Columns > Published on May 21st, 2020

Conflict Without Violence: How to Add More Depth To Your Fiction

I'm going to give you three scenarios.

In the first I'm laying in bed in the dead dark of 3 A.M when suddenly the three sleeping dogs around me begin to bark. I see the silhouette of a man at the window slip away, and I'm unable to sleep for the rest of the night.

I'm buying a Slurpee at the 7-11 and fumbling for my debit card when a large man hovers uncomfortably close to me, saying nothing. He smells like gasoline, like he's splashed it all over his hands in the parking lot, and is breathing heavily. He lays a hand on my shoulder. It stays stiff in the air when I grab my Slurpee and run away.

My little black dog stands at a locked gate, where an enormous German Shepherd growls at him. But the little dog stands fierce and doesn't flinch, just digs his claws into the ground as his lips peel back into a snarl.

In all three of these scenarios, the threat of violence exists. It exists in the spaces between the motions of the characters within them. But it doesn't actually occur.

So many stories appear to exist in an alternate dimension where everyone is a hair's breadth from kicking a baby bottle out of an infant's mouth or murdering their mother.

Violence is fun, but sometimes in fiction I get tired of every interaction seeming to end with a fist-fight or someone pulling a gun. So many stories appear to exist in an alternate dimension where everyone is a hair's breadth from kicking a baby bottle out of an infant's mouth or murdering their mother. Characters that a chapter before were just mild-mannered suburbanites who can barely wield a knife to cut a tomato are suddenly hacking and slashing their way through a house of horrors — if the plot calls for it.

Not only is it unnatural and out of character for most people, but it makes the legitimate points of violence feel contrived. And if you've read enough fiction you've become numb to murder, pools of blood, knife-wounds, and stabbings.

Even animals prefer to avoid a fight. Fighting is expensive. It can wound and kill. So they will often go through rituals of escalation. First with a warning, then with making their bodies big or growling. Sometimes they will then fight, but not to kill, only to warn off. And often only after that, if they feel their life is in danger and all other escalation has failed — will they actually commit violence.

In your fiction, if you think of violence as a series of levels of conflict, you can play with these levels in an increasing escalation.
And it isn't the violence itself that's exciting. It's the story that surrounds the violence. Imagine the difference between punching a whack-a-mole in an arcade, versus punching a random person on the street, versus punching the bully that's tormented you for years. The first is just the mechanical act of violence without an actual victim. The last one is the most satisfying.

Violence feels good when it's justified. It's horrifying when it's committed on innocents. It's angering and brutal when it feels random.

You can already imagine these incidents strung into a story: A man with anger issues taking it out on random objects around him, until he explodes on an actual person. Later in the story he redeems himself by learning to control his anger, to use his violent tendencies for what he considers an act of good.

Violence exists both in the composition of the atom trying to tear itself apart and in the sex and birth that creates new life. It is at the core of most of our interactions. And it's the possibility of violence inside of us that gives significance to even the smallest of interactions. We drink tea with guns racks in the same room. Police cars careen past children playing in a small neighborhood park. We read about murder and rapes on our phones while drinking our morning coffee in air-conditioned rooms, that in that moment feel so far away. Sometimes we become part of that violence. But that is more the exception than the rule.

Conflict, on the other hand, is about the possibility of violence, and all stories — even children's stories — are about conflict.

Here's an experiment for helping you improve your writing: See how many times you can avoid actual violence during moments of conflict, and give way to a rising tension that comes from its expectation. You'll find that as you stop relying on violence to end conflicts your characters and plot will begin to improve.

Maybe instead of a fist-fight, you reveal an important piece of information. Or the supposed enemy is actually a friend that's been on your side the whole time. Maybe the thug that looks like they're about to beat the hell out of your main character is actually there, in an unexpected twist, to give them a useful item. Maybe your characters go through a tense negotiation for their lives while people threaten them, and manage to escape without a scratch.

Thinking of violence as a series of escalations, instead of sprinkling it throughout a story to spice up the "boring parts", will give your story more flavor and depth. It'll peel back your characters and reveal all their layers. And when they do finally commit violence — which many of them will — it won't feel cheap and contrived. It will be earned. It will have juice in the payoff.

About the author

Autumn Christian is the author of Ecstatic Inferno, We are Wormwood, and The Crooked God Machine.

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