SOME OF YOU MAY HAVE ALREADY READ THIS POST in other places, notably, the On Spec winter 2011/12 issue, in Clarion's Writer's Craft blog #58, or in Lynda Williams' Reality Skimming blog. I'm re-posting it (with a few tweaks to make it current), as I've never posted it on Suzenyms. If you've already read it, move on and have a great Thanksgiving if you live here in Canada. If you don't live up here in the Great White North and haven't yet read it, I hope you find it a worthwhile use of time. Happy Thanksgiving to you, wherever and whenever you celebrate it.
WHEN I ATTENDED THE WHEN WORDS COLLIDE convention in Calgary, August 2011, I sat on a ‘Writing Difficult Scenes’ panel with a number of
folks, including Lynda Williams (author of the Okal Rel Universe saga),
fellow On Spec editor Barb Galler-Smith (author of Druids, Captives and
Warriors) and others. I made a comment that I liked gritty scenes and
that one of the most personally disturbing stories I ever wrote was
about castration. The story, entitled Oyster Love, appeared in Northern Frights V. Following the con, Lynda asked if I might write about violence on Reality Skimming. She assumed that I liked to write ‘extreme stuff’, and
that I might address some ethical considerations.
I had to decline.
Why? Because what I write isn’t excessive compared to some of the
really extreme stuff out there. But it did get me to thinking about the
portrayal of violence in fiction, and what works for me and what
Violence in fiction needs to be there for a good reason. With my
castration story, the horror wasn’t just in the act to which I alluded
in the end; the horror came from my protagonist’s lack of conscience,
her ability to manipulate events and her sense of loss and betrayal
coupled with her need to control. Embedded even deeper in the story was
the idea that her psychopathy stemmed from demonic influence. I kept the
reader guessing, never knowing what my anti-hero might do next. Horror
is stronger when it leaves an aftertaste, when you can surprise
your audience and make them wonder about the potential of such things
happening in their own lives. I set out to write a story that suggested
an unremarkable girl with a crush might hide something sinister, might
stalk the object of her infatuation and see his involvement with another
as an ultimate betrayal. Her love interest and his paramour had no idea
of her intentions until my protagonist took matters into her own
I’m not titillated by blood spatters and intestines looping about
one’s knees, left to steam in a pile on the floor with a ‘the end’ sign
affixed to them. On their own, such scenes are gratuitous. For such
visceral elements to work, they must be appropriate to the action. More
importantly, there must also be a strong emotional reaction to them on
the part of the point-of-view character. The stronger and more graphic
the scene, the more I need to understand the character’s motivation and
his psychological make-up. These things should be in place before the
violence occurs, or afterward, in some kind of a review. As an editor, I have no
sympathy for characters (or their writers) who fail to give me a reason
for their violence. Even then, it will also be a question of whether the
seeds sown beforehand are enough. Many times they aren’t, or there’s a
disconnect, where, despite an attempt at validation, the violence is
justified by a thin excuse like ‘that’s just what werewolves do’. A
defense such as this shows a lack of imagination and the effort needed
to present something original.
So perhaps I’m talking about the skill level of the writer, or maybe
it’s just a matter of personal taste as to when something is ‘not
enough’. I prefer to see some sophistication in what I read, which is
another way of saying that I want to see solid characterization.
Gratuitous violence rarely includes the inner workings of the
characters’ minds or their world. It gives no understanding into the
horror. The point is to shock rather than offer insight.
