Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Writing Violence

I've been wanting to post on this for a while and hear what everybody thinks about this subject, cause I think it's a tricky one. What got me thinking about this subject is an essay in "Writing Mysteries," an interesting collection edited by Sue Grafton. This particular essay is by Bill Granger and it's called "Depictions of Violence." (This essay's strengths and weaknesses are sort of emblematic of this book--good information, but really prescriptive.)

Granger makes the case that all violence is anti-climax--that readers are really looking for the suspense, for the lead up to the violence, and once you get there things deflate. I would generally agree. There are a lot of writers who throw in blood and gore and, most of the time, it does nothing for me.

He goes on to say that there are three, and only three, legitimate ways to write violence, and that anyone who deviates from these patterns is "a hack," which is apparently something you don't want to be. Here are the three ways he brings up:

1) Slow it down to the point of absurdity, which forces the reader "into the action."
2) Hide the violence. This lets the reader fill it in with their imagination.
3) Underplay the prose. He uses an example of a rape scene with very reporterly, stark prose that highlights the brutality of this act.

I have no problem with any of these. They all work. But I also think there's a million other ways of writing violence. And it really depends on your characters--if you have a character who is new to crime, showing them committing the crime and continuously reacting to it (do they find it horrifying? exhilarating?) would be a good way to go. Or if you have a sociopath and you want to demonstrate the joy they take in violence that can work too. I've seen other writers use these and many more methods of writing the nasty stuff.

Though perhaps each of us settles into a few ways of writing violence (these are apparently Granger's ways) that work for us. I tend to leave it out--have it happen off stage or at the very end, so you only get a taste of it, which I guess is Granger Point #2.

How do you write violence? Do you think there are certain techniques that are better than others? Are there some widely used techniques that suck?


  1. I think violence needs to be an organic part of the story, not just something tossed in to shock the readers or because you think it's cool to write all that bloody mess on the page.

    It also depends on your characters and how you want the story to unfold, but you also have to consider the market you're targeting. Some prefer the violence off page, others want the violence in all it's gory detail.

    For my own stories, the violence is mostly off-page because when I grew up that's the way books, TV and the movies did it. If an author is good, the readers imagination will paint the gruesome details with their own imaginations.

    And I've had some readers accuse me of writing the most awful things that aren't even in the stories. Makes me wonder about their minds! :)

  2. Very good post and response from Sandra. I think I write less and less violence and the 'off camera' approach seems to suit my taste in reading also. But like everything- morality, dress sense, music- it's just a matter of taste.

  3. Thanks for the thoughtful comments. It really does matter what market you're writing for--there are some horror zines (and a few crime fiction) that clearly favor the gore. That's cool, but my own tastes run toward leaving out enough that the reader has to fill it in with their imagination.

    For anyone who has read Ray Bradbury's "The Whole Town is Sleeping," this is a great example of restraint in violence. At the end of the story, all you know is that The Lonely One is in Lavinia's house because he clears his throat--that's it!

  4. Like Sandra, I keep it offstage as much as I can. I am more interested in the reason for it than the act itself. I'll look for the Bradbury story.

  5. The Bradbury story is from Dandelion Wine. I generally prefer to leave graphic actions off stage -- unless the characters demand I center stage their violence. Kind of let my subconscious tell me the in it's own terms.

  6. Please eliminate the ' in it's or Callaway will kill me. :)

  7. First I try whatever it is I'm writing about. Then I write about it.