Friday, July 14, 2017

9 Tips for Handling Violence in Your Stories

I don't like Hallmark movies. Pure romance is not a genre I tend to read. Me deciding what type of movie to watch or book to read looks something like this:

Are there swords?

Do things blow up?

Will there be multiple action sequences?

I like "yes" to be the answer to at least one of these questions. Preferably all of them.

But I also ask other questions, too. Like these:

Is there gore?

Is human life devalued?

Do the action sequences pose no purpose?

I do not like "yes" to be the answer to any of these questions.

As a fan of action movies and a writer of Fantasy that centers around assassins, I like my action scenes and, clearly, violence plays a large factor in these portions of the story. But how much violence is too much? How are we, as writers, supposed to portray death, battles, and bodily harm? These are questions I'm constantly asking myself, and one that, hopefully, other writers are, too.

I have the answers, but they're classified. I could tell you, but then I'd have to kill you.

Just kidding. Here are some good tips to keep your violence from crossing over from realistic to harmful:
Hannah Heath: 9 Tips for Handling Violence in Your Stories
Note: This post is not touching on sexual or domestic violence. These very serious issues deserve their own posts.

1. Gore isn't a good idea. There is a difference between violence and gore. Violence is saying that somebody got sliced across the stomach with a sword. Gore is detailing how look as a result of the slicing. Violence often has a purpose in the story. Gore is usually gawking at (or, at worst, reveling in) brutality. Gore is not something you should be using for two main reasons: 1) Gore will alienate a large portion of your audience. And, more importantly: 2) It indicates that you feel the need to rely on something other than your own writing style to convey fear, capture your readers, and show the ramifications of violence. Yes, gore is realistic, but you can find other less harmful (and gross) ways to convey realism. If you need blood and guts to hold your audience's attention or impact your reader, then you need to go back and evaluate your story.

2. The violence needs a point. Did you get that? Needs. NEEDS. NEEDS. NEEDS. NEEDS. Don't make me say it again. Any violence needs to either be moving the plot forward or impacting the character arc. Preferably both. Inigo Montoya's hunt for (and consequential fight with) the six-fingered man is a perfect example of this.

Yes, the point can be to show the horrors of an event (war, genocide, murder, etc). It is to make this point that bloody violence can sometimes be appropriate. But use it to provoke thought. Use it to invoke disgust. Use it to encourage right-thinking. Use it for the correct audience. And use this technique sparingly. 

And, in case you're wondering: No, "raising the stakes" isn't always a good reason for violence. Can it be used to raise the stakes? Sure. Should it be your go-to? Nope. Why? Because every time you use violence in your book, it has less and less meaning. The eighth character death will mean almost nothing compared to the first. A character getting into a fight at every turn will become expected, thus lowering the emotional investment of your readers. While your violence does need a point, that point shouldn't always be to raise the stakes. If you need ideas on how to raise them without stabbing being involved, read this excellent post.

3. Know your audience. Know who you are writing for and judge how much violence you should be using. Marvel does an excellent job of this. They know families go to watch their PG-13 films, so while there is a lot of action and some intense scenes, there is very little blood. Be like Marvel.

4. Remember that violence is "louder" on paper than on screen. Seriously. Tone it down. I'm sure you've heard about desensitization. Don't add to the problem.

5. Don't forget about perspective. A disaster survivor may block out the gore around them because they become fixated on a missing shoe that looks like their brother's. A person on a battlefield may notice their friend bleeding heavily, but will not take the time to take detailed notes on the way the corpses around them look. A first responder may take a more clinical view of a bloody situation. Show violence in fragments, not whole pictures. Not only is it more tasteful, but it's more realistic and more powerful.

6. Watch the body count. Tons of nameless characters getting hacked to bits? Congratulations. Your massive body count has simultaneously devalued human life and decreased the impact of your writing. I hope you're proud. Seriously. I'm tired to reading books and thinking:
If people need to die, fine. If your book centers around war, then yes, there will be pain. But don't have your characters killing faceless people right and left without touching on the fact that, "Hey, those were people with lives and families and maybe their deaths should be taken more seriously."

7. Your characters need morals. Don't let your characters kill without purpose or thought or remorse (unless it's a villain...and even then, maybe think about deepening the character). Don't let your characters lash out as a sign of strength or "coolness." Violence is not a good behavior, though it is a real (and sometimes necessary) one. Please give your characters morals, checks and balances, lines they will not cross. Otherwise your violence means nothing. And thus your story stands for nothing.

8. Don't glorify violence. Just don't, okay? Nothing good comes out of that. Depict violence, sure. But show the ugliness of it. The severity. Don't play it off as funny. Don't make it look cool.

