Writing Excuses Season 2 Episode 13: Violence

All three of your Writing Excuses hosts include a measure of violence in their written work. So Brandon, Dan, and Howard decide to clear the air a little bit.

Why do we write about violence? What does it bring to a work of fiction, and what challenges does it pose? Is there a morally appropriate way to write about violence? How does it impact the theme of your work?  Is there a difference between writing about violence and writing comedic mayhem?

Writing Prompt: Have some fun in the worst possible way. Write a scene that has an extremely violent sequence that glorifies the violence and then write a scene dealing with the consequences.


42 thoughts on “Writing Excuses Season 2 Episode 13: Violence”

  1. Let us not ever forget that Stormtroopers are all clones who are pre-programed overly obedient. They have no families. You need not worry about their families.

    Have I sufficiently assuaged my guilt at mowing down thousands of them in games?

  2. No, I think you guys got it right. There isn’t as much violence in the real world as one would think from watching TV, but it is a basic fact of human society. For those writers with morals (ahem), addressing the negative consequenses when your protagonist commits violence, and/or assigning the bulk of the violence to the bad guys satisfies most moral codes. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, for example, were writers who believed very strongly in moral writing, and they had plenty of violent scenes in their books. So does the Bible, for that matter.

  3. I think writing about violence satisfies a few different things for writers.

    Firstly, I think that writing about violence helps the author express his/her own feelings on the topic. Whether through writing it a certain way to make a statement, or to figure out those feelings by discovering them through a character,

    Second, when looking at the conflict of violence and morality, I think that violence does have its place. Violence can be used as a contrast to morality. Sometimes to lead the reader to see how good something is, you need to show them what true evil is.

    Thirdly, violence is sometimes necessary for character development. Violence can be a way of showing the character reaching the lowest point possible. For the protagonist, this could be violence occuring to him/her or to a loved one and it “breaks” them before they can begin that climb upward to overcome it. For the antagonist, it could be showing just how evil a character he/she has become.

    I also agree with Brandon, Howard, and Dan in that there needs to be consequences and a reconciling with those consequences. Depending on the character (and the story), the consequences are either going to make or break the character. This is when the violence moves the plot along and moves the character’s growth along… for better or for worse.

  4. I’m glad you guys pulled out the Matrix example; that’s bothered me since I first saw the movie. That scene was shockingly beautiful, moral terrifying, and a wasted opportunity. Like you guys are always saying, conflict is king, and having the good guys struggle with their actions could have been the cream filling on what was otherwise a tasty but hollow scene. Why didn’t Neo and Trinity regret mowing down the very people that the resistance wants to liberate? They could have rationalized it, since agents could just hop in at any time, but they just pick up their bag and saunter to the elevator.

    Anyway, thanks for an excellent discussion. I’m glad to see some thoughtful consideration about the morality of writing violence and to know that some authors care.

  5. WEKM, is it terrible that I had the same thought about the Storm Troopers when I heard the podcast, too?

    To make it worse, I also find myself picturing them more like the parodied version in Spaceballs. Yes, I am a closet Mel Brooks fan.

  6. This is I think what has been bothering me about Sailor Moon. The main character (Usagi) spends more time worrying about her love life then about the fact that she is fighting a rather nasty secret war with things that are trying to take over or destroy the world.

  7. Wow, a much needed podcast. You guys shed light on a very important and overlooked topic. I really appreciate your take on this and the sensitivity you brought to the discussion. I really think that the key to all this is that we not glorify it but (like you said) show the consequences of it. It is sad how much “Hollywood” has forgotten to show the moral side of violence.

    I think Brandon really nailed it (for me at least) when he said something like, “Once you publish your book, that (violence) is locked in stone and that represents you…” Coming from the same faith as Brandon, Howard and Dan, I have had to seriously question my use of violence in my book because of what I believe and how I think it will represent me and my faith. I’m sure all faiths have the same dilemma too, each unique in their moral reasoning. I think there is a powerful message we can share by not just showing violence, but by showing how our characters deal and react to it’s consequences. Thanks guys for a great podcast.

  8. The novel I mention in this podcast is Doppelganger, written by David Stahler, Jr. Despite my reservations about that one aspect referred to in the podcast, it’s an excellent novel that has taught me a lot about horror, particular the human/moral/personal aspects.

