Monday, May 23, 2011

Writing Violence

By Steve Weddle

Exciting. Necessary. Tense.

A good fight scene in crime fiction is tough to beat. One guy takes a swing, the other ducks. A fist full of rolled up quarters into the Adam's apple. A knee to the chin. The tearing sound a jaw makes in novels.

I was working on a story recently in which the main character finds a couple of jackasses logging on his grandmother's property. I don't know how it is where you're from, but around my neck of the woods that's liable to get you killed. Of course, dudes with chainsaws tend to think they're pretty tough. Here's where I was:

“No problem, pal. Mind telling me who the fuck you think you are?” He ripped the chainsaw chord and it smoked and squealed in that high-pitched sound you get when you cross a motorcycle with a farm pig.
He walked towards me and I turned back to my truck. He laughed, said “That’s what I thought, faggot.” Then the other guy laughed. Then I reached under the tarp in the bed of my truck and pulled out an axe handle.
“Just so there’s no confusion,” I said, “that was me being nice a minute ago.”
The guy with the chainsaw took too long closing the ground between us, so I stepped his way. I didn’t have a whole lot of experience fighting against chainsaws, but it looked damned heavy to try to move around like he was doing. He lifted it about shoulder-high coming at me and I spun around like I was winding up to send one over the fence. Then I popped his right knee with the axe handle. He went down and the chainsaw didn’t kill either one of us, just fell blade-up, then flopped away like a headless chicken. He yelled at me and I’d gone from being gay to being a mother fucker. Didn’t need him biting my ankles as his pal came towards me, so I put a steel toe into his mouth and felt his teeth slide up into his head.
The other guy pulled a little pop gun from his back pocket. I stepped in close, held his gun arm under my armpit and put the back of my head up through his jaw. I pushed him down and pulled his arm out of socket. Then I put my heel on his shoulder and spun his arm around in the socket until he got tired of kicking


That was fun. I've never been attacked with a chainsaw, but I'm fairly convinced it would make an awkward melee weapon. Sure, it's loud and scary and all, but it's designed for a set purpose and is weighted in a certain way. If you've never worked a chainsaw, you might not know what I'm talking about. But it doesn't provide for mobility or flexibility. I'm not talking about the kind you need an extension cord for so that you can trim off a couple of limbs in back yard, thereby protecting your satellite dish before the oncoming ice storm. I'm talkin them big, heavy frackers real mean and women use to destroy a forest, er, make money for a landowner.

Of course, I'm sure you can write scenes in which chainsaws are great brawling weapons. Only takes one well places spin of the chain to turn a fighter into flank steak.

But here we're talking an all-out onslaught on the senses. No Holds Barred. Throat punches and ice picks to the eyeballs.

Which is just the idea Benjamin Percy and Aaron Gwyn take up in the recent POETS AMPERSAND WRITERS magazine. Their stated thesis (hello, ENGL 101 students) is this: "While explicit cruelty has its place in literature, violence may be more cunningly crafted by allowing the reader to wander into the dark corners of his own mind."

They make particular use of Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man is Hard to Find" in which the bad guy takes people off in the darkness to kill them. Joyce Carol Oates. Cormac McCarthy.

The article contrasts the work of those writers with authors such as Chuck Palahniuk and Brett Easton Ellis -- "a special kind of CGI meant to sour your stomach." A Michael Bay film in which those experiencing the story say "What great special effects...marveling at the way computers can create the illusion of a casino exploding."

Their article is pertinent and persuasive, shining a light on the type of books I've been reading, the stories I've been telling.

I'd encourage you to track down the May/June issue of the magazine for that article alone. (Also a nice article on writing contests in there.)

The idea Percy and Gwyn really do a nice job kicking around is whether violence works better in the story when the author fills the page with blood or lets the reader imagine the violence, moving the overt horror from the ink on the page to the reader's own imagined darkness?

So what do you think? Does overt violence in a book add or take away from the story? Do you enjoy reading a good fight scene? Is a knuckle-buster in Bucksnort, TN bar just special effects? Would some stories have been better off with the violence left off the page? Would some have been better with more overt violence on the page, more choreographed fights?