Of course, there are times when the characterization doesn’t provide
insight, but the theme does, and being theme, the reasoning doesn’t
become apparent until the piece is seen or read in its entirety. One of
the best examples I've seen comes from the movie, Pulp Fiction. Lots of violence
there, but every brutal scene is linked with elements of down-home,
folksy Americana like the music in the background, the
settings—kitchens, bathrooms, pawn shops, restaurants with look-alike
Marilyn Monroe waitresses, consumer goods—hamburgers, gourmet coffee,
magic markers, or simple niceties, like saying ‘pretty please with sugar
on top’. Spoiler Alert: When Pumpkin and Honeybun chat over coffee and
then hold up the coffee shop, when Jules recites Ezekiel 25:17 before he
executes Brett, when Butch toasts toaster pastries and notices Vince’s
gun on the counter before he blasts him full of bullets, or when Jules
is more concerned about Vince bloodying Bonnie’s bathroom towels than
the dead body in the back of their car, the message is obvious: Our
culture is familiar, misdirected and dangerous. Violence is Us. The
theme shows us who we are. Not to mention the irony and black humor that
causes us to laugh because we recognize ourselves in it. If Pulp
Fiction portrayed violent scene after violent scene without any
juxtaposition to the culture, it wouldn’t be the amazing piece of
fiction it is. It’s also interesting to note that the actual violence
portrayed is short-lived. It doesn’t go on and on. When Marsellus tells
Zed that he’s going to ‘get medieval on your ass’ we know that he’s
going to have thugs take pliers and a blowtorch to Zed for sodomizing
him, but we don’t actually see this scene. Marsellus threatening Zed is
Violence is the stuff of action. As writers, most of us will pen a
violent scene at some point or another. Therefore, it’s important to know why we’re writing the scene, who we’re writing for, and what
our motivation is. Here are a few reasons I’ve come across as to why
writers write violent scenes:
1. They write them to prove they can.
2. They write them to live vicariously through them. The violence gives
them an outlet where they can blow an enemy away or portray a rival in
an unflattering light.
3. They like being able to stomach vivid, violent events with dispassion. They have guts. They can handle it.
4. They write the story to impress or compete with others. Anything you can do, they can do bloodier.
5. They write the scene or story because it’s based on real life. The event actually happened to them or to someone they know.
6. They write the piece in the hopes that it will work for a particular anthology, magazine, or publishing house.
7. They write the scene or story to give the reader a thrill.
8. They write the scene because violence is the outcome of rising tension and action.
All of these reasons (with the possible exception of #5) fall short
of why we should write violent scenes or stories. If we’re writing to
prove we can, that’s fine for a start. Many of us begin this way. We
want to push ourselves to see what we can do. But as we mature as
writers, we need to get beyond this motivation. Reasons #2, #3, and #4
are misdirected. They’re all about the writer, and the focus is in the
wrong direction. Reason #6—writing for a publication—is strictly
pragmatic. On its own, it’s slightly removed from what a better
motivation might be. Reason #7—writing to give a thrill—heads in the
right direction, but it doesn’t go far enough. Reason #8—violence as an
outcome—makes sense and is justified, but it shouldn’t be the sole
reason for penning a violent scene. As for Reason #5, if a writer is
writing a memoir, or using a past experience to add reality to a story,
it may or may not be an appropriate reason for writing it. It depends on
whether or not the violence provides a fulfilling experience for the
The point of any violent scene or story should be to give one’s
audience a visceral, an emotional, and, by the end of the work, an
insightful experience. Some readers are happy if they encounter only the
first element. I’m not one of them. The trend to make things more
graphic than ever doesn’t satisfy me. What does is encountering violence
in a creative work that punches me in the gut, the heart, and the head.
That brings me a new understanding or a way of looking at things. That
makes me feel deeply for the characters. That makes me want to do
something about a situation. That makes me feel richer for the
experience, because what’s happened in the story matters.
Creating stories that do those things takes a lot of work. There are
many layers, and much thought and craft that go into making them.
Certainly, much more than the shallower stuff that settles for the shock
of a cheap thrill. Here’s a final reason:
9. A writer depicts violence because it provides the platform and
stimulus for higher ideals to address it. Those things might include
actions involving sacrifice, forgiveness, love, justice, determination,
survival, hope, gratitude, or redemption.
This last point invites us to strive for loftier goals than simply
pointing out that ‘life is hell and then you die’. But that’s me. And
there are many folks who write from the opposite camp, where violence is
depicted and relished for its own gory sake.