    The quote about war movies comes from Francois Truffaut, and is stated more correctly as: “It is impossible to make a true anti-war film, because the act of looking at violence is inherently exciting.”

    See? I eventually back up my sources.

  9. Jen I have terrible news for you. Since the dawn of history and probably before there has never been a single day without some war going on between peoples in this world. The truth is there is far more violence in reality than in the medias. Trust me when I say that is a thought that disturbs the mind of virtually every journalist to ever cover it.
    My question is why not mention the red-shirts? They had feelings too you know, and yet ole Cap’n Kirk would select one or two for cannon fodder whenever he went to visit some hostile alien world.

  10. There was more food for thought in this episode than most writing podcasts provide. Just as actions require reactions (and scenes require sequels), depictions of violence require consequences. The subsequent and related meta-observation that depicting violence has consequences as well helped frame the discussion. That’s why I love your podcast. You may not be “that smart,” but your podcast is.

  11. I agree that both sides of violence could be covered more, and the other person’s family could be portrayed with some sensitivity. But when is enough, well, enough? I can see some people being bogged down in a story just worrying over how it affected some character(s), and not telling the story anymore.

  12. Jake, I’m sure Cap’n Kirk thought of it at some point, but then Spock had to point out to him in Wrath of Kahn:

    “That is wise. Were I to invoke logic, however, logic clearly dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. ” (quote from IMDB.com – had to make sure I got it right)

  13. Hmm, just for the record, I am not pro-violence! LOL.. I just watched too much Star Wars, Star Trek and Mel Brooks movies in the past…

  14. Usually I like using monsters, aggressive creatures or robots as my fodder. You don’t ever have to think twice about about killing a demon, let alone several of them.
    But when a person gets killed, even if he’s the Big Bad, there should always be some consequences.
    In my current writing, the best time the heroes have to take out the Big Bad is when he’s with his wife and child who think he’s perfect. I still don’t know if my protagonist is going to go through with it or not but it will be interesting either way.

    And about Storm Troopers: they used to be clones but I thought they actually started recruiting before Episode 4, as most of the clones died during the war.

  15. Jake, I don’t dispute that violence happens all over the world, and every day of the week–but also all over the world and every day of the week there are the millions of people who go to bed without having hit, kicked, stabbed or shot anybody. My contention is that television tends to over-represent the first group, and therefore under-represent the second.

    As Mark Twain said, “If the desire to kill and the opportunity to kill always came together, who would escape hanging?”

  16. I think there’s a very simple reason why we see so much violence in stories. It’s because stories are about either (a) threats to or lacks of happiness or (b) mysteries. But most mysteries can’t stand on their own. They need some of (a) to work. And one of the big factors affecting happiness is physical security.

    Of course, not every story needs it because there are a number of things that affect happiness. But it’s a core aspect.

    FWIW, here’s my current taxonomy of happiness factors, and therefore, types of story problems.

    Physical: Life, security, safety, health, freedom from physical pain

    Social: Being accepted, welcomed, befriended, included, valued, liked, being seen as worthwhile, being able to be with the ones you love. These are stories about friendship, love, and finding a valued place in your society.

    Self: A person’s view of his or her worth. These are often like social danger stories, but it’s about the character’s own view of himself. They often involve some kind of character flaw, redemption, and second-chances

    Possession: A person’s ability to have things that have meaning or give them joy. Many crime stories involve this.

    Freedom: A person’s ability to grow and achieve, to pursue their interests, to do meaningful activities, and have a meaningful life. Can be categorized as freedom from and freedom to.

  17. This is actually kind of funny (not the violence) because one of my friends just commented the other day that she finds that writers of Brandon, Dan, Howard, and my faith tend to be some of the more violent ones in their writing. I don’t know that I’ve read enough to back that up, but still…

  18. I found this podcast to be really interesting.

    I do wish there was a little more commenting on the different ways violence manifests itself in writing. Dan mentioned it when he was comparing his first book to his second book. There is more to violence than just people getting killed, maimed or dismembered. It seems to me there can be a violent tone established by a writer that goes beyond hitting and slashing. It kind of includes all the threats and posturing that may or not lead to actually physical violence, but it sure feels like a violent scene. I’m thinking of several episodes of the re-imaged Battlestar Gallactica that have extended scenes that feel really violent, but very little physical violence happens.

