Storyville: The Proper Use of Violence in Fiction
I have written a lot of violent stories over the year—horrible murders, terrible creatures, rape, and vengeance, and Lovecraftian unfurling of horrors that strived to get a visceral reaction from my readers. And then one day I woke up and said, “No more. This is a crutch. You don’t need to do this.” How do we know when to use violence in our storytelling, and when should we avoid it? Well, let’s talk about that, shall we?
There are some instances where I think you should NEVER use violence in your storytelling. Look at your genre—most stories have at least the potential for violence (fantasy, SF, horror of course, crime, thrillers, etc.) but if you were, for example, writing a cozy, I’d avoid violence entirely. That’s why they call it a cozy—it’s not supposed to be dark and weird and violent. Likewise, when writing stories for children, I’d also avoid most, if not all, violence. Now, I’m not saying YA, younger than that. My son was reading this Skinjacker YA trilogy by Neal Shusterman, and wow, it was intense. But younger than that, probably not. I’d assume that most romance doesn’t include violence as well—and no, I don’t mean the erotic spanking—because the idea is to be romantic, right? So, look at your genre. There are a few that should just avoid violence entirely.
When I got my MFA and studied with my second professor, the Pulitzer-nominated Dale Ray Phillips, he gave me a few rules for working with him, for writing literary stories in HIS class. He was very aware of what I was doing, the stories I’d already published, and in fact was one of the teachers at Murray State that approved my work and let me into the program. BUT, he wanted to teach me how to write literary fiction, so he told me that I could not kill ANYONE in my stories, no twist endings, and less sex. At first I thought it was no big deal, until I sat down to write. Turns out those were some of my crutches—especially the violence and killing. What I learned in writing those stories with DRP was how to tell a literary story, how to establish relationships, how to find insight in those stories, and how to create tension without violence. It was not easy. But in the end, I think my work is better because of the limitations he put on me. Try it out with your next story.
“There are fates far worse than death.”
—Attributed to a few sources, such as Edgar Rice Burroughs
LYRICISM AND VIOLENCE
I’m a big fan of Cormac McCarthy. One of the ways that he is able to get the literary community to embrace his work is through the dense, lyrical voice he uses on the page. He is not an easy read, but then again, who wants easy, common, average prose all the time? Or maybe even ANY of the time? You CAN read Stephen King and embrace his more pedestrian prose, and still enjoy the work of Cormac McCarthy. Variety is the spice of life, yes? When Cormac uses violence in his fiction, he does not hold back, but by showing us these carefully chosen moments in all of their glorious horror, it makes it easier to tolerate. Take this example from Blood Meridian:
Now driving in a wild frieze of headlong horses with eyes walled and teeth cropped and naked riders with clusters of arrows clenched in their jaws and their shields winking in the dust and up the far side of the ruined ranks in a piping of boneflutes and dropping down off the sides of their mounts with one heel hung in the withers strap and their short bows flexing beneath the outstretched necks of the ponies until they had circled the company and cut their ranks in two and then rising up again like funhouse figures, some with nightmare faces painted on their breasts, riding down the unhorsed Saxons and spearing and clubbing them and leaping from their mounts with knives and running about on the ground with a peculiar bandylegged trot like creatures driven to alien forms of locomotion and stripping the clothes from the dead and seizing them up by the hair and passing their blades about the skulls of the living and the dead alike and snatching aloft the bloody wigs and hacking and chopping at the naked bodies, ripping off limbs, head, gutting the strange white torsos and holding up great handfuls of viscera, genitals, some of the savages so slathered up with gore they might have rolled in it like dogs and some who fell upon the dying and sodomized them with loud cries to their fellows.
There is some intense violence going on here, but this tapestry of destruction is made less graphic by the way that he lets the scene unfold. It’s still terrible, for sure, horrible most definitely—I mean Cormac is known for killing babies, roasting them on spits—but for me, at least, this is more palatable. You could say the same thing about the introduction to All the Beautiful Sinners by Stephen Graham Jones, or about “Rust and Bone” by Craig Davidson. Using lyrical language, sensory details, and setting in a heady mix—that’s a powerful way to allow the darkness to unfurl.
It’s funny, when people ask me if I’ve ever written a rape scene I usually say, “No.” There WAS a rape scene in Disintegration, my second novel, but I dialed it back prior to turning in my final draft, glad that my protagonist didn’t “go there” and then my editor at Penguin Random House / Alibi (Dana Isaacson) changed the entire tone from violence to redemption, from hitting bottom to stepping up in to the light. And it was a better book for it. What I tend to FORGET, however is the horrible rape scene that I put in my novella, Golden Geese, part of the linked world that is The Soul Standard. Wow, it was a violent scene, and man, is that a dark, twisted story. I tend to block it out. Why? Partly because I’d like to think I don’t need to rely on violence as much these days. And partly because it’s such a dark story, I’m a little embarrassed by how messed up it is. But I have to own it, all of my stories, and this is one of the darkest. Why did I keep that scene in the story? Because the father had to rescue his daughter, and the stakes had to be high, the losses had to be painful—the warning he gave her serious, trying to drive her out of the “business” and away from the horrors of his own life. But overall, I’d say, if you can avoid rape in your fiction, do it. If you must include it, then you had better make damn sure it is essential, AND that you exact vengeance later against the criminals (I did at least do that, in my novella).
“Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.”
A recent story of mine, written last year, “How Not to Come Undone” was about a pair of twins, boy and girl, pre-teens, and how they offset each other, a bit of dark magical realism. Nobody dies. I had fun exploring their relationship, and the magic of their powers (the temptations and ego involved) and how they might save each other in the end.Let’s expand on Asimov’s thought here. Where do you most often kill your characters in a story? I’d say at the end. And God knows I’ve killed a lot of people in my stories—beginning, middle, AND end. But, I’ve actually been trying to get away from that, to put more love in my stories, at the heart of it all, less violence and death. And what I’ve found is that while you don’t have to have a happy, sappy ending you can certainly solve your problems, and keep your characters alive. It’s EASY to kill off the threat, to kill of the bad guy or monster, to try and gain sympathy through the death of a child, or wife, or friend. But what if you don’t?
I’ve written quite a few stories this year as well. And most of them avoid violence and death. “Hiraeth” (Behold! Oddities, Curiosities and Undefinable Wonders) is about a boy with a hole in his chest and the lengths he goes to in order to find happiness. “Nodus Tollens” is about a poker game one Halloween night, and the terms that finally come due. There is one death in this story, but it’s essential. “Saudade” is about a man trying to change the fate of the planet, after the world has already moved on, and while there is a little violence, for the most part it avoids killing (I think three people die, total). In a group project (with Damien Angelica Walters, Michael Wehunt, and Kristi DeMeester) we set our story in a sunny beach resort, on the dunes, and a girl disappears—but there is no violence or death on the page. And in a story I wrote last week, 1,500 words long, ONE SENTENCE, there is only the build up to the end, where there is a transformation, and possible death, but for the most part it’s all tension.
See what you can do.
MAKE IT COUNT
The sacrifice has to be essential to the plot—the old man in the shack killing himself so the gunslinger can get over the hill; the father finally doing the right thing in order to save his son, his previous life not worth much of anything; the vengeance in the boxing ring a long time coming. If you’re going to go there, and kill, then make sure it’s essential to the story. When you’re done, go back and look at that moment and ask yourself, “Can I take this out, and will the story still work?” If you can, then maybe you don’t need it. Obviously if you’re writing a slasher horror novel, if you’re writing a zombie story, if the plot and genre demand violence, gore, and death—well, then you have to do it. But not all genres and stories need it. And over time, I think your readers will appreciate a different approach, emotion, and story. Nobody wants a hamburger ten days in a row, pizza every night, or tacos for a month straight.
In my last two stories that were published, “The Offering on the Hill” (Chiral Mad 3) and “Repent” (Gutted: Beautiful Horror Stories) there were deaths, but they were crucial, and very little actual violence was on the page (both anthologies were nominated for Bram Stoker Awards, so we must have been doing something right).
A story that was just accepted at Cemetery Dance, “Battle Not with Monsters” was not violent at all until the FINAL scene which was REALLY gory. Why did I go there? Well, originally I wrote it for an anthology that wanted exactly that—classic horror stories, complete with graphic violence and unsettling imagery. And then it got rejected. Oops. Even with an invite to submit. So, I shopped it around knowing that most of the places I was going to send it to were going to pass, BECAUSE of the violence. Luckily CD appreciated what I was doing and took it.
“An eye for an eye will make the whole world blind.”
To me it’s like the cheap scares in horror films—the jump scare might work, but it doesn’t have any substance. And you can’t scare me merely by saying something is scary, that the castle is dark, that the creature is an abomination. When it comes to dark fiction, I prefer an emotional response, and experience, vs. the cheap thrill of graphic violence and jump scares.
Like any trope, cliché, or expected outcome try to avoid writing stories that are too familiar, done to death, that don’t surprise us. Death, and violence, especially in horror, is exactly that. There is a wide range of horror out there—psychological, supernatural, and quiet (for example) that does not rely on violence, gore, and death. So the next time you write a horror story, see what you can do without resorting to that. You might find something interesting in not killing off everyone. The same goes, of course, for other genres—transgressive, fantasy, SF, magical realism, etc. Take a page from literary fiction, and get us to think and feel, without relying on death for the hammer. Good luck!
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