9. Don't forget to show the ramifications. So many stories ignore this. They show the acts of violence, but not what comes after. Show the painful treatments and long recoveries after brutal fights. Show the negative mental and emotional effects of having to go through a traumatic experience. Show the personality changes that comes from constantly engaging in violence.

Hopefully these tips help you when it comes to writing violence into your stories. If you have questions about anything I said...or comments about anything you think I got wrong, leave them below. If not: Have fun storming the castle!

Related articles:
Using Context and Subtext to Raise the Stakes in Your Story: A Guest Post by Malcolm Tolman
Darkness in Fiction: 7 Tips for Writing Dark Stories
Keeping it Classy: When is it OK to Use Profanity In Your Fiction Writing?

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  1. This is a super, super important post. I hate when authors glorify violence, or use it as a cheap trick to heighten tension.

    4 is a really good point. I kept thinking of Daredevil as I read this post, because I think it's an example of intense violence that's done well (especially in the earlier parts- maybe less so later on). But if everything that's shone was on a page, the effect would be completely different.

    1. Thank you for the comment, Justice! I've never watched more than half an episode of Daredevil (didn't enjoy it for reasons other than the violence), though I love the comic book character. The comics aren't super violent, at least the ones I read, which I thought was interesting because it goes to show: The TV series apparently pulled off the violence well, but the comics were less bloody because of the whole "violence is louder on page" idea. So interesting!

  2. Awesome points and very well thought out. I'm trying to figure out where the Hunger Games books fit in, taking Katniss's perspective into consideration. At least Collins focused on the trauma and personality changes she went through, a way of showing how horrible violence really is and how it can change people. Maybe you've already told me, but I'm curious as to what you think about the violence in Hunger Games (books). Thank you so much for the amazing post!

    1. I was also thinking of the Hunger Games, especially the third book. I thought Collins did a good job of having a purpose behind writing such violent books, but I don't know if each single instance was needed. But maybe its lack of seeming purpose shows how horrible and purposeless violence is... I'm also curious what you think, Hannah.

    2. I thought of the Hunger Games too, especially the third one, when I read this post. In my opinion, "Mockingjay" had far too much violence for the sake of violence. It had a lot of what Hannah discusses in point 6: tons of nameless characters dying for no reason. It wasn't necessary for the plot and made me feel sick.


    3. Excellent points and question, Susannah! I thought the actual content of the violence was fine in the Hunger Games. I didn't think it was gory or overly bloody and I liked the portrayal of how it changed Katniss (and other characters). After all, it was depicting a violent world, so the dark reality of the violence was done well.

      HOWEVER, I did have a problem with the reasons for the violence. It didn't seem to have a purpose. The entire series was based off of a very contrived concept. No society would go from war-time to "hey, let's watch kids kill each other on TV for fun." Way too big of a leap. The violence was meant to suck the reader in. The violence of the series seemed to not have any point besides the message of the book: War is bad. But I didn't need to read 3 increasingly depressing books to know that.

      Sure, the violence was supposed to be depicted in a negative light. But, honestly, people enjoyed the series because of the violence of it. People liked discussing who should live, who should die, how certain characters could have survived. The violence became a bit glorified.....In fact, the draw to the series became eerily similar to the Capitol people's attraction to the Games. Even though that may not fully be what the author intended, because the violence didn't have a clear purpose, it ended up heading that way.

      And those are parts of my thoughts on the Hunger Games. Clearly, I have many opinions on the subject. =D I hope this makes sense. Let me know if you have follow up questions!

    4. I completely agree. I think only a few of the deaths in the story served a real purpose other than pounding home the message that the world is messed up. Rue's death in the first book motivated Katniss to break the rules of the game and show compassion. And Prim's death in Mockingjay served as the final straw that helped Katniss see how the war had destroyed Gale's morals while Peeta by contrast had suffered much more than Gale but had remained a good person. Possibly the most pointless death in the series is Katniss's execution of President Coin. Yes she had betrayed the mission of the rebellion and killed children just like Snow did, but it would have been so much more powerful if they put her on trial and found a punishment that was more justice than revenge. That would have showed that they were different from the Capitol and they were dedicated to building a civilized, compassionate society.

    5. Interesting you thought it was contrived, Hannah. I heard she based in on the Roman gladiators, which is real life. But I hadn't thought of it as immediately following a war, which could change how a society would view it.

