashion, but I believe my books are much better for taking this stance, and my conscience is clearer for writing this way.

So what about you? What is your stand on violence in books, or in your own writing? I’d love to hear from you.

 

* This is an exaggeration but you hopefully get my point.

** Pun intended

*** I’m talking about fiction for adults, I have a different view when it comes to books for children.

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49 thoughts on “On Violence in Fiction

  1. I’ll only write violent scenes where I know they are needed. Fortunately I’ve never witnessed too many violent scenes myself so I tend to write mine on what I have seen in movies or read in books.

    Certainly violence plays a part of life and needs to be a part of some stories, but not all. I view it very much like writting a sex scene between a man and a women. Being gay I have to take what I know from movies, television , and books 🙂

    • I agree with you that as violence plays a part in life, it shouldn’t be banned from art. It certainly appears in my writing. I think the point I’m trying to make is that it’s easy to write it in without much thought just to pice things up, rather than as a logical or integral part of the story – much as some people use sex, as you point out. Love the analogy by the way!

  2. I agree that violence is overdone most times. As a society, I believe we’ve become desensitized to both violence and sex in storytelling, because of movies, TV, gaming, and the gorier or more graphic the depiction, the better the experience for a great number in the audience, it seems. I prefer reading a book (watching a movie, TV show) in which the action suits the storyline and the characters, not to mention the writing style of the author/storyteller. What I really don’t appreciate is gratuitous violence and sex planted into the story solely to grab our attention, while not moving the story ahead one bit. As an author, I don’t feel comfortable writing scenes of violence or sex, mainly because I’m not comfortable reading about either in other books or watching those scenes on the screen. When an author isn’t comfortable, or doesn’t have enough knowledge about violent or sexual situations, it shows in their writing. I’d prefer to read a more realistic description of everyday life, if it’s written well. That will grab and keep my attention as a reader far better than any scene of violence ever could.

    • What’s interesting is our art or entertainment has become more violent, we have also become less violent as a society, not just in the incidents of violence but also what we see as acceptable behaviour. It’s not a straightforward subject.
      I’m personally not against graphic violence in books (as you well know) but I find the glorification of violence, or the lack of consequences, to be disturbing.

  3. With my own writing, I’m a firm believer in subtlety and letting the reader fill in the blanks with their own imagination. I can’t see myself ever writing graphic violence. As a reader, I don’t like to read violent scenes which are planted solely to shock and do not serve the story or develop characters. I do believe there are occasions where more graphic depictions may be warranted, and, if the story also incorporates the effect that the violence has on victims (and perpetrators) then I’m more-or-less OK with that (although I may still skim read it!).

    • Sometimes letting the reader fill in the blanks can make a scene more horrifying that trying to describe in graphic detail. I remember reading back a book that terrified me as a teenager, only to find the scenes that had most scared me didn’t contain half the information I remembered.
      At the end of the day it is a matter of taste. My goal isn’t to stop people from writing these scenes, but to persuade writers to think about what they’re writing before they do so.

  4. “…we are perpetuating the myth that violence is OK…” As a victim of violence, both at first and second hand, I can only agree with you. What was, doubtless, once a defensive mechanism built into our make-up for survival has become a way of life and one to which we seem blind. Humanity has a long way to grow before we can eradicate our recourse to aggression, sadly, and it takes more forms than fisticuffs, guns or knives.
    It happens. It is part of our lives and should be written about… not to glorify it, but to show its true impact. The scars left upon the victim may go deeper than the flesh and the victims of any single act may be invisible… ripples from such things spread wide. And perhaps the greatest tragedy is the perpetrator of an act of violence themselves.

    • “It happens. It is part of our lives and should be written about… not to glorify it, but to show its true impact. The scars left upon the victim may go deeper than the flesh and the victims of any single act may be invisible… ripples from such things spread wide. And perhaps the greatest tragedy is the perpetrator of an act of violence themselves.”

      I couldn’t have put it any better myself.

  5. I agree in general terms. I never liked a lot of glossed-over violence as a reader, so why would I do it as a writer. There are many people who say my books are “very violent.” But when asked how many incidents of violence are in them, they suddenly realize that there is very little. It is just horrible and brutal when it happens. There are usually two to three incidents of violence per book. But each one is wrenching. That is the nature of the particular story I tell with the Kyrennei Series.

    Sometimes I wonder if even that use of violence isn’t lazy in one way. I am trying to tell a particular story and to convey a way of tackling despair and hopelessness. I could, theoretically, tell this story solely through the psychological darkness that can be just as bad as violence… but that would be a lot harder for me and for the reader. So, I use violence as the darkness that makes the struggle toward hope all the more powerful and real.

