Violence in fiction

When I started writing my historical novel, I wanted to be a little different from the style I saw in the historical novels I had read. That style, from my personal perception, was slow moving, full of long and detailed descriptions, and much more drama than action. I wanted to create an adventurous and exciting story that would also educate readers on historical events few people know about.

I am a martial arts enthusiast (I’d never call myself an expert) and part of my training requirements in the past have been to document and describe, in my own words, the concepts and techniques I was being trained in. Calling on this experience, I wanted to describe fight scenes and action sequences in my story in more detail than most other books I had read. I wanted the reader to be able to visualize what the hero and his opponents were doing physically.

When I gave some of my first writing samples to a couple of my friends, they encouraged me to be more graphic. I wasn’t showing enough blood spray and spilling entrails. But while we see these things in movies, I noticed that most of the novels I had read didn’t go into such graphic detail. They let you know the guy got his throat slit, but they don’t describe every gory detail. The books I saw that did describe violence in bloody detail were certainly not New York Times Bestsellers. I find this interesting, and the lesson I take is that books appealing to wider audiences can have violent action, but graphic description is limited to a certain extent.

Personally, I don’t study martial arts because I like violence. I do it because I am fascinated with how the mind and body can be trained and conditioned, and the physical ability and power that comes from it. I do it because it’s great exercise. I do it because I like the art of physical expression through techniques and forms. I am more drawn to traditional Asian martial arts than MMA, cage fighting, or street fighting styles. So my writing emphasizes the art and technique rather than the damage to the body that results.

When one of my friends suggested one of my fight scenes was too tame, especially since the hero left his enemies alive, I experimented by re-writing the scene with much bloodier, bone-snapping description. I also killed all the “bad guys”. Comparing the two, I decided I preferred and admired a hero who could take out all his foes without killing them, which requires much more skill. I decided I preferred the art and efficiency of the techniques to the brutal, cruel, and savage style of the re-write. I am capable of writing that way, but that’s not the kind of story I want to write. Anybody can bend an elbow backwards or stab a knife in someone’s eye socket, but to protect yourself AND your attacker while incapacitating them requires a much higher level of skill, which should be respected. Especially my jujitsu and karate training taught me that making a technique work is much easier than making it work “just enough”. And making it work “just enough” in a real combat situation… that requires an unbelievable level of control and skill!

Another point I want to make is this: If I am reading a really good story, where the characters are interesting and the plot keeps me engaged, I don’t need graphic violence to hold my attention. In fact, I have left darker and more gruesome books unfinished, simply because I felt the main character and his/her ambition or goals were flat and uninteresting. Violence is part of the good stopping the bad, but it doesn’t have to be gruesome or gratuitous to tell a good story.

My book has a lot of violent action scenes (hey, it’s full of old-school samurai and ninja, what else could we expect?) but I have tried to find that balance between portraying a hero fighting his enemies and protecting the innocent, and just going for shock value. There were some things that actually happened, according to historical record, in the time and place of my story that I chose not to describe in detail. For example: people were bound tightly and hung upside down in a pit, over burning human excrement, with only one arm free to signal that they would agree to the government’s terms. The pressure of the blood in the skull created by gravity was unbearable. Guards would actually slit open the forehead to let out some blood and relieve some of the pressure, just to keep the captive conscious and in excruciating pain. Some people had enough courage, strength, and above all, conviction to endure over two weeks of this.

Another thing I try to do is describe things that happen quickly – well, quickly. You’ve been in situations where things happened so fast you didn’t have time to think. It is impossible to describe lighting fast action on paper at the same speed it happens. On the other hand, going on for a page and a half about how a guy draws his sword or what he is thinking in the middle of fast action seems ridiculous to me. The reader simply won’t get that sense of breathless speed with which these things happen. Shorter sentences and carefully chosen words can do a better job.

I also thing it’s important to spend time establishing WHY the hero must fight, what his cause is, and what he hopes to accomplish. If you have violence without cause or reason… well there’s just no point and the story looses its value and appeal.

Violence can make a story more exciting, but there must be a balance. You need conversations, description of settings and people, and non-violent action in between. Even exciting action gets old if it goes on for too long.

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3 thoughts on “Violence in fiction

  1. Surprised you think most historical novels aren’t that bloody – ever read any Bernard Cornwell?
    I agree with your comments about the pace of action scenes. If the action is fast, then the writing must move your reader along at speed.
    One trap I know I sometimes fall into when writing is to over-describe – that’s because I want to be sure that what I’m describing is possible/realistic. Trouble is, I then have to go back and edit out a lot of it because the text is suddenly way too long!

    • I have not read Bernard Cornwell, but he is known for graphic violence in his books and probably not a good example of all historical fiction. And I certainly haven’t read every historical novel out there, but the ones I have read can be violent, but usually don’t get gruesome. For example: when people are shot or hacked with a sword, the author lets you know what happened without describing gushing blood and spilling entrails, blinking eyeballs in a head rolling away from it’s body, etc. I can understand this, because most of the people I know would be turned off by that kind of writing. I do have a few friends who prefer “the more realistic, the better”, but I don’t think they represent the vast majority of the readers the publishers want to reach. I’ll have to take a trip to my local library and look for Cornwell’s work. Who knows, I may become a fan. (Thanks for the tip.)

      On description: I believe some readers actually enjoy reading extensive details and long descriptions so they can better visualize the world they are in as they read the story. Other readers (like me) are more concerned with what is actually happening than the rust on the metal pot in the corner. I can imagine the characters and their environment just fine (although it might not be exactly what the author pictured). Fortunately, there are books out there for both types of readers. I try to find ways to work bits of description into the action to lead the reader’s imagination in the right direction. Because of my own short attention span and impatience for long descriptions, I suppose I am hypersensitive to those of a perspective reader. But like I said, not all readers are like me.

      One question: How do you know if your “text is way too long”? Are you shooting for a certain word count? When you proof-read, are you getting the sense that you might lose your reader’s enthusiasm as a result of slow pace?

      • I think the second – I never aim for a certain word count it’s more gut instinct.
        Sometimes individual scenes in a story just come out right first time. Other times, I find myself writing things out in great detail to ensure there’s logic to them, then read it back and find the story is bogged down and I need to hack back the shrubbery to find it!
        (Sometimes it’s my instinct – sometimes it’s my editor telling me ‘cut it down’!)

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