I’m a pacifist.

But don’t tell my characters.

One of my biggest challenges in writing is managing violent scenes. Call me a wuss. As someone who’s never even thrown a punch, you can imagine where I’m coming from. But my own personal preferences have to take second seat when I’m writing because, whether or not I like violence or not, it’s a part of life. Especially considering that war is a major component in my current novel–it is partially inspired by the Old West, you see, and there’s just no avoiding it. (Not to mention there’s a murder by the third chapter.)

Sometimes writers feel like they have to write their own agenda into their work. I think this can work to a certain extent (I’ve certainly included quite a helping of my feelings about society, gender, and spirituality in my book) but often it clouds the tale if gone too far. Readers need to trust a writer completely, especially if they’re going to keep with you for 100,000 words or so. So don’t skimp on violence if it’s part of the story, because your readers will feel like you’re withholding details.

That said, there’s a few things I do when I’m writing a particularly violent scene. The first thing to do is research. Sometimes this includes talking to someone who has first-hand experience. A few weeks ago I interrogated my husband about what getting socked in a particularly sensitive area that I have no personal understanding about might feel like if done with a steel-toed boot. I also take time to read other accounts (a quick crash course would be reading someone like Chuck Palahnhiuk, but only if you have a stomach of steel).

But you also want to make sure your violence is accurate. Often in fantasy people are given super human powers, or receive the most unlikely of wounds. If you’re being attacked by a mace, well, read up about what a mace does to the human body. The same with daggers, knives, blasters, rifles, or fists. (Medieval warfare is a good place to start for the fantasy camp.) That goes doubly for magic or anything high-tech. Take a half second to learn about physics! A quick gander certainly won’t hurt.

Violence has been a part of storytelling from the beginning. (Just take a look at the Bible!) It’s just one of the elements of storytelling that excite an audience, keep them on the edge of their seats. Whether it’s the severing of Grendel’s arm, Roland’s brain bursting from blowing his horn, or the frequent “brain bashing” of Malory in Le Morte D’Arthur, violence is a part of our mythology. We understand violence because it causes pain, and pain is something common to the human experience.

That said, if you’re still uncomfortable with your scene, I have a few more suggestions.

For instance, if you’re describing a group scene (a siege or the like) and the large-scale violence is either too complicated or too bothersome, use a single point of view. Narrow the lens, as it were, and describe what is happening through a character, not just the actions around him/her.

Also, remember that level of detail is always up to you. I’ve read some writers who go as far as the molecular level when describing their violent scenes. The difference between a wound, a gaping wound, and a seeping, putrefying wound… well, you get the point.

In the end, the decision is yours. Different writers have different levels of comfort (I’ve seen, for instance, some writers who don’t balk at writing a bloodbath, but skip over the sex completely). Find your balance, but don’t do it without examining the whys of your own approach.

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