    An example of an excellent book I just read that has gripping tension and is all about Vikings and the warfare in ninth century England is Circle of Ceridwen. I recently finished reading it and went back and looked at the description. I was shocked to the discover, that despite the fact that main motif on the cover is of two swords and the description immediately shouts “Warfare!” There is actually almost no violence in the book. Someone may have pushed someone. There is plenty of the aftermath of violence but no actual battle scenes. And it is an incredibly gripping book, even for those like me who like a fast pace to character-driven stories.

    • As mentioned in my post, the use of violence in my writing, at least initially, was a lazy choice for me. It’s very easy to fall into the trap of saying “oh, I need some action, let them come to blows.” Also, I find my first drafts are always black and white, with pure bad and pure good characters who fly from one heightened emotional state to another. It’s only during later drafts where I tone things down a little to add subtly and nuance.

  6. I think violence has it’s place when writing. I do think it is good to leave some details to the reader’s imagination. I know when I was writing my first book – it really pained me to sit and imagine each step of the violent scenes, it was exhausting to me. But since one of the main reasons for the book was to highlight the devastation of pediatric trauma (both accidental and non-accidental) I had to make myself write it down. Some violence has to be described because the utter ugliness of it is ignored and unrealized, and to raise awareness it has to be talked about and explored (even if it is painful and produces discomfort in the reader).

    • You make a great point about how exhausting it can be to write about ‘real’ violence as opposed to ‘fictional’ violence (whether the real violence was actually based on real events or not). As an author, it’s a good exercise to think “How would I feel or think if this happened in front of me?” It allows you to put a different angle on the scene than maybe you first thought.

      • True: I had to write a scene on a “backover accident” – where a child is backed over in their driveway by a family member (about 50/week in the US) – but imagining it was awful, trying to see it from the perspective of the child took every ounce on energy out of me. And then having to imagine how as a mother I would react – pretty horrible too.

      • I can imagine that being very tough to write, but in a way it’s that concern that shows you are treating the subject matter sensitively and not sensationalising it.

  7. Violence in literature. That’s a tough one. Whether reading war stories or crime novels. I expect it to some degree. At times, it is way of experiencing something I know I would never do but am fascinated by. My current work in progress has a serial killer. Without his violence, there wouldn’t be much of a story. Yet, I can see where it could be overkill if a story was laden with unnecessary violence.

    • It is a tough one and while I have my opinion I don’t necessarily believe it is the only valid one. For me, it’s all about context and purpose. Of course, if you write about a serial killer you would expect there to be violence. The question is more about why the violence is there, how it is portrayed and what are the implications for those involved. Does the bad guy come out as a hero or a villain? Do we see the consequences of their actions? As you say, there are no easy answers, but it’s important to think about why you are writing in a certain way, rather than just do it (like I did at first).

  8. I had my own wonderings about violence recently when I wrote and published my latest book. It has far more violence than the previous ones. For me, it comes down to the author’s intent and consciousness regarding violence. Personally, I try not to glorify or sugar-coat. There are physical, emotional, and psychological repercussions for victims and perpetrators. The violence in my book is a warning; it isn’t pretty or heroic. Nobody fist-pumps.

    Our real world is becoming more at ease with violence as a solution to disagreement. Lost lives are objectified and tallied in statistics while opponents thump their chests and give speeches. I applaud you for stepping back and considering this question. Authors and readers will continue to enjoy action-packed violent books, and I think that’s fine. So some, like myself, violence hits close to home, and a more considered real-life perspective is what I choose to write.

    • Thank you. It looks like we are of a similar opinion. I’m with you when it comes to enjoying action-packed and violent books, it’s not about the violence per se, but how it is represented and understanding the consequences for all involved.

  9. This may be a more mundane perspective, but I’ve always found it difficult to read violence in writing, not because it may be gritty, nor whether it is essential to the plot or gratuitous, but because it often ends up sounding like a set of stage directions. You know the sort of thing: He raised his right arm and brought it down… she fell backwards, hitting her head on ….. he wrestled with… she grabbed for the… and so on. I find this kind of ‘staged’ fight scene mechanical. It forces me to picture what body part is where, whose arm is behind whose back, etc. My immersion in a story comes to a stuttering halt whilst my mind goes, “Hold on… was that her foot that lashed out, or his?”

    • For me, writing violence effectively should be less about the ‘stage directions’ and more about the senses. How does it feel? How does it taste? How does it smell? In real life, violence is confusing, disorientating and usually over very quickly. It’s the aftereffects that last much longer. That’s what I try to convey in my writing.

      • Violence needs to work In its context whilst also being neither overly gratuitous nor inappropriately shy. I think you write violence very well indeed. You inject menace extremely effectively into one-on-one scenes and you can also create vivid scenes of violence and chaos on a larger scale too – like the Scrambles scene in Second Chance (no spoilers here).

        Great topic for a blog post, by the way.

