Tag Archives: writing violence

Writing Violence (Part 3): Pacing

Pacing. There’s tons of advice out there about pacing, including pacing for fight scenes. However, I thought it would be important to talk about pacing in the context of how to write violence (including violence beyond just physical fight sequences) because it’s all important to selling your fight scene.

In this article, we won’t be talking about pacing as an overall focus on the whole story. Instead, this will be specifically fight scene oriented.

As a literary term, pacing is essentially the speed and rhythm with which your plot unfolds. Developing that sense of speed, rhythm, and, most importantly, timing is crucial to making an individual fight scene work. For combat, rhythm and timing are crucial. Too much description will get in the way, too much exposition slows down the scene, and too much dialog will reduce the sense of immediacy that a sequence requires to be effective. Ultimately, communicating the actions of violence is about delivering sensation. Tangible, tactile sensation.

Word choice, sentence length, and punctuation are the means of showing and experiencing those sensations. More importantly, a well paced fight scene doubles up beyond the physical. The speed and rhythm of the sequence can tell a reader a great deal about your character’s inner emotional state, how they handle violence and tense situations. Pacing tells the reader how quickly the scene is moving, how immediate it’s becoming, the fact that things are—to put it bluntly—spinning out of control, and that gives us no time to stop and breathe, until finally, at long last, we slam into a wall. Head first!

Okay, that was a joke. What is important to remember about pacing is that there is no one way to do it, in fact, different characters will pace their scenes differently. So, it’s up to you to figure out each of your character’s rhythms if you write from their perspective. Some may like to blend sentences together like I did in the last few sentences of the upper paragraph. Some may need to stop.

They have to think.

They need breaks in paragraphs.

Every few sentences.

Every sentence!

Some may like to punctuate the end of every sentence. It gives them a sense. A feeling. They are in control. They know what they are doing. They want the reader to know. They are thinking. No. Don’t stop them.

Long sentences that consistently get shorter and shorter as they blend together can lend a sense of immediacy. Sentences that start short and are clearly punctuated can slow a scene down but can also serve to ratchet up the tension, much like a roller coaster rising towards the pinnacle before rocketing downward. Alternately, it can show a character who is methodical, thinking through their situation, and in control.

No matter what you choose to do with your scene, remember, violent confrontations are high stress environments. They are periods of extreme emotion coupled with the body’s instinctual reactions that may hurt or benefit the character in play. It’s important to ratchet up that tension, the feeling in the story that things are moving faster, more quickly. You can use many different kinds of pacing as a scene progresses to express and support the actions that are occurring in the story.

I tend to pace my action sequences around strong emotion (or the lack thereof). The idea is that because violence is so directly linked to emotion, everything in my work links back to what I am trying to express in the scene. Who a character is and how they behave when in a violent situation is an important part of who they are and how they handle things. This is obviously not the only way you can do it and I encourage you all to play around with different ideas to find what works best for you and for your story.

So, think about it. Instead of thinking about the right way, think about what you’re trying to present. Think about what your characters are feeling, which can be frustrating when you’re already focusing on what they’re doing. Pacing can be an easy way to communicate those emotions and show the effects without having to exposit. Remember, what makes violence effective is the human component (or alien, or vampire component, or ork component).

Remember, these are just suggestions. You can do what you want, experiment, and most importantly find the path that works best for you.

Extra Credit Writing Exercise:

Pick a strong emotion, any emotion, and write a scene about it. It doesn’t have to be a fight scene. Instead of describing the emotion, talking about the emotion, or even using any words to describe the physical reaction to the emotion, attempt to express and communicate it using only sentence structure and punctuation.

-Michi

Writing Violence Part 2: Cause and Effect

This is the second article in our series about Writing Violence. In this post,I thought I’d talk a little bit about Cause and Effect. For me, Cause and Effect are on the level of Show Don’t Tell in their importance both to descriptive writing and to generating a plot. Your plot is based entirely on a cause or an action and the effect of that cause or action on the characters and the world around them, your plot is put together through sequences of scenes that are based around your characters’ actions, their reactions, and the world’s or society’s reactions to those actions. Causes and their effects can be big and small, when working with violence, be that violence intellectual, emotional, or physical, and be those causes and effects big or small, they are all important to developing a realistic feeling in your story as a whole and in your characters individual actions.

Starke and I refer to this sense of realism as weight, as in your story feels grounded in reality. Ultimately, when we discuss realism in writing, it doesn’t matter whether your story is a high flying fantasy adventure, far flung future sci-fi, a historical piece, or a horror novel. So long as it crafts it’s own reality in keeping with the rules of cause and effect, you’ll be able to give your story, and the violence within it, weight.

Below, we’ll discuss how to do that.

