Today, the guest blogger for Brain Cells & Bubble Wrap is author Mark Phillips, whose book The Resqueth Revolution is now available. Sit back and enjoy Mark's blog post about writing about violence. I know I learned how to make my writing crisper and more realistic, and learned when and why to use violence in my work.
Now, from author Mark Phillips: How, When, and Why to Write About Violence.
In earlier stops on the tour, over at Lj Raves and The Dark Phantom, we discussed writing action and violent action scenes. Today we begin the discussion about the conditions under which society accepts the depiction of violence in books and film.
The important questions concerning writing violent scenes are not how, but when and why. The combat carnage at the beginning of Saving Private Ryan is far gorier than anything depicted in many horror films, yet the purpose of depicting the violence is radically different. The sheer violent cruelty depicted in Schindler’s List is more appalling than many a slasher film, yet we revere the former film while the latter genre occupies about the same place on the cultural ladder as pornography. It’s the why and when of the depicted violence, not the techniques of depiction itself which makes the difference.
The actual technique of writing violence is pretty much the same as it for writing action. As I discussed in earlier blog articles on how to write action, there are three main rules:
1) Imagine you are witnessing the violence in real life or a movie and try to capture every important detail. Slow everything down so your reader has the time to become caught up in those gruesome details, while making your prose fast-paced and honed to a razor’s edge.
2) Do your research so the details are either accurate or convincing. Have fun researching the different sounds made by a kneecap snapping from a kick, a skull shattering from the blow of a baseball bat, and an eyeball bursting from the gouging of a thumb.
3) For violent confrontational action you must access your suppressed bloodlust. If you can’t become excited by the violence you’re writing about, I doubt your reader will either.
The key questions are when and for what purposes you are allowed to write about violence, allowed in the sense of your readers’ approval, not in any legal sense. The answers to these questions reveal interesting, jarring, and uncomfortable tensions within the society our fiction mirrors. To what extent are we allowed to enjoy depictions of violence? To what extent must we instead demonstrate (or pretend?) that we find it appalling? We must strike a balance between pleasures of the outer civilized citizen and the inner barbarian. That our society has not found a stable, sophisticated resolution to such questions twists writing about violence into odd, inconsistent, and sometimes damaging shapes.
The easiest way to write about violence that your audience will endorse is to set your story in an historical setting when people considered violence appropriate. Write about Conan the Barbarian, or Roman gladiators, or range wars in the Old West, or any war, but especially wars that we still consider just. Readers morally appalled by the thought of watching real gladiators fight to the death are perfectly okay with reading about or watching a film about gladiators fighting to the death.
Is that because we know that fiction doesn’t entail real death, torture, and mutilation?
It’s not that simple. After all, if the reader is constantly thinking that what he’s reading are the transcribed scribblings of a particular writer, if he never sinks through the page into the suspended disbelief state necessary to become fully engaged in the story, he would never feel for the characters, never be able to feel vicarious fear or triumph. Because he is reading, as opposed to editing or doing literary analysis, he might as well be seeing a real gladiatorial contest. At that moment, when the protagonist he is rooting for is about to deliver the coup-de-grace and your reader’s own breathing and blood rate accelerate, adrenalin pouring through his veins, he is in the same moral relationship to violence as a Roman matron screaming for blood.
But nobody really dies, you insist.
And you are exactly correct. After we read, we comfort ourselves with the thought that no one had to die for our entertainment (assuming of course that you are not reading an accurate historical account—I’m only dealing with fiction in this blog). Our vicarious thrills depend on nothing more than an author’s fleeting imagination captured as ink stains on paper. But that’s after you’ve enjoyed.
You scream while on the roller coaster, immersed in what you temporarily allow yourself to experience as the thrill of extreme danger. Then, after the ride, you once again realize that it’s safe and get right into line for another go. During the horror movie, you cringe in utter terror from the hideous and revolting monster that slithers towards the protagonist with whom you have fully identified. After you get home, you convince yourself that it’s all right to sleep alone in your darkened, not quite silent house with the thought that, after all, it was only a movie.
I still maintain that the moral out—that it’s not real—is, at the moment of genuine experience, completely irrelevant. People enjoy reading about barbarian warriors, gladiators, gunfighters, and soldiers, because they want to vicariously experience violent conflict. They crave it with a passion that our civilized citizen self finds difficult to accept.
There are many more plot patterns in our culture that serve to allow this false consciousness about violence. I’ll share my examples tomorrow at Free Spirit. For now, please use the comments link to share your examples of situations where violence is permitted in fiction and any other comments you have about today’s post. Do you agree or disagree? Why?
Tomorrow we continue the tour and our discussion on violence in fiction and film at Free Spirit. The full tour schedule and information about how you can win your very own autographed copy of The Resquesth Revolution, check out Char’s Book Reviews.
Information about tour contest:
Followers of the 2009 Resqueth Revolution blog tour will have two opportunities to win.
1) Everyone who leaves a comment on the tour will receive one drawing entry per comment per blog site. Two entries will be drawn at random and the winners will receive their very own, signed copy of The Resqueth Revolution.
2) Everyone who answers all quiz questions correctly will be entered into a drawing for the grand prize – a signed copy of The Resqueth Revolution, a Resqueth pen, magnet and calendar, and a signed copy of Hacksaw, first in the Eva Baum Detective Series.