Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Guest Blogger Mark Phillips

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.


Marvin D. Wilson said...

Excellent part one in the series of essays on violence, Mark. You have obviously studied this aspect of literature well and thought it through enough to present solid principles to go by. I took lots of notes! (smile)

Looking forward to presenting your Part Two (which I have already read, of course - LOL) on Free Spirit.

Marvin D Wilson

Anonymous said...


It must have been interesting to read part 2 before part 1.

I'm looking forward to reading the rest of this. I never really gave much thought to why I can accept violent passages in some books and films and not in others. I'm thinking now.

Mark Phillips said...

Hi Marvin,
Looking forward to my visit. I saved some good controversy just for you.

Hi Anonymous,
Getting people to think and be aware is my main purpose. You've made my day.

Hi Vivian,
Thanks so much for letting me guest blog on your wonderful site. I have been reading your recent articles on the latest government intrusion into our lives with great interest. It actually reinforced my faith in Americans that so many librarians are deciding to ignore the government's recommendations as nonsensical. Perhaps if there were wide scale ignoring of more nonsensical laws, legislators would stop writing so many of them.


Diana Driver said...

Good Blog!!!


Mark Phillips said...

Thanks Diana.

Autumn Storm said...

Great article Mark...looking forward to parts 2 & 3. Lots of points to ponder

queenofmean said...

I've come over from the crime scene writers' blog. Very interesting subject that caught my attention. I actually have given a lot of thought to this. I find movies that are violent just for the sake of violence to be unimaginative. It's a different situation when the violence is necessary for you to understand the story, such as in Schindler's List & Saving Private Ryan as you mentioned. The Deerhunter (an oldie) is another example. If you weren't able to witness & feel the violence through the characters, you could never understand what happened to them when they came home. And even in these situations, it has to be handled in such a way as to not pull the wiewer (or reader) out, but keep them moving along with the characters. I look forward to reading the next parts.

Vivian Zabel said...

I'm glad to stopped by to visit from crimescenewriters.

You make excellent points.

Mark Phillips said...

Thanks Queenofmean. I agree with you that much violence for the sake of violence is unimaginative, but unfortunately most x for the sake of x is unimaginative. Indeed we live in a singularly unimaginative age. There are, however, glorious exceptions in the area of violence for the sake of violence. The films of Quentin Tarentino, Robert Rodriquez, and George Romero spring instantly to mind. I look forward to your comments on parts 2 and 3 of this article, where I take us into a tangle of moral ambiguity and out the other side.

Jean Henry Mead said...

Interesting post on violence, Mark. I look forward to the rest of the tour.

Helen said...

Very thoughtful post on violence in fiction, Mark. I'm not big on gory movies. The only movie I've ever walked out on was The Last House on the Left (not the version out now, but the original). Those kinds of movies seem to always be violence aimed at women. I've never quite understood why that seems to be acceptable in our society. Even in today's TV shows like CSI, it's usually women who are the victims of violence.

On the other hand, I do read mysteries, thrillers, and suspense. Even though I see the scenes in my head when I read, it's different from seeing it on the screen.

Anyway, I'm looking forward to Part 2 on Marvin's blog and then Part 3 on my blog. Unlike Marvin, I have not read what you'll be saying on Straight From Hel. The suspense builds...

Mark Phillips said...

Thanks Jean.

Thanks Helen. I definitely have things to say on the deplorable tendency to target women in violent literature and film. I am also sympathetic concerning the preference to read rather than watch violence.

My own rather ironic problem is that I am unusually sensitive to depictions of violence. Combining a tendency to over-identify with protagonists with an entirely too vivid imagination leads me to suffer during artistic depictions of violence. Sometimes I can actually develop sympathy agonies.

But here's my dilemma. I watch for fresh new talent in film---young directors who have fresh vision and style trying to break into the medium. They get handed a disreputable low-budget horror script and, unsure that they'll ever get another chance to direct, they poor into that violent blood-soaked B-picture every artistic fiber of their being. Suddenly, up there on the screen, is a Night of the Living Dead, or s Scanners, or a Re-Animator. While I watch I suffer, but after I've watched I'm ecstatic at what I've found. One strategy that I've used is to schedule,usually on or around Halloween, a horror film marathon---ten films of mind-numbing terror. After the first few, I get so desensitized that I can watch the rest with relative impunity. As you can see I'm a somewhat twisted and conflicted aesthete.

Looking forward to visiting your site, Helen.

Vivian Zabel said...

Thank you, Mark, for using Brain Cells & Bubble Wrap for part one of your three part discussion of violence.

Speaking of violence, or a desire to create violence, tomorrow I'll be posting about the CPSIA again.

Mark Phillips said...

Thanks Vivian---Give 'em heck tomorrow. Make a bureaucrat cry.

The Belle in Blue said...

Great subject, Mark. I've found that for violent scenes, it's best to keep the writing understated so as not to come across as melodramatic or sensationalistic. If the action is truly violent, just showing what's happening will be enough for the reader without gratuitous adjectives or (Heaven forbid!) adverbs.

Mark Phillips said...

You're right, Belle, often understated is quite effective. Occasionally withholding details can be even more effective as the reader's imagination comes up with more horrible details than the author could envision, especially as each individual has personal phobias and squirm-causing imagery lurking around their subconscious mind.

I must confess, however, to a guilty pleasure in the over-the-top, adjective and advedrb laden purple prose of the old pulp masters. Say what you will, but people still read H. P. Lovecraft despite or even because of his lurid style. There is room in the literary universe for all kinds of styles and techniques---it all depends on the skill and imagination of the individual writer.

Be sure to visit us at day two and three of this violence article. Check out Char's Book Reviews for all the links.


packey said...

I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.



Mark Phillips said...

Thanks packey. Glad you enjoyed it. It is a great site, isn't it.

Vivian Zabel said...

Welcome, packey. I hope you'll visit again, and often, even though Mark will be elsewhere.

I need to post a different blog entry, but I wanted to leave Mark's essay as the main post for a while.

Cynde L. Hammond said...

I believe that if violence is tastefully done and women aren't exploited, then someone could make a great movie about spousal abuse (something I personally experienced with my first husband) and then it would be useful. I just don't like to see it when it's exploited.

See you at the next stop,
Cynde Hammond

Cynde L. Hammond said...

Great post.


Cynde L. Hammond said...

Great post.


Mark Phillips said...

Hi Cynde. I'm sorry to hear that you had to experience such abuse. You're right, the subject deserves a great movie to sort through the pain and psychic trauma of it all. Perhaps it's time for you to sit down and start the screenplay that will lead to just that masterpiece.