Every Action Causes An Equal or Opposite Reaction

To steal one of Newton’s Laws, let’s talk about one of the biggest failures in fight scenes. Often, in many of the stories I read, authors are so focused on getting the fighting or the techniques used in the scene “right” that they neglect consideration of the surrounding details.

Take, for example, the line: “Virginia punched Charles in the gut.”

Now, in other kinds of descriptive writing, I might ask what kind of punch it was, but that’s not the most important question that you should be considering when looking to improve the sentence and the scene. The real question is: what happened to Charles?

Without changing much, we can improve the scene by adding a second line.

Virginia punched Charles in the gut. Body curling forward, Charles stumbled back as his hands rose to grasp his stomach.

Neither of these is, admittedly, very good, but see how much the scene improves? Charles’ body curling in to protect the important bits is a natural reaction to the pain inflicted on it by Virginia.

Now, let’s expand on the concept by adding a bench and another character named Amelia to the scene.

Virgina walked toward Charles. Instead of extending her hand in friendship as he’d expected, her fingers clenched into a fist. She rolled them over, slamming her knuckles up into his gut. Body curling forwards, Charles’ eyes widened as he exhaled sharply. As he should, she thought with a smile, all the air he’d stored up had just been forcibly expelled from his diaphragm.

“Charles!” Amelia, his girlfriend, shouted.

Charles stumbled back, calves knocking into the park bench not a foot behind him. The bench rocked and Charles tipped too far forwards onto the balls of his feet. Head swaying and green faced, he fell. His knees hit the dusty ground. His eyes rolled back. He leaned forward, inches from the toes of Virginia’s calf skin boots and, then, he hurked.

The scent of half-digested turkey and sausage stuffing lingered in Virginia’s nose.

“Charles!” Amelia cried again as she sank down beside him, gripping his shoulders. She glanced up at Virginia, her eyes harsh, flat, and furious. “What have you done?”

Virginia’s action of punching Charles causes the physical reaction of him throwing up on her shoes and Amelia’s emotional response condemning it. Violence is both physical and emotional in the reactions it evokes and should be represented in the destruction it causes on the surrounding environment. Remember, the glasses, chairs, tables, and tankards your characters destroy in a bar brawl are valuable property to the owner of that establishment. Your characters may have to pay the cost or risk never being able to go back there. The characters they beat up in the bar are going to be someone’s husband, sister, or friend. They may be more beloved in the community that they’re part of than your wandering drifters. Also, breaking a bottle will involve your character getting glass a fist full of glass embedded in their hand. A prolonged fight will cause your character to perspire and they run the risk of getting sweat (or blood) in their eyes.

Important details run from big to small, but they all work together to create that ‘weight’, that feeling of realism in your work. X happened so Y was the response. When Beth kicked James through the door, she broke it and had to pay $200 to repair it. When Jenna threw her dishware at a home invader, she had to buy paper plates to eat off of for that evening and she invited her friend John to stay over because she no longer felt safe. Then, Jenna cut her finger cleaning up the ceramic remains and had to repaint the walls where the plates hit.

This is the important push and pull, action and reaction, the consequences of even the most flawless plans yielding unintended catastrophe and unexpected results. This is important to remember when writing scenes involving violence because it is inherently divisive. Characters who engage in violence, even when that violence is justified, face harsher penalties and greater risks both to their physical selves and in their personal life.

Once you begin to think in these terms, the tension and drama inherent in your story will naturally unfold and writing violence will come a little easier.

-Michi

The might be a stupid question, but other than out of aggression why do people fight? Other than the need for self-defense too? I realize it’s a sport and competitive too but can you enjoy getting hurt and beating other people up? As someone who know’s little self defense I’m unsure who to give someone a reason for wanting to fight.

Yeah, this is not, at all, a stupid question. It’s not an easy one, though.

Yes, some people do enjoy hurting others, but there are a lot of other possible reasons.

People will resort to violence if they feel that’s the best way to achieve their goals. Sometimes their goals require violence, sometimes they don’t see any alternative, and sometimes they have genuinely exhausted their other options. Also, some will abandon their goals rather than use violence to achieve them.

When you’re writing a character, you need to know what they want, and how far they’ll go to achieve it. Once you have that, you can then decide if it’s appropriate for them to use violence.

Actually, let’s step back and look at this as a character clinic. You need to know who each of your characters are before you write a scene with them. There’s a lot of ways you can go about this, but ask yourself, “what does your character believe?” or “how do they view the world?” and “what do they want?” Once you have a vague idea of those answers, you should have a much easier time deciding what they should do in a given scene.

Also, when you’re asking questions like that, don’t be afraid to add more questions. Each answer will give you a better grasp of who your characters are, and open up more options in your writing.

