Got your attention, didn’t I? It seems that everyone, from the presidential candidates to my grandmother, has an opinion on these two burgeoning aspects of modern storytelling. Not the same opinion, of course. One subset of critics maintains that sex and violence shouldn’t even be in the same debate. Sex and violence, goes this reasoning are entirely different things, and one of them (take your pick) isn’t even a problem at all.
There are ways, however, in which sex and violence definitely do belong in the same discussion. Both are difficult to write in ways that don’t mar you story, and both are overused in stories in which they don’t belong. For this column, however, we’ll concentrate only on getting violence right.
What makes a violent scene work? Five things: necessity, detail, accuracy, plausibility and surprise.
Is This Violence Gratuitous?
The big complaint about violence in story-telling of all kinds is that it’s “gratuitous.” The complaint is often true. Writers of novels, TV shows and movies throw in fight scenes to “keep things lively” and “increase tension.” The results may be lively in that the audience follows the fight without falling asleep, but they’re not necessarily involved. To feel genuinely involved with a fight scene, readers need more than flashy descriptions of attacks and counterattacks. Reader involvement comes from two things that happen before the fight: motivation and timing.
Motivation means that both opponents have been provided with a reason to fight. And not just any reason – there must be something at stake that matters not only to the characters but to readers. This requires careful preparation. We must have had dramatized for us what the protagonist cares about, why he cares about it, and why this particular fight is necessary to gain or keep it. Otherwise, even the most spectacular kick boxing will feel mechanical.
Consider, for example, a very brief fight from Conrad Richter’s Pulitzer prize winner, The Sea of Grass. The fight is brief; the reasons for it are as complex as the 19th-century West that Richter evokes so well. Two small boys, brothers, are having a routine fistfight, egged on by idling grown men, one of whom calls out: “I’m a-bettin’ on the Chamberlain young ‘un.” But there is no Chamberlain young ‘un. Both boys are sons of the protagonist Hal’s uncle, the fiercely proud Col. Brewton, and his mercurial wife, Lutie, whom Hal has secretly loved for years. At the suggestion that Lutie committed adultery – and with his uncle’s political enemy – Hal loses it:
For a split fraction of a second as his meaning broke over me, I saw Lutie Brewton clear and beautiful as I had ever seen her in the life. And when the nester turned and grinned toward a sand-box, it was almost as if he had spat in her face. I was aware of the grave silence of the cowmen and of a curious wild hate sweeping over me like prairie fire. I had thought myself a medical student soon to go out in the world and save human lives. Now I found that the thin veneer of Eastern schools had cracked and I was only a savage young Brewton from an untamed sea of grass, moving through the little gate where customers’ rifles and pistols stood or lay in their accustomed places on the back bar. I was aware of the cowmen backing out of range and of the bar-keeper ducking. And then I almost wanted to kill Dr. Reid, too, one of whose white hands had with surprising force suddenly thrown up my barrel so that oil from a brass hanging lamp started to pour on the walnut bar.
Brief action – but layers and layers of motivation. Hal acts, uncharacteristically for him, out of jealousy, anger, family pride, shame and unfulfilled longing. The fight is a truly dramatic moment, even though only one shot is fired, nobody is injured and the violence lasts only a few seconds.
Timing also counts. This fight has dramatic impact partly because it occurs four-fifths of the way through the book, after we’ve had plenty of time to get to know all the characters’ value Thus, an affront to those values has meaning for us. Contrast this with the fight-as-opening-scene ploy (the fantasy genre is especially guilty of this), which so often fails because we don’t know either side well enough to understand the scene. What is it they’re fighting over? Who’s supposed to be the good guy? Does it matter that the short guy got killed? Who cares?
Save your fight scenes until the story is well launched.
Detail: Tell Me More
In general, you should describe fight scenes in more detail than you think you need. Why is this?
Because the fight, as we already stablished, must be important to the characters. That, plus the fact that it’s full of action, gives it the feel of a mini-climax. Something important is being decided, by physical force. And a climatic scene shouldn’t be rushed because, in written storytelling, one way you give a scene importance is to spend enough words on it. Verbiage is a so of flag to the reader: This counts.
So give us details. Don’t write: pushed her, and she fell, hit her head on the cement birdbath and slumped unconcious,” even if that’s all that actually happened. Give us detail, external or internal Describe how she looked going down: the surprised expression her face, the slow-motion way she fell. Or describe how he felt as his palm connected with her cheek, his emotion as he realizes what lie’s done. Or describe in detail the reactions of everyone watching. Make the moment last.
In the excerpt from The Sea of Grass, for instance, Richter draws out single ineffective gunshot by dwelling on Hal’s heightened awareness: of the moment, of the past, of his own reactions. Detail gives the fight its dramatic weight.
One exception to this: It’s sometimes effective to use a single summary sentence of a crucial fight as the ending of a chapter. In that case, the lack of detail is balanced by the fact that whatever comes at a chapter’s end automatically has climactic drama.
Plausibility: Get it Right!