  10. Like you, I find I have an almost hypocritical relationship with violence in my fiction. I enjoy action scenes, even though I’m a pacifist in real life. I even had a blog post this Saturday on my favourite action scenes that highlighted some truly brutal stuff. I think we’re getting into a more nuanced relationship with violence in sf+f these days, where its dark consequences are more often explored, but that doesn’t stop it sometimes being a lazy way of skipping on nuance.

    • It is a hypocritical relationship, isn’t it. I, too, enjoy action scenes but have come to feel very uncomfortable with those that are more interested in cool ways to eviscerate an enemy as opposed to looking at the underlying cause and effect of what the violence means and represents. It was also a shock how easily I slipped into making my fiction violent, almost without thought. As I said, it is very seductive.

  11. Hi Dylan – having chosen to write about genocide and tribal hatred I’m firmly in that ‘portray it authentically’ camp, but at the same time try to dig down into the origins and consequences of such violence. That goes for any kind of violence I believe. I’m talking about not pulling punches rather than reveling in the gore – anything less than the distasteful and gut-rending truth is tantamount to dishonouring the ‘story’, whether or not it’s true life or fictionalised. My own solution was to revolve around one incident of atrocity from different point of view characters, including the perpetrators and bystanders. Some of it was difficult to write, and some was easier, because I had some insights into depression, PTSD and abusive relationships.
    I think fiction, even fantasy, should mostly reflect real life events in a faithful way, bearing in mind the reading audience’ sensibilities and ability to put themselves in the various characters’ shoes.

    • I’m very much with you, in that by toning down violence and the effects of violence (except in children’s literature), we are almost condoning it. It should be difficult to write. If it is, then you know you’re portraying it correctly.

  12. You did give me warning about this post! I’m not good at either sex or violence in my work. With violence I cringe at gore and my brain quails when rite it. I liked Jools comment about stage directions. Accepting as I do that sometime violence will occur on the story, it then behoves me to write it appropriately for the story. What I don’t do is make it graphic, in a cartoonish way, all that bone snapping and blood pumping sort of stuff. As in movies, I see a fist go at someone’s face or a gun shot at a head. I do not need to be told in detail what the outcomes are. I can imagine it thank you very much. Same with sex. You can make it quite clear what is happening; part of show don’t tell and let you reader use his/her imagination. That to me is where the glorifying it comes in. The book I am about to turn to has a violent undercurrent; I will have to review it from the perspective you have given me because your core point is absolutely correct; it would be easy to slip into a comfort zone a sloppy writing.

    • I don’t see an issue in showing in detail the outcome of violence. To me, the glorification comes in how it’s presented from the narrative point of view. Is it presented through the lens of anger, pain, disgust or is it through joy, elation or satisfaction? As a writer, you could have a protagonist or antagonist feel joy after a fight yet still portray it in a manner that shows the true horror of what’s just happened. It’s when an author appears to condone or celebrate the violence that I struggle.

      • It’s just me, I suppose. I don’t take issue with your main tenets, but it’s just the way I feel. I suppose you could make the case for saying by describing it in all its horrible detail you are glorying in it but equally, depending on the reader you can make it utterly repugnant too. To me, it is a bit like sex, I can’t enjoy either reading or writing about the actual mechanics, unless they’re completely hopeless and played for laughs (in the case of sex). I’ll just have to grow up I suppose.

  13. Fight/battle scenes have the same effect on me as meetings. Both might be necessary in a story but there is nothing more boring than the fight/meeting that goes on for pages describing each blow/jibe who said/did what, how much it hurt, who scored what points. In both cases, only the outcome is important. When the soldiers/villagers/aliens form battle ranks, my eyes glaze over and I start to turn the pages looking for the end. Pare it to a minimum, I say. Just tell the reader who wins, who gets killed, and for God’s sake find a better way of explaining what’s going on in a story than have a committee discuss it.

    • That’s really interesting, Jane, as I know your books contain fight scenes, some of them for extended periods. I’d love to know how you managed to portray the breadth and scale of the combat and maintain the tension while maintaining the brevity.

      • You’re right, I do have a lot of violence, especially torture, and of necessity there are battles. I try to describe the mood and the emotions rather than the body blows. If you don’t know much about fighting, as I don’t, I think it’s best to stick with a character who doesn’t know what they’re doing, like Maeve or Zachariah. They do the ineffectual sort of swiping that gets them into more trouble. I feel I can empathise more with that 🙂

  14. Great post, Dylan. You raise some intriguing questions here: if most humans naturally abhor violence, why are we in Western culture so drawn to it? Maybe it’s because we can explore the dark side of humanity, and imagine the possibilities, from the safety and comfort of an arm chair. Look at the runaway success of the Hunger Games trilogy, which centers on teens forced by their totalitarian government to kill for the entertainment of the TV viewing audience. And I’ve read this series more than once. What I like about it is the way the protagonist suffers from the effects of PTSD in books 2 and 3, and how the regime, which sponsors this institutional violence, is ultimately defeated. It sounds like what you describe above, not simply gratuitous violence and a plot tool, but an exploration of the effects it can have on the parties involved. I like that. It’s smart writing. Incidentally, the only piece of my writing that’s had some measure of success (placing in a contest) explores the dark theme of child abuse. It takes place in media res, right in the midst of a beating on the protagonist’s 18th birthday, and at the climax she makes a snap decision to run out the door and never look back.

