For our newest writers roundtable, we're going to look at writing scenes of violence and gore. Getting a violent and/or gory scene right isn't easy, and to find out how to do it, we're going to have some of the best writers of violent action I know teach us how to do it.
When and why is violence necessary in a good piece of fiction?
L. Andrew Cooper:
|Yep. This roundtable has all of it. |
Well, except drugs. Don't do drugs, kids.
Drugs are bad. And stay in school.
I am not shy about saying that much (but not all) of my fiction both is about and is violence, so you might as well ask, is the kind of fiction I write necessary? I think so--violent fiction, and violence in fiction, not only safely allows readers to experience, or approach experiencing, one of the greatest (and most unpleasant) extremes of living and dying but also to reflect on how such experiences profoundly shape both individuals (our characters) and history (reflected in our stories). So violence is necessary in a good piece of fiction when violence appears in ways that make people scared of it, laugh at it, criticize it, or otherwise engage.
Violence is often necessary as a way to literally drive your character or plot forward. Characters react to stimulus and violence is a stimulus that makes them have no choice but to change.
I can't speak to “any” good piece of fiction. But people who pick up an action adventure or crime novel are looking to be immersed in a gritty world where the only way that the hero is only likely to overcome their obstacles is with their fists or a gun. Violence is an inescapable element of the genre.
Narrative fiction almost always requires a climax. Climax is almost always as a result of a problem or conflict. Problems and conflicts are often resolved via action, and one for of action is violence. Violence can be catharsis, and including it in a story sometimes has that effect too. It can be shocking, and that's another effect writers may want to have. So many climaxes are violent.
Violence can also establish threat, set a tone, elicit reader emotional reaction, and grab reader attention at any time in a story. Like all the other narrative choices available, it should be used at the right time in the right way for best effect.
Violence is a necessary plot device in genre based material to drive the plot and introduce conflict that can later be resolved,. Often the resolution to the conflict involves some type of violence.
Violent action in the opening of a book can set the pace and quickly draw the reader in, and lead to more exciting action sequences.
Lee Houston Jr.:
I personally feel, as both a reader and a writer, that violence should only be representative of just how evil the villain(s) of the story are. Without violence and the villains who create it, the heroes of our tales would have less to do each adventure. Yet we must remember that some people read for the escapism fiction gives them from the troubles and stress of the real world, and respond accordingly.
How do you convey violence in your writing in a way that makes it resonate with readers and truly affect them?
Name your weapon of choice. We'll write them all.
Too much violence, just for the sake of violence, loses its effectiveness. Like any element of the story, it has to have a purpose. Maybe that point is just to illustrate that the situation is dangerous or the enemy is brutal. Or maybe it gives some insight into the character by how they react to it. I think it's important not to ignore the effect that that violence has an on the characters involved, beyond the obvious. The person who dished out a beating, or killed someone, is just as permanently effected as the victim. So are any witnesses. I think that fantasy novels miss that especially.
Acts of violence should not be casual if the character is supposed to be a normal, healthy, tax paying citizen. Nor should they necessarily be angsty hand-wringing events if your character is a hardened thug. Either scenario should present something interesting for the reader.
I try to convey the violence in one of two ways, a simmering, brooding violence that is built up over a period of time in the story. This would usually be used in a crime of passion. Or a random act of violence often perpetrated by a creature of some kind and is spontaneous and comes out of nowhere. It is the evil jumping out of the shadows and adds a shock value.
When I write a violent action sequence, I try to make the reader feel the impact as much as possible. Here's an example from my new spy series Caribe
"Nick stood, smiling like they were old friends. As soon as they were close enough, he snatched his beer bottle from the table and broke it across the nearest man’s face. As he cried out in both pain and surprise, Nick launched a kick to the second man’s groin that lifted him into the air. As he dropped to the marble floor, Nick snapped a punch into the first man’s broken nose that dropped him to the floor.
"Nick hurried across the courtyard and out the door. Once on the street, Storm pulled a white baseball cap out of his back pocket and pulled it onto his head. The sunglasses came off and went into his shirt pocket. His appearance was changed enough to throw off and description that the two men or Melendez could give of him."
I like the reader to have a dog in the fight, by which I mean there has to be a reason for the reader to care about what's happening. So I like to establish the reason for the violence so they know who to root for or against. If the baddie or monster's going to win this violent encounter I want the readers to care that he won, so that they;re rooting against him and taking him seriously next fight along.