    When I think of some action scenes in books and films, there are those action scenes that have a lot of violence, but there isn’t that violent tone. In my opinion, if the tone of the writing used while the violence is happening doesm’t match right then the scene flops. So if someone is writing a comedy it doesn’t really work to through in an intense and scary scene of violence. Likewise, it doesn’t work if someone writes a deep interpersonal story and then throws in a beautifully described but shallow action scene. If someone writes an action/aventure story, but the violence errs on being too comedic or too serious, that doesn’t work.

    I guess it’s just saying that violence works in context, it the context has been established.

    Well, that’s just my rambling.

  19. I actually don’t think of violence outside of a normal cause and effect situation. I do use it for character development and to add tension to the plot through motivation. But thus far, despite writing an extremely graphic novel recently, I’ve yet to hit a point where I thought I should back off. I always think of my characters, even when I’m trying to get inside their heads, as fictional, so it doesn’t bother me to kill off a few characters or have them kill. Just like anything you say or do, it does have an effect and can affect the characters, but I honestly don’t think about it.

  20. I honestly think that the violence we don’t see or that isn’t very graphic can have more impact in certain situations. For instance, the anime/manga DeathNote. In that series I can only think of one scene with a bloody death. But it is one of the darkest and most violent things I’ve read. In the series the main character, Light, writes names in a notebook and a person dies. The deaths are quite cold and simple – they all drop dead of a heart attack. The sheer magnitude of how many people die in this manga is overwhelming and it hits you hard even though it doesn’t show you every single death.

    I think this goes back to the podcast last season on the horror genre. It was mentioned then that often what is left to the reader’s imagination is more horrifying than anything we as writers could describe.

    Personally I feel that the subtler violence hits me harder than the graphic blood-and-guts violence. However, there’s a time and place for both because they tend to evoke different responses from a reader. Sometimes you want to chill them to the bone with penetrating horror at the senselessness of the violence and sometimes you want to turn their stomach because that’s how the character experiencing the violence feels.

  21. I can trace it all back to a bent childhood, followed by a time in the Marines where they actually trained and paid me to kill people and break things. (Joy!)
    Now I am just paid to break things, and make sure no one gets hurt during it. (Equal amounts of Joy!)

    I guess I do need to concentrate more on consequences though.

  22. First off, I love this podcast. I am a creative writing major and this podcast, on several episodes, has shed some light on issues I have been facing.
    I just listened to the current episode, I have to disagree with the Matrix comment. I do agree it is a wonderfully destructive scene, but I disagree with the point that it is senseless violence.

    A main point they make in the story is anyone not hardwired in (anyone not freed as Neo was) the Matrix is a potential “Agent.” The faster they wipe out the guards the better chance they have to avoid an encounter with the agents.

    I dont mean to be argumentative and create contention, but the scene is driven by the rules the movie laid out. If they clear the room before the Matrix figures out what is going on, the agents cant morph out of the guards.

    Anyway, keep up the great work.

    Jake P

  23. In my first completed novel, I killed one character-a bad guy. Later I found the main character (who did not do the killing, who hated the dead man, and who saw him shot) knocked on a door at the home where she last saw her missing friend and found the dead man’s greiving mother. I didn’t intend to write this scene. Subconciously I couldn’t ignore the violence, i guess.

  24. I found Howard’s comments on how violence creates real stakes to be particularly useful. Sometimes authors throw a really bloody scene in as a false cost, something that given the conflicts and setting set up by the author, just didn’t belong. But when the setting that I’ve been taken to and the characters and conflicts mean that the threat of violence is a logical progression, then it is really powerful.

    Dan’s comments on consequences were also key to this. One way that violence (and death from violence) has real consequences is when the people that die or are terrible maimed, or whatever, are people you deeply care about in the story. Too often an author focuses the worst violence upon inconsequential characters. You really feel the consequences if they are being borne by a character you love. George R. R. Martin comes to mind as someone who really uses violence well by this standard. There’s tons of horribleness in the Ice and Fire series, but the consequences are severe not just within the story, but to the reader. Whenever a violent scene there is a really solid chance that someone you love will be really badly hurt or die by the end of that chapter.

