Sex scenes and violent ones have the same basic underpinnings. There’s foreplay, build, a big shazam! and fallout. As writers approaching these scenes, a big risk lies in getting too clinical, on focusing too closely on the heave and crash of body parts (to everyone’s surprise, Slot A hit Tab B in the jaw!)
I feel that in erotic scenes and in fights, we’re better off sticking close to our POV characters, writing about the emotions, and using a few carefully chosen details to create an impression, rather than a play by play, of the action.
In SF, readers have long been accustomed to granting writers the existence of faster than light travel. In some books great pains are taken to justify FTL as a possibly viable technology; in others, there’s just a stardrive or a dilithium chamber or a Vroomship and we go with it. And again, it’s the same with violence—there are conventions. As an audience we agree, for example, that a character can get clonked on the head hard enough to render them unconscious for a skullduggery-convenient amount of time, only to rise and shine and function somewhat normally when the story demands it.
Sure, we all know that a blow hard enough to render someone unconscious is usually going to result in a hospital-worthy brain injury, especially in TV universes where this is a nigh-weekly occurrence. But who wants to wait around in Emergency for pages on end, drinking bad fictional coffee and flirting vainly with overtired, underpaid and possibly indifferent medical staff while our protagonists fill out paperwork and have double vision and wait for a head X-ray or CAT scan they may not be able to afford?
Better if they just wince a little, bleed artistically and throw themselves into a car chase, am I right?
Police who shoot someone dead on every single case and aren’t fazed by it were the only kind of cops on TV for a long time, and though they aren’t the only game in town anymore, the species shows little sign of dying out entirely. Or consider there’s the rape-feint I wrote about in my rewatch of the Quantum Leap episode Another Mother. We’ve all seen a scene where a sneaky little guy takes out a tough character to show that he’s devious, mean, dishonorable, or all of the above. Add your own conventions to the list… there’s plenty out there.
(And I bet you remember all the times you got the lead-up to one of these standard-issue scenes and had your expectations shattered, don’t you?)
The thing about shortcuts and other types of plot-serving violence, these quick surface-y clashes, is that they’re less about actual brutality than they are about action, about pepping it all up. Even murder-of-the-week type mysteries are less about the crime, the awfulness of murdering, knowing someone who’s been murdered, or fearing murder yourself than they are about the main characters having something significant to do. Hey, Audience, we say, someone’s been killed—that’s a big deal! Now, with the stakes firmly established, it’s on to our story….
There’s no great wrong in stylized violence, or violence for action’s sake, but as writers I think we should know when we’re glancing past something that, in real life, is major and often life-altering. What’s more, I think we should, sometimes, go the other route: have your characters experience or even commit the more disturbing violence.
Real violence, as you have all probably heard, sucks. It can suck long after it’s over, and it’s a shame and a terrible thing that there are people who enjoy committing it. Let’s say your goal as a writer in a given piece is to capture some bearable fraction of that suck. You want to get past “here’s a murder, what a shame, let’s see how our Heroic Heroes of Herodom solve it!”
But how do you do that?
The question you may want to ask, first, is how you find some specific element of the violent experience that communicates what is so terrible about it. Does it lie in the physical toll? The cracked ribs, the bloodied nose, the leg that won’t bear weight? It may be that there are stories, characters and writers where the realm of the physical is the place to concentrate your eloquence, where you can grab the reader and give them a taste of that hurt.
More often, though, it’s useful to examine the feeling side of the equation. In stories where the violence is action, the emotion comes after, if at all, and there are conventions here too: grimace of regret over the death toll, nightmares or flashbacks later—quick drive-by scenes where our protagonist yells at some institutionally-appointed therapist, has an epiphany the following night at dinner, and Moves On.
But before you’re out of the actual clash, take some time to think: what’s it like to hit someone in rage? To be hit? To be in a firefight? What would you feel right then? And what would happen afterward, if you’re going to skip the stuff of TV drama?
Last, think about the aftermath, the consequences. Wouldn’t it be weird and rare and kind of delicious if once, just once, we saw a hero paying off court-ordered expenses for a brawl that demolished her local pub?
I don’t want to give action-adventure a hard time. (If nothing else, this trio of crime articles should have tipped you all to the fact that I watch a lot of crime TV.) And I certainly wouldn’t want to claim to have never reached for those handy storytelling conventions, the faster-than-crime shortcuts that so easily lead to the next witness, or even the next body.
But dig into a more realistic approach to violence sometime, not in every scene, not even in every story, but once in awhile. One honest or harrowing or somehow shocking or even sickly funny encounter with real human darkness might be just the thing to nudge your fiction out of the realm of passable, and closer to what, I hope, we’re all aiming for: to be unforgettable.
A.M. Dellamonica has a short story up here on Tor.com—an urban fantasy about a baby werewolf, “The Cage” which made the Locus Recommended Reading List for 2010.