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Violence is a dandy tool for novelists and short-story writers. We use it to create intrigue, define character, change the plotline, build suspense, resolve conflict, and release tension. It can be implied or graphic. We can describe the aftermath like Patricia Cornwell or testify about it in courtrooms like John Grisham. It can speed up a slow read and slow down a fast one. It gives the reader an opportunity to cheer or boo, and it engages our fans like few other devices in our arsenal.
Like any other literary endeavour, you know youíve done it right when it achieves your purpose. Letís consider some ways that you can use violence to achieve certain goals in your writing.
In a short passage, two little boys reveal themselves to each other and to the reader:
Johnny closes his eyes and swings his arms like a windmill. Jimmy picks up a stick and wallops Johnny on top of his head. Johnny squeals and runs away. Jimmy grunts and chases him.
In these five short sentences, we already know that Johnny is an inexperienced fighter. Heís terrified of his opponent and wants to get away. We also know that Jimmy is taller and probably older. We know that heís the more aggressive and determined of the two even though he didnít strike the first blow. Thatís a lot to know about two characters after only thirty-four words.
A characterís response to a violent act thatís about to happen is revealing too. Remember what Scarlett OíHara did when she realized that a Yankee deserter was in her home? She got a gun and confronted him. Remember Melanieís reaction when she heard the shot? Although sick and weak, she came running with a heavy sword in her hand. Scarlett wouldnít let Melanie help drag the body out of the house. Melanie cleaned up the blood while Scarlett was burying the intruder. What better scene to show the relationship between these two women Ė and to better define their personalities?
Equally telling is a characterís response after a violent episode. Does he tremble? Sob? Is he defiant? Does he try to hide the act? Does he run away? Detective stories ponder how the guilty party might act compared to the behaviour of an innocent one.
Violence and the threat of violence are hard-wired into us. Fear motivates us to take action. If we canít physically do anything about the stressor, we get a shot of unusable adrenalin which causes our hearts to pump faster and the hair to rise on our arms. A good read simulates those feelings. We are scared and even though we know that we are safe, we experience a physical "high." This so-called "emotional rollercoaster' is the author playing with our minds Ė and making us love it.
For that reason, violence can give your plot a literary kick in the pants. Once you capture your reader with a graphic passage, it may not be necessary to refresh his horror for some time. You put the thought in his mind and his imagination does the rest of the work for you. The mere threat of attack is enough to jangle his nerves. For example, in Jaws, Peter Benchley showed a beautiful young skinny dipper being eaten by a shark in the first scene. Itís horrific. The image was so burned into our psyches that the minute any other character put a toe in the water, our stomachs began twisting with anxiety.
Sometimes violence in your plot creates opportunity for other characters to take over. Alfred Hitchcockís movie Psycho provides a famous example of this technique. The story begins with a woman stealing from her employer and heading out of town to meet her lover. For twenty minutes, Hitchcock allows the audience to invest in this character. She pulls into an old motel on a dark rainy night and encounters an odd bird-stuffing clerk. They take to each other. Through a strange conversation with him, she recognizes the error of her way and decides to return the money to her employer the next morning. Before she can act on her plan, she is murdered by the bird-stuffing clerkís mother -- or so we think. Itís breathtaking. We are shocked because we feel like someone we know was killed. However, before we can grieve, we become enmeshed in the bird-stuffing clerkís story. The violence was a way to make that plot shift.
Of course, like any other technique, violence can be overdone. Knowing when to use it and when to avoid it is almost instinctive with practice. However, sometimes you need to let others read it to better gauge reader reactions.
In even the most brutal stories, you have to be careful that you donít over-traumatize your audience. For example, I once wrote a novel about a serial killer. In the very first scene, I let the reader in on his monstrous predilections. Later, I introduced two women characters. One is an identity thief named Jennifer. She is hard to like. However, she befriends Linda who is fun, foolish, and charming. As the tale progresses, both Jennifer and the reader come to love the sweet and luckless Linda. When Linda is kidnapped and murdered by the serial killer, I knew without doubt that no one would be able to stomach what they knew he was going to do to her. So I didnít show it. People have told me that her murder was almost more than they could bear anyway.
On the other hand, at the end of the book, when Jennifer confronts the serial killer, she couldnít destroy him graphically enough for some readers. I tried smashing in his head, stunning him with a taser, stabbing him, running him over with an RV, and shooting him. I got the same response -- more violence, please. Just deserts are hard to come by when you are that evil, I guess. Thatís probably why Steven Spielberg blew up the fish at the end of the movie Jaws. He knew the audience needed the emotional release of a big bang.
Before you decide on how or if you will use violence in your work, itís important to define ahead of time how you want your audience to react at different junctures in the story. Do you want their eyes to fly across the page? Do you want to create anxiety? Shock them? Give them clues? Excite them? Frighten them? Depress them? Fill them with dread? Relieve them? Once you know how you want them to feel, you will have a better idea how to craft a story line that will make them love the experience.
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