  25. I enjoyed the epsiode and I think the discussion of consequences will help in cleaning up my manuscript I have waiting for me from NaNoWriMo.

    Something completely different: that voice at the end, was that Mrs. Orlova?

  26. Musings & Rambling Thoughts

    I’ve been wondering about authors who have seen war first hand – like J R R Tolkien, C S Lewis, Lloyd Alexander, Robert Jordan and David Drake for instance – and how their treatment of violence/consequence might have been affected by their experiences. How is their writing affected by it? How might their treatment of the subject differ from those who have no such experiences? It was something David Drake wrote (I think in one of his newsletters, but I might misremember) that started me thinking about it. Are there apparent differences – may there be something lacking when the author has no own knowledge of violence? And if so – how may it appear?

    I’ve read descriptions that seem – awkward. As if the author was describing – too much. (This is more a feeling than a conviction arrived at by reasoning, by the way.) And I don’t mean it was graphic. (Although I don’t mind confessing I’m squeemish.) Rather it lacked – flow. It was clunky.

    And I don’t mean the lack of – technical knowledge either. Although one of my favourite anecdotes from the extended LOTR-dvds was from the Saruman death-scene. Peter Jackson was describing how he saw the scene to Christopher Lee, who interrupted him to ask if he actually knew how it sounded when you stabbed someone in the back. Peter Jackson said that he did not. “I do” said Christopher Lee, and it wasn’t like that… (Some WWII experience, I understand – but it’s nice to know that the scene is – er – authentic…)

  27. I understand – but it’s nice to know that the scene is – er – authentic

    Alas, there’s another aspect of the battles in LOTR that Jackson really did muff. But I’m not going to spoil the battles for those who don’t know. Nevertheless, it blows the effect.

  28. I haven’t read these comments in their entirety, but I don’t know if anyone ever mentioned “Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad, a small “case study” in evil that perpetuates European Imperialism in the Congo of Africa during the 19th century. Not only is this novella a case study in evil, but also a study of the potential for any human heart to turn immensely dark and barbarically violent.

  29. The Francois Truffaut quote (“It is impossible to make a true anti-war film, because the act of looking at violence is inherently exciting.”) brought to mind a particular book, “The Thief” by Megan W. Turner. She put a character who detested swordplay and violence into a situation that required him to be very violent. The entire scene was missing from the book. The narrative went straight to the consequences. I thought it was particularly effective that way.

  30. As a coincidence, I’m currently in the middle of writing a fanfic that starts off with a rape scene and then spends most of the rest of the fic of the victim dealing with the consequences. Given the writing prompt for this one, I’m tempted to post a copy here once I finish my university assignments and get back to finishing it.

    Given that the fanfic is a crossover between Bleach and Fate/Stay Night, it’s bound to have a fair bit of non-sexual violence, as well, partially as a consequence to the aforementioned rape.

  31. Sorry for the late post. I just got into this podcast a few months ago, and I’ve been going back and listening to the archives.

    As always, thanks for the great discussions, but I really have to disagree with The Matrix example. The thing that has always stood out to me about this scene is its uniqueness.

    The trope of the good guys being remorseful for killing, while necessary, is obviously used a LOT. I found it a nice change of pace that the writers were able to use the story as a way to logically subvert the trope in this scene.

  32. Tim, we’re in the same boat here. But I’ve got a lot more to listen to!

    I haven’t found much violence in my own writing. I mean, I had a torture scene in my second novel, but that got deleted because of certain plot reasons. But the violence was kept down to a minimum.

    I am a very clean writer overall. I don’t like the fountains-of-blood writing. Just stuff like “The sword was embedded in him to the hilt, protruding from his back. He fell with a sigh.”

    That’s as far as I go. No gore.

  33. Brandon unintentionally said something quite witty when he noted that there are two books called Doppelganger.

  34. You can’t solve violence with violence? So my cahracters are supposed to negotiate? or roll over and let the bad guys do what they want?
    Or are you saying there are side-effects to violence?

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