Good fights have to be storyboarded like mini-stories in their own right. Violence has to be described as coherently and literately as anything else in the tale. It requires at least as much skill and technique as love scenes or back story exposition.
Violence doesn't have to mean fighting, either. A villain beating up a helpless old man tied to his chair can be pretty violent - and you bet the readers will care about our hero catching up with the bad guy after. Nor does it have to be physical. The bad guy slowly pulling the arms and legs off a captive child's beloved doll in front of her then popping the toy's eyes and stamping on them out can be just as horrifying because it's emotionally violent.
Violence can have various tones. It can be intense and brutal, it can be freewheeling and swashbuckling, it can even be humorous sometimes. It works best when it's pitched to serve the story.
L. Andrew Cooper:
As for how I convey violence, I have to ask, what kind? Psychological? Physical? Social? Systemic? Psychological violence tends to appear best in dialogue or descriptions of reactions that tell readers more about characters than characters have figured out about themselves (or vice versa --interactions that begin to hint at larger psychological twists yet to be mapped). Physical violence can appear in all shapes and sizes. More on that in a moment. Social violence manipulates scenarios to play on larger social fears rooted in demographic/political concerns, which can range from standard scenarios involving victimizing people who are already at a disadvantage (Leatherface cuts through the guy in a wheelchair) to more specific, quasi-allegorical violence, like the violence that begins the TV reboot of Battlestar Galactica. As for systemic violence, that tends to involve concerns about large systems designed to destroy us... we're in conspiracy territory... to unfold such violence, you tend to need massive narrative, such as, say, the Cthulhu Mythos or what I'm doing in my own rather conspiratorial novels.
Violence is necessary for its careful use of sensory and physical cues that jar the impact into the reader's mind. It's one thing to have someone get punched. It's another for them to be punched so hard it made their spleen flop against their pancreas.
Lee Houston Jr.:
I always go more for portraying the emotional impact of a violent situation than dwelling on the physical damage that might occur.
Now for the obvious question... To gore or not to gore when writing violent scenes? How much is too much? How much is needed? Or is it just a cop-out used by lazy writers?
|So does this interview.|
Gore is fine as long as it's applied in a logical (for the rules of the story) way... people don't have buckets of blood inside them.. shotguns don't rip people in half... etc. But used artfully, gore can really drive home the actual ramifications of violence being used or received.
Lee Houston Jr.:
Unfortunately, there are times when it is painfully obvious that we live within a violent world. The nightly news proves that. However, I never dwell upon the specific details of a violent act, for I do not need to gross out neither the readers or myself. You acknowledge the violent act(s), set the hero(es) upon the villain(s) trail, and go on with the story.
Gore is another tool in the kit. It's a specialized tool, like graphic sex and obscene language, but like those things it can have a big impact when its used right. The problem comes when it gets dropped into the middle of an otherwise less explicit story. Nobody expects a full-on three way sex scene in Harry Potter (except on certain very specialized websites) because it would be inappropriate to the tone and effect of the story. On the other hand, James Bond can get genital electrode torture without his readership offering more than a reflex wince of sympathy. So it's about horses for courses.
I tend to reserve graphic descriptions for very special occasions, when I want the reader to be horrified by what has happened. Even then I think less is more. Prose can't compete with movies for splatter effects. It can outdo the best 3D VFX in the world when it gets inside a reader's head and turns their own imagination to supplying the detail. With every respect to H.P. Lovecraft, M.R. James is scarier.
You want to use enough to paint the proper picture but no go overboard. Say you are writing a story dealing with a serial killer, then yeah more gore may be needed than say in a western, unless your character is being tortured by Apaches or Comanches. But in say your average mystery, usually a body laying in a pool of blood is graphic enough.
L. Andrew Cooper:
Gore. Lots of lazy writers use it. A few great writers use it. Then again, we only get a few truly great writers per region per generation. I get tired of people who think we're reaching "all-time-lows" or whatever of gore and sexualized violence. I want to tell such people to go read the complete works of the Marquis de Sade, look at the dates when they were first published, look at the dates on their smarmy phones, and then, brutalized as they are by having read thousands of pages of intentionally unreadable prose that I could never get through, they can realize that nothing has changed in hundreds of years and they can go, well, politely walk to the end of a pier and decide for themselves.
Seriously, though, gore is and long has been a serious art. You can use it it to brutalize audiences into forms of thought they could not achieve otherwise. You can use it to create forms of the sublime and forms of the beautiful only available by tapping into all the cultural weight we attach to images of the human insides, the blood, the guts, the things we're never supposed to see. Our job as artists is not only to show what people are not supposed to see, but show it in ways that challenge the way they were looking in the first place.