      I definitely agree with the dangers of the draw to the series, and the irony of the glorification of the violence. That's one of the reasons I dislike the movies (despite enjoying the movies as I watch them)- because of the fan base that has sprung up around them. The movies are worse because a reader experiences all of Katniss's horror at the violence, whereas a viewer doesn't.

      I like your point about President Coin, Tamara. I hadn't thought about that before, since it made sense with Katniss's character and it showed how unsteady she was. I think if it was contrasted between her actions of killing Coin's and the society that was being built, it could have worked well with Collin's message, but there was no contrast.

      The biggest issue I had with the third was the idea of one more Hunger Games, with Snow's kid and stuff. It was never followed up on, was it? They made their votes, but Katniss privately changed her mind, and nothing was mentioned after that. That was one time I thought the darkness was overplayed.

  3. Yes, yes, yes to so much of this. I'm becoming increasingly agitated/frustrated/concerned by how much gore and apparent disregard for human life on the whole is happening in Western "entertainment". What's so wrong with showing the consequences, the after-effects, the severity of a situation (like the PTSD or the medical issues), to try to remind people that, yeah, action is a lot of fun, but murder and copious bleeding is very serious?

    These are all things I definitely consider when writing. If I have to use violence to "raise the stakes," it's because the scene won't achieve its desired effect without me making it clear, "Oh, it's a lovely day...and then suddenly, someone's grieviously wounded." But I make sure it makes sense for that part of the story, too -- like, sometimes you have to *show* someone's in danger. But again, as you said, *how* it's addressed/described is a very, very important point.

  4. notaperfectsoldierJuly 14, 2017 at 7:36 AM

    EXACTLY!!! I haven't really read any violent books, but I have seen this in movies, so I know what you mean. Like those are PEOPLE that are dying! They used to be kids! They played with their friends, had dreams, and had a favorite color! And the authors turn their deaths into bloody thrills with no purpose except their own gain. That's what villains do! Come on writers, you're better than that.

    (On a side note, I went to subscribe 'cause I realized I hadn't, [dishonor] and your "address" is the best thing ever.)

  5. Thanks so much for this. I'm currently working on a book where there is war and it is a war against monsters so my main character initially devalues their lives a bit. But over the course of the story she will come to realise that these monsters aren't always horrific murderous beings, that they have families and goals and reasons. She also learns that not all people are angels without fault. This post was super helpful for reminding me to be careful about just how much violence I use and how many people die in my book and to make sure that she understands how serious this violence and death is. Thank you!

  6. Hey Hannah! Wow this post was cool! I have to say you and I look for very similar things in our movies. These points are all great to keep in mind when writing a story. And you talked about them very well, I'll be making sure to keep them in mind when I write a more "violent" story.

  7. 100% agreed. I quickly lose respect for a "hero" who just kills anyone on the opposite side without giving it any thought.
    How about fantasy violence (i.e. magical torture or killing)? Would you say that should follow all the same rules?

    1. By the way, I'm "Kikyo". Just thought I should probably mention that. :)

  8. Hi, Hannah, I've been following your blog for awhile and it's helped me a lot in my writing! I constantly refer back to your posts as I write! I'm currently working on a novel that I co wrote with a friend and am now going through and correcting, removing (T_T worst day ever), and improving parts. These points have made a great impact for me and now I want to check over and make sure we didn't go overboard in areas as our book as we had a lot of fighting and even torrtcher in it (it's definitely not glorified though...but our villains probably need a bit more motive...) I really liked the last point and the point on the body count, and personally think we actually did well on that part as we where specifically focusing on our main characters struggle with her guilt and learning to forgive herself and others, so she's acutely aware of the pain going on around her.

    Thanks for this post and all your other ones! :D

  9. I'm writing my first novel. You made some points I hadn't thought about before. Thanks!

  10. Great post! I agree with all your tips and think they are important. The perspective one is really true--I hate when authors seem to go out of their way to show things that the POV character would never have noticed.
    Anyway, good writing here. Keep it up!

  11. Excellent post! All the points you made are very true, and should be embraced by every writer. Violence has consequences, both mental and physical, and it always frustrates me when books skip over them.
    Thanks for sharing!

  12. Another great post! I'm writing my first novel and in it, my MC is physically disabled. She suffers a vicious attack and is left to deal with the ramifications of the violence. This post helped me a whole lot. Thank you!

  13. This is a really great post!! Definitely saving this for future reference. :) I always try to be very careful concerning violence in my stories. I like your tip "Be like Marvel." I think they do a good job of not being gory and giving the violence a purpose. I'll keep that in mind!

  14. This is so true. Very few authors are able to do this and when they are found, it's like an alleuia chorus. Thanks for sharing.


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