    • I agree with you on the attraction of dark or violent stories. They do allow us to explore or experience the drake side of our nature. What caught me by surprise, though, was how quickly I fell into the trap of writing violence without considering its impact. I think it’s the writing equivalent of joining a band and how much fun you can have turning everything up to eleven. Great at first but you (hopefully) soon realise there is more to be had from a little nuance here and there.
      I really enjoyed the first Hunger Games book, was less ken on the second and third (although they were still enjoyable). As a satire on the use of dehumanising violence as entertainment, they’re hard to beat.

  15. Interesting topic. I guess I don’t see violence as lazy writing, unless it’s obviously gratuitous. Of course, I’m probably biased since I have some violent scenes with a killer in my latest book. But they were the opposite of lazy for me. They were difficult to write given the nature of his cruelness, and I tried to put the emphasis on my killer’s descent into madness rather than the act itself. It goes toward his characterization.

    Given my profession, I’m naturally wary of violence peddled to children, so I think all things–including books–should come with some type of rating. I know I’m in the minority there regarding books, but the parent rating sites for movies and TV shows have helped me tremendously over the years in deciding what movies and shows my kids could watch. When they asked me about books, it was always harder for me to give the go-ahead unless I read it first myself. Which is what I plan on doing with Joe Hill’s book “NOS4A2” since my newly turned 15-year-old wants to read it. But since I like a scary read now and then, I’ll consider this one a welcome parenting task. 😉

    • For me, the lazy part came because I’d unconsciously slipped into a “must have conflict / action, up the violence” mindset without really considering the implications of what I was doing. Having violence in a book itself isn’t lazy (and having read my books, you’d know I’m not averse to the use of violence), but doing so as a default, without thought, is.
      I’m not sure about ratings for books. As a parent of young children I completely understand your perspective. At the same time, I read many books with mature content as a young teen without it having much impact (at least, I don’t believe so). It’s really a case of knowing your child and knowing the book. If it means I get to read some great new books while checking them out, then so be it. 😉

  16. Hi there. This is a great article on writing violence. Do you mind if I feature the entire post on my blog, A Writer’s Path (6,300 followers) as a guest post? I have on guest posts about 3 times a week. I would, of course, give you credit by name and provide a link for my followers to check out your blog. Before even considering, I wanted to ask you first. Feel free to check out my blog to see how I’ve handled other guest bloggers.

    -Ryan
    http://www.ryanlanz.com

  17. I write mostly horror stories so juggling violence and finding out how to use it are essential to my writing. Too much and you lose an audience, not enough and you can’t keep them. I honestly just try to be true to the story when it comes to violence. If it calls for buckets of blood I bring it, and if not I try to hold back. Most of the time it works for me.

    • Good horror fiction does what it says, delivers horrors. A writer can write good, entertaining and chilling horror without condoning violence. In fact, some of the best horror I’ve read ratchets up tension through the foreshadowing of what’s to come, not by celebrating violence, so when it does come it has maximum impact.

    • Thank you, and thanks for reblogging this. I think the quantity of violence is a matter of taste, it’s whether it is justified or not that’s a more important question to answer.

  18. As ever, you make an excellent point here, Dylan. Part of me is frustrated by myself as a writer because I’ve wasted so many years by not knuckling down and writing. But there’s also a part of me that knows a lot of what I would have written in the past would have involved a series of action/violence which I’d have loved writing, but would have been at the expense of plot and character. As with so many things, if you put a lot of it in, the reader can become immune to the impact, so if you do want to have an effect at a certain point, you really have to ramp things up further or – more likely – you won’t achieve what you’re trying to do. Like you, I’ve had limited experience of actual violence. The only fight I can recall having did involve a glass being swung at me, but once I’d managed to deflect it, the rest of the confrontation was more about pushing and shoving than the thrown punches and balletic kicks that we get to see in the movies. If we can put across the sense of threat and real danger, that does more than lots of fight scenes.

    • You’re absolutely right, Graeme. Threat and real danger are very difficult to convey well, mainly because many writers forget to show the fear most people feel when caught up in these situations. Again, it’s the yin and yang of writing. You can’t properly convey bravery or heroism if you don’t also convey just how terrifying a situation is.

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