Okay, so, when will a character resort to violence? When they feel it’s necessary, or when they want to. Someone who views themselves as the most important thing might not see anything wrong with harming others. Someone who enjoys control might enjoy inflicting pain. Someone who sees an imminent threat to something or someone they’re protecting. Someone who feels they’ve been marginalized and disregarded might resort to violence to “prove themselves”. Someone who’s afraid, and wants to hide it might resort to violence or aggression to mask their own fear. An adrenaline junkie who gets off on the rush might use violence to get their fix.

And, this isn’t an even remotely exhaustive list. There are a lot more possible reasons. Also, most of these aren’t mutually exclusive. A character could be both an adrenaline junkie and have sworn to protect someone else, for example. A character could see their cause as the most important thing, and anyone who dies along the way is just a necessary sacrifice.

-Starke

Writing Violence Part 1: Developing Characters and Comfort Levels (And You)

We’re going to do a small series about writing violence, mostly because we haven’t covered some the basics yet and these are important. There are a lot of important steps that go into writing about violence, these include language choice, the intensity of the violence, the characters in question.

Today, we’re going to talk about developing your characters and more importantly than that, how to asses your own comfort zone.

There are many pieces that go into building a successful fight scene and many of those pieces begin to build together before your character ever pulls the trigger or throws their first punch. The way a character looks at the world around them is infinitely important to showing the reader the kind of fighter they are (or the kind of fighter they will be) before combat happens. Characters with different skill levels and different outlooks will all approach combat differently; the same is reflected in a character’s strategic preferences (if they have even thought that far ahead), their honor code, their choice of weapons, and the techniques they choose to use.

Not every character enjoys visceral combat. Some characters like squelching their opponent’s eyeballs with their thumbs, others will wince at the thought, others will be indifferent, and some upon witnessing the act will come to their enemy’s defense because that’s just too cruel. Every character is different and that’s part of what makes writing these sorts of scenes so hard, because a fight scene involves much more than just knowing how to throw a punch right. In fact, as funny as it sounds, for writing that is one of the most inconsequential parts. You can write your combat perfectly, but if it doesn’t reflect your characters and the themes of you’ve been setting up in the plot then it will still fail. A scene with flat out wrong combat can be the best part of a book if the sequence remains in harmony with the rest of the story and furthers the development of both the characters and the plot.

 Establish Your Violence Comfort Zone

You can write a level of violence in your story that you’re not comfortable with, but you will have a great deal of difficulty writing a character who is exhibiting a level of violence that they are supposed to be comfortable with but is uncomfortable for you. Given the attitudes towards sex and violence in American culture, it may sound funny or cliché when I tell you that writing about violence is a lot like writing about sex. How graphic you get is going to depend on your audience and your own comfort level before it reaches your character. A sex scene where you were wincing every few seconds as you were writing it is going to feel uncomfortable to the reader; the same is going to be true with violence.

Some of you may be wondering, but aren’t violent sequences supposed to be uncomfortable? Some of them are, but if you are writing a character who relishes violence or an epic sword duel and you are wincing on each sentence then you have a problem. Or alternately, if you honestly, truly believe that torture is completely unacceptable, that it is always bad, always evil then don’t try to write a character like 24’s Jack Bauer. Whatever you write, you need to be able to completely submerge yourself in your character. You’re going to write characters who don’t believe the same things you do, you are going to write characters who are not you, who will do and say things that you would never in a thousand years imagine doing. But violence is difficult, it hits on a core of human experience, of misery and suffering that is hard to capture. If you can’t convince yourself in the moment to believe in what your character is doing then it’s time to step back. You must ride the ride after all and if you’re getting sick on the loopty-loops, then maybe this rollercoaster isn’t right for you.

It’s fine if it isn’t, just because this didn’t work doesn’t mean the entire amusement park is off limits. You just have to figure out what you like and learn when something goes far enough outside your comfort zone that it affects the integrity of your work. Stepping out of it can be a good thing, sometimes it’s going to be a necessary thing depending on the genre you are working with and the line in the sand will shift as you adjust to new concepts.

The only way you’ll figure it out is by experimenting, so don’t worry about it so much. The only way you can really fail is by not trying at all.

Some Helpful Tips:

-Find authors whose fight scenes you admire and who you want to write like and study their techniques

-Watch movies that represent the kind of combat you’re writing about

-Play videogames, simulation often helps up experience new things and gets us thinking

For example: the combat between Assassin’s Creed, Warhammer 40k: Space Marine, and SpecOps: The Line can all evoke different feelings and emotions through the kinds of combat they present. When you want to get in the right mindset for what you’re writing, this can help.

