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.