In order for a fight scene to be successful, readers must believe it is actually happening to the characters. This is true of the entire story, of course, but often scenes of violence put a particular strain on the suspension of disbelief. This happens in two ways: wrong details or a character’s superhuman reactions.
Accuracy refers to correct details of weapons and fighting techniques. Many, many readers are knowledgeable about such things, and mistakes will bounce them right out of your story. What’s more, they will write you about it, with great indignation. (This is especially true of gun aficionados.) So if you don’t know the number of rounds in a Smith & Wesson Model 439 9mm, or the correct place to drive a knife into the chest, or how silent a revolver silencer actually is, find out. Ask an expert. Read a reference book. Get it right.
Plausibility is a fuzzier area. It refers to the effects of the fight on the fighters. it’s fuzzier because people differ greatly in both their fighting ability and their capacity to absorb physical punishment and keep on fighting. Still, there is a limit, and unless you’re writing satire, exceeding that limit will undercut the plausibility of your story. “Oh, come on!” the reader will exclaim. “He’s got a broken arm, two cracked ribs and a concussion, and he can still chase the villain across the catwalk after knocking off four of his henchmen? I don’t think so!”
To avoid this reaction, you must convince us of your fighter’s general strength, level of training, experience, toughness and/or desperation. The less common these things are, the more explanation we need, either before or after the fight. If, for instance, a young FBI agent takes out two men, withstanding a few severe blows but no broken bones or internal damage, We’ll accept this. If a 17-year-old female baby-sitter does it, you will have to work much harder to convince us that she is able to do what you say she’s doing.
Keep the injury level, fighting expertise and odds against the winner all plausible.
Surprise: Oh My God!
This element, perhaps surprisingly, is the least necessary to a good fight scene. Many fights are not surprising, and shouldn’t be. We know the characters well enough to know what they’re capable of; we can see the physical conflict coming; we know what weapons are likely. We may even have a good idea who will win. For some types of fiction, that’s fine. The point of the violence is not to surprise us, but to dramatize an inevitable confrontation settled in an inevitably direct way.
In other stories, however, the outcome is not inevitable, and the whole tone of the book has led us to expect a spectacular and breathless confrontation. This often involves unexpected weapons, complex maneuvers, desperate cunning; real edge-of-the-seat stuff. To pull it off, you must surprise us with some novel way of winning the battle.
It may be novel weapons; Ian Fleming contributed his share of deadly fountain pens and cigarette lighters in his James Bond series. More likely, the surprise will be how an overmatched protagonist uses his wits to convert whatever is around him to a weapon, a plan of attack or an escape route.
Give this a lot of thought. You’re competing with some very inventive writers here. Charles Sheffield, to take just one example, once made the hero of his thriller My Brother’s Keeper use an entire zoo to fight off the villain. What is in your hero’s environment, or in his head, that he can use to gain a fighting advantage? How can you surprise readers with his attack, and still have it seem logical?
One way is to carefully foreshadow the protagonist’s special knowledge. Sheffield’s hero’s hobby was visiting zoos all around the world, especially snake houses. If your character will surprise us by using live steam to win a fight, make him an engineer or maintenance man. If she will surprise us with her cunning in planning a killing, make her a mathematician with a methodical, obsessive mind. (Scott Turow did this in his novel Presumed Innocent.) Surprises are best when our first reaction (“Oh my God!” is followed by uncritical acceptance (“But of course!”). A Final Word: The Witty Fight Some writers try to embellish fight scenes with wit. The protagonist hurls the bad guy, whose name is John Cunningham, in front of a rolling road grader, under which Cunningham is squashed flat. Our hero dusts off his hands and says, “One more for the road, Jack!” The problem with this sort of wisecrack is that it immediately converts the fight from a genuine plot event into a send-up of a plot event. It’s not conflict; it’s vaudeville.
Resist this, if you want us to take your conflict seriously. Sometimes, however, you don’t want that. The whole book may be a send-up of a genre, as Piers Anthony’s Xanth books are a send-up of heroic fantasy. Or it may be that the book is serious, but the narrator/protagonist is incapable of taking macho fighting very seriously. In that case, writing a tongue-in-cheek description of a fight will convey that self-satire very nicely. Here is Humbert Humbert in Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, fighting another middle-aged, out-of-shape man for possession of a gun improbably Fussily, busybodily, cunningly, he had risen again while he talked. I groped under the chest trying at the same time to keep an eye on him. All of a sudden I noticed that he had noticed that I did not seem to have noticed Chum protruding from beneath the other corner of the chest. We fell to wrestling again. We rolled all over the floor, in each other’s arms, like two huge helpless children. He was naked and goatish under his robe, and I felt suffocated as he rolled over me. I rolled over him. We rolled over me. They rolled over him. We rolled over us.
To make a fight look ridiculous, begin declining the fighting verbs in the middle of the action. If, however, you don’t want your fight to appear ridiculous, refrain from both witty exposition and wisecracking dialogue.
Fights are exciting events. Make yours necessary, detailed, accurate, plausible and (perhaps) surprising, and we’ll gladly pay for ringside tickets.