There are scads of movies and comics out there that I just call “violence porn”. Again, it's violence just for the sake of violence. If the scene is just an excuse to describe gore, why do I care? Unless you are specifically writing a horror or something aimed at fans who are really into gruesome or macabre subject matter, then well, yeah. Have at it.
In the action adventure world, gore can be effective, so long as it's not thrown around so much that it loses any shock value it's meant to have. Perhaps you need to establish just how brutal a character can be, or you need to drive home the very real threat a character is facing. I have a scene in a novella that's about to be released where we see a sharp contrast between how our hero was introduced, and what she's truly capable of.
I like gore, but since most of today's readers are women, I try to only use a lot of it when it is needed, and when I think the reader can accept it. A 'nice' person in the story who dies may get eaten by a creature, but at the point of attack, I turn the story camera away and focus on other action. Whereas a BAD person may get the top of their head bitten off and I will describe the curvature of the eyeballs poking above the jagged edge of their separated skull. If I set the character up just right, people will cheer at the gore in that scene. As far as it being a cop out, it depends on the story surrounding it, and really, I believe heavy gore has a very limited audience in the reading community so there is no real reason to be off the charts. Sometimes the best bits are the ones you can hear and not see.
What are some tips and tools to help new writers master the art of writing violence in their work?
L. Andrew Cooper:
|Oh no! It can't be almost over!|
Remember that "violence" is an extremely broad range of experiences and emotions, not all of them necessarily bad. I've read hundreds of descriptions of intestines dangling in various ways. Don't overestimate the power of shock or the ability of violence to galvanize your writing by itself. Violence is the collision of characters, events, descriptions--if you're into that sort of thing (I am), you earn the luscious descriptions of the taboo by embedding them in contexts that actually MAKE them taboo.
Same advice applies to any tool. In all things, moderation. Don't overdo it. When writing a scene, ask yourself how realistic it is. There can be a fine line between brutal and parody. If the level of violence gets so absurd it feels like a Troma movie, might want to scale back.
Also keep pacing in mind. If you spend too much page space describing the violence, there might not be enough room for the action to move forward. The story always comes first.
Lee Houston Jr.:
First and foremost (in my mind), the hero(es) should NEVER stoop to the villains' level! Otherwise, why are they the hero(es) of your story? Otherwise, how I handle violent situations in my creative works is reflected in my answers to your first three questions, and any other writer is welcome to do with my advice as they see fit.
A tip for new writers - build a scene that will contain violence, slowly. Take the story in a direction where violence is inevitable, but the character tries to avoid it at all costs. That results in a climax to the scene that can be referred to as pulse pounding and edge of seat. Make sure you have developed the readers relationship with the character so they give a shit before they get killed or injured, I like the thrill of making my reader like a character at first, but by the time they get taken out, the reader is actually cheering for them to die.
Don't flinch. If you are going to write it then sit your ass down and fucking write it. No off page coward moves. Don't be a punk.
Set the scene well. If the hero's going to grab up a chair and smash the bad guy with it, establish the chair is in the room before the fight starts, or at least that it;s the kind of room that has chairs in it. If there's a cliff edge let's hear about it beforehand.
Establish the reason for the fight. Give the readers something to care about.
Consider multiple perils. A punch-up's great. A punch-up in a burning barn is better. A punch-up in a burning barn with the baby screaming in his pram near the smoldering haystack is better yet.
Use shorter sentences than normal. It has more punch. Then vary with a lengthier, more descriptive sentence. Then toss in a line of dialogue. Then a "wide-shot" description of some associated event - people racing away from the gunfire say. Then back to short, sharp descriptions.
Avoid cliche. There are a lot of violence cliches. Try not to rely on jackhammer fists, lightning-fast punches, or reeling heads. Find new descriptions. Keep it fresh.
Pitch your level of graphic-ness to the kind of fight scene you want. No point doing Indiana Jones-style fight descriptions if you're going to interrupt the derring-do with detailed information about the splattered vitreous humor from the pencil jabbed in the cop's eye. Likewise, body horror stories can be let down by common cliche like "spurting fountains."
The fight needs to have events in it, with twists and turns just like a full story. You can even get plot revelations and character development moments in there! It's a mini-three act drama in its own right, with set-up, follow-on, and pay-off.
Watch a lot of movies, see how they handle the gore. Slasher movies go over the top, but study the way the cinema stages the gore, you can learn a lot and can incorporate it into your writing.