-Listen to music that reflects the characters and scene you’re working on

Establish a violence threshold for each of your characters

Just like you, every person has a threshold of violence that they are comfortable with and it’s similar to how some people like action movies and some people prefer slasher flicks. Just keep in mind that the media entertainment someone consumes doesn’t necessarily relate to the level of violence they’re willing to inflict on someone else. A character who loves Disney movies can still cheerfully pick up the lead pipe and bash your skull in on the cold hard concrete.  So, try not to think in stereotyping details.

When working to establish a threshold, to figure out what your character is willing to do and what they’re not present them with different situations that are outside the context of your story. It’s best to do this when you’re not sure of who they are and, ultimately, is exactly the same as filling out any of the numerous character questionnaires floating around the internet.

Don’t try to forcibly decide for them. Don’t focus on the right way, the techniques that are supposed to be used, what they are supposed to know. Don’t worry about any of that, you can correct it later. Instead, present them with situations and let those situations play out in your head or as you write them down.

Do you have to do this for each of the major players in your story and not just your protagonist? Yes. Yes, you do. When writing a story about violence, the level of violence a character is willing to inflict and what they are comfortable with can clash with another’s, by figuring out each character’s threshold whether it’s part of the supporting cast, your antagonist, or the henchmen, you’ll have a better sense of how they’ll relate to each other and what kind of interpersonal conflicts can arise.

Below are some helpful questions with corresponding examples to get you thinking. The more situations you come up with on your own, however, will be more helpful to you in the long run.

Examples:

Example 1: Character X is walking down the street and sees a man being beating, what do they do?

On the far side of the street, Amelia could see two shapes. They were vague and hazy in the drifting fog, just outside the splash of yellow light from the lamp that stood on the corner. A big man with broad shoulders stood over a much smaller individual; she couldn’t see it well from this distance. It could have been a smaller man, or a woman, or even a child. The big man’s frame blocked her as he drove a giant booted foot into his victim’s side. All she knew was what she heard, pathetic whimpering and shrieks pitched higher with each hit. Whoever they were, they’ be dead soon.

Well, she shrugged, it wasn’t her business. Things were hard in Darkside, people died daily, why risk bringing more heat down on herself by intervening? Better to let it play out and disappear before the big man noticed her.

Example 2: Character X is breaking into a building and has made it inside, at the end of the hallway there are two guards, all that stands between them and what they’ve come for. The hall is long and narrow. The guards haven’t seen them yet. What do they do?

Amana flickered, her shape re-entering the Living Space. The bare skin of her breasts pressed against Guard 1’s back, right arm sliding up under his jaw, tilt head back, stand ear to cheek. Forearm into windpipe. Bone in and increase pressure. Cut off oxygen. Left hand down, take holstered sidearm. Glock 17. Flick safety off.

 It leveled at Number 2’s skull.

“Holy shi—”

Bang.

Example 3: Character B has been hit by Character X, someone they trusted, how do they respond?

Leah stumbled. Hand rising, she pressed cool flesh against the warm, stinging buzz that was now blooming across her cheek. A sharp, shuddering pain was striking out from behind her eye and the world swam in dots of black and white. Her vision dropped to the floor, the crevices between the floorboards were suddenly so sharp and clear. She could see the tips of black boots lingering inches from her own.

John’s boots.

“Leah,” that was John’s voice.

John. He had hit her.

Why? She was surprised to hear her own voice echoing her thoughts cramming into the space between them. “Why?”

These are, like I said, just some examples. You can come up with whatever scenarios you want. But when establishing a violence threshold, they should involve violence of some kind. By developing the different violence thresholds for different characters, you better understand the actions that will bring them into natural alliances or conflict with one another. One of the key ways to keep readers invested in your stories is the interpersonal relations between the major players. Once you know the boundaries the characters ascribe to, what they are willing to do, what they aren’t willing to do, the lengths that they will go to and know when they will stop, you can push them outside of that comfort zone and craft development that is naturally in line with where their story is going.

From the first example, I know that Amelia is the kind of character who puts herself first. She doesn’t believe she can make a difference and doesn’t want to deal with the trouble that intervening to aid someone else could bring down on her head. She could engage, but doesn’t want to. We know that those reasons have nothing to do with being incapable of those actions, she just won’t try because she’s not going to get anything out of it. If I were to write this character, I’d give her a plot development that forced her to engage, someone she doesn’t know, someone desperate, probably a break in at her apartment while they are running from people who are hounding them. Someone she can’t say no to, even though she wants to. She is forced to take action and then eventually she will continue to do so of her own volition.

Voila, a character arc.

So, find your character’s comfort zone and then pop them out of it. The same is true for violence, there is a level of violence that your characters will be comfortable participating in and then there is a point where they are pushed past that into uncomfortable territory. You can only get X by starting with Y. Cause and effect. Conflict that is both external and internal.

Conflict is good. Conflict is crucial. Write conflict.

-Michi