Writing violence – ‘easier than sex’


He shot him twice in the back, and the figure jerked each time. Petrovitch watched the man start to turn, then slip heavily to one knee. The strange green-glowing eye of night vision rested on him. Their guns came around, and Petrovitch fired first, straight into his face.
(From ‘Equations of Life’, Simon Morden)

simon-morden-the-lost-artScience Fiction writer Simon Morden writes violent novels. Another War (2005), was shortlisted for a World Fantasy Award, and 2007 saw the publication of The Lost Art which has been shortlisted for the 2009 Catalyst Award for best teen fiction. He’s currently writing his next novel, ‘Equations of Life’, which he tells us is set in a future London packed with refugees, armoured nuns, Stalin-lookalikes, and seriously hard-core science. So how does he do it?

It’s easier than writing sex

The funny thing about writing violent scenes is that I find them so much easier and satisfying than writing sex scenes. But when I say funny, I mean it in an ironic, slightly disturbing and profoundly sad way. Why is it that I’m more at ease describing the moment of death, of desolation, of decreation, than I am a joyful coupling that holds the promise of new life?

It doesn’t reflect well on me, perhaps, but I’m not alone in this dichotomy. It’s not for nothing that there’s a Bad Sex award – given for crimes against literature – but no Bad Violence award.

It’s all in the drama

Much of the reason for this is that violent scenes are full of drama, intense emotion, and split-second critical choices. Capturing the essence of the scene is simply more straightforward than writing many other types of scene: it isn’t the problem of trying to capture every last detail, so much as deciding what to leave out since there is so much of it.

Random acts of aggression?

There is a problem, however. It could be argued that the modern world divorces us from violence and death. Most of us live in a society where rare acts of random aggression are the only times we encounter the squalid nature of the reality of knives, guns and fists, and death is often clinical and removed from the abrupt shock of trauma. It is important not to purvey an unrealistic, cartoon-style violence. People get hurt in fights, and it’s an unreasonable assumption that if a chair is used as a weapon, it’ll be the chair that breaks and not the victim’s skull.

Do your research

‘Keeping it real’ is your duty. Talk to the police – you might be able to go out on patrol with them – or with the staff at the casualty department at your local hospital. Veterans of our all-too-frequent wars aren’t likely to gloss over the facts, either. We have their memoirs, but also their memories. All I have to do is remember my father-in-law’s stories – a veteran of the Spanish Civil war, Dunkirk, Singapore, the Atlantic convoys and D-Day – if I want to be reminded of the reality of conflict.

When violence becomes pornography

It is true that violence in books is commonplace and often pornographic, simply present for the sake of being present: a filler, a convenient and familiar bridge for the plot to cross over on its way to the last page. It’s not a writing habit you should cultivate. But there will be other times where scenes which include violence are necessary parts of the story: they show the nature of the characters and move the plot forward in an entirely natural way, arising from decisions made and paths taken earlier on.

I have some rules of thumb I bear in mind when writing – flexible enough to withstand the impact of my imagination, and hopefully robust enough to keep me from pornography.

Violence needs to be a consequence of the plot

Raymond Chandler’s way of spicing up a plot was to walk a man with a gun into the room. But it was Chekov who nailed it with his rule regarding the gun over the mantelpiece: if you show it, you have to use it. Chekov knew that a plot device has to be shown before it comes into play – something called foreshadowing. So while entirely random acts of violence might happen to your characters, it will only appear so from their point of view: the act itself will have been planned by someone, somewhere, and there should be pointers to that in your story.

The act of violence needs to have consequences

That violence itself should have consequences for your character shouldn’t be something that needs stressing, but it’s often forgotten, often deliberately in order to serve an unrealistic plot. If your story is set somewhere with a functioning police force, violence will have legal sanctions (writers of soap operas, please take note). If it’s set in a more lawless environment, blood feuds and tribal or gang loyalties will play a part. Even in a war zone, there will be rules of engagement: a battle is not a free-for-all. And all this is aside from the medical, physical and emotional aftermath of conflict, which must be treated as seriously as the actual act itself.

It needs to be true to the characters

Your characters are allowed to be unskilled at physical combat, lousy shots, faint at the sight of blood and be generally terrified by the chaos of violence. They are also allowed to remember their training, take a deep breath and keep calm while all about them are losing their heads. That still leaves room for extraordinary bravery, appalling cowardice, gracious mercy and utter depravity – but what they bring to the fight is what they have inside already, regardless of what they take away.

Writing violence is easy to do, but it’s just as easy to get it wrong. I’d argue that getting it right shows a greater degree of maturity and mastery. Violence shouldn’t be used as a filler or as a spice – like everything in your story, it should be there because it ought to be.

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3 comments on “Writing violence – ‘easier than sex’

  1. Tambra Kendall on said:

    Hi Simon,

    I have to agreee with everything you’ve written here.

    I believe violence, like love/sex xcenes, should not be liberally tossed in a manuscript. It cheats the reader and the author.

    What violence and love scenes DO have in common is the intensity of emotion and the impact on the characters.

    Well done on this piece of writing advice.

    Best,
    Tambra

  2. Fiona on said:

    I agree with you Tambra: sex and violence (in writing terms) have a lot in common. I haven’t written a lot of either, but when I have, I’ve found both came equally easy. I think it’s because, as you say, both can reveal character. Also, when characters are involved in either act they tend to have a motivation which gives a scene an inherent dramatic arc. That makes it easier to write.

  3. Pingback: Reading, reading, reading…. | The Writing of a Wisoker on the Loose

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