Like all serious writing themes, the inclusion of violence in storytelling should serve a specific purpose. That purpose, in most cases, is to move the plot forward and show the reader an important piece of character information. But what does it express in terms of the human experience and when is violence unnecessary?
Violence and the Human Experience
In most cases, violence is about power and control. One could ask, what is it when someone dies in an accident? Isn’t it, just an accident? Yes, but we mere mortals have no control over our own mortality. The inevitability of death can’t be controlled and that, within itself, is a powerful theme in literature.
Therefore, when you write a violent scene between two characters, make sure you effectively demonstrate power and control. You could have the fanciest Kung Fu/Jiu-Jitsu takedowns with short blades and whips, but if you can’t answer these questions, ask yourself why you’re including the scene at all?
- At the start of the scene, who’s in control? How does the reader know this?
- Who has the power initially? Again, how have you, the writer, shown this?
- By the end of the scene, is there a transference of power and control?
- Did I do enough or too much to demonstrate the above?
Here’s your homework, either watch or re-read William Goldman’s Inigo vs Wesley fight scene in The Princess Bride. Then, ask yourself the aforementioned questions as if you were William Goldman.
When Less is More – Dumping Gratuitous Violence
When you write, you provide your readers with pictures, but you have no way of knowing exactly what the reader will see inside their own minds. We, humans, have imaginations. It’s why we love listening to and reading stories. So why are you over-writing a violent scene? Be wiser, more clever, more sophisticated. Engage psychological warfare with your reader for greater literary impact instead of overexplaining every gory detail.
Here’s a subtly violent scene for you to consider. My brother and I were discussing how siblings wreck each other’s things when they’re young (it’s all about power and control, people). Thinking back, I knew I had never done anything like this to my brother and said so. He smiled a smile I didn’t like then said, And I never put your night-time retainer in the toilet when you acted like a jerk …
This is a great example of violence without revealing too much. My brother took control and wielded his power over my immune system without me ever knowing he did so. Or did he? The violent act, or the question of said act, is a little nasty bomb he left for my psyche to puzzle over.
Powerful. Unlike my adult immune system …
Sloppy Violence Shows You Skipped Your Research
A reader will see through your bad writing if you don’t craft your violent scene properly. If you have a fight scene, make sure you physically act it out–without hurting yourself or anyone around you. Have you seen this article about real women acting out comic book depictions of female characters? It’s both humorous and horrifying and it demonstrates my point. Without taking notes from life, your work can become laughable. In an age where people’s attention spans are getting shorter and shorter, why would you risk losing a reader?
If you’re using a weapon, research them. If there’s a physical act, think carefully about the kinetic logistics from all angles. However, and most importantly, clearly show your character’s reaction to the violence in your scene. Show the power, show the control.
For more on writing a fight scene, click here.