And, in case anyone gives a damn, here's how I'd revised the logging story. Nice when you decide to go one way and then read an article making an article in your favor.

“You lost, pal?” he asked me. The other one leaned his elbow out of his truck’s window and looked back my way.
“No,” I said. “Mind telling me who gave you permission to cut back here?”
“No problem, pal. Mind telling me who the fuck you think you are?” He ripped the chainsaw chord and it smoked and squealed in that high-pitched sound you get when you cross a motorcycle with a farm pig.
He walked towards me and I turned back to my truck. He laughed, said “That’s what I thought, faggot.” Then the other guy laughed.
“Just so there’s no confusion,” I said, pulling an axe handle from under the tarp in my truck bed. “That was me being nice a minute ago.”
At the church's homecoming picnic the next day, I walked to the end of the table, put down the tray of deviled eggs, minus the three I’d just swallowed. Then I went to have a chat with the pastor's wife.


Unknown said...

I think there's a time for both approaches. If you have a bad guy your readers love to hate and they are due a healthy dose of comeuppance, you've got to show that. Your reader is going to revel in that kind of depicted violence.

Thomas Pluck said...

I think for your particular scene, the "nice" line is so good that you must cut away from the violence at that point. Nothing will live up to what our imaginations will create, when a man says something badass like that to a guy holding a chainsaw.

But there is a place for overt violence as well. When we want to see someone's comeuppance so badly, nothing else will do. We feel cheated when it happens in the dark.

Elizabeth said...

Like Michael said, there's a time for both. A lot depends on the overall tone that has been set, or the author is trying to set. What's actually more jarring or distracting to me is when the violence doesn't jive with the overall tone, in either direction.

Of course I can only comment on it on a vacuum, but I actually liked the first version of the chainsaw fight scene better. Then again, I do tend to be a bit bloodthirsty. ;-)

pattinase (abbott) said...

I agree with this. I think the most common flaw in most crime stories I read is the overuse of overt sadistic violence. The anticipation, the dread of an outcome is more palpable than the actual action to me.

Steve Weddle said...

Michael and Thomas -- Yeah, definitely want to see the nasty, baddie get what's coming to him. Totally appreciate that.

Elizabeth -- I've read stories like this, too, and they drive me crazy. Throwing in a brutal fight scene in a book that isn't set up for it, kinda like hearing someone who doesn't know how to cuss -- "What the shit are you doing?" -- the jarring disconnect is awful.

Patti -- Right. The idea of scary vs shocking.

Don Lafferty said...

Yeah, balance is certainly the key. Unfortunately, most writers telegraph their expendable characters and simply inject obligatory violence as a way of exposing their protag’s inner and outer badass when a more subtle approach can be infinitely more chilling. Anybody that’s actually participated in this brand of violence will tell you that it’s often over quickly and without much drama, so to fold the drama in with the violence as a device, a writer always runs the risk of being overtly manipulative of the reader. Consequently I’m a fan of less is more – again.

Lamar said...

I couldn't help but think of a pertinent example in my favorite TV show, Twin Peaks.

On the show itself, there was almost no actual onscreen violence; the only thing I can think of is when Andy shot Jacques Renault. Most of the violence is implied, or described. I think that was one of the things that made Twin Peaks one of the most horrifying stories I've ever seen -- most of the violence was left to the imagination.

Compare it to the movie "Fire Walk With Me," in contrast. Still not a lot of violence compared to some films, but we get to see a lot of the scenes that were only described in the TV series. On the whole, I found it a lot less effective as a story, although when I rewatched it recently, it was less "worst movie ever made" than the first time I saw it.

Some of the show the violence or not argument may depend on the nature of the story and the level of explicitness, too. There's a lot of violence in, say, "Raiders of the Lost Ark," but it's mostly cartoon violence, and because it's a swashbuckling adventure story, it sort of has to be onscreen. Compare that to the implied violence in something like "8mm," for example, which is intended to be more realistic and more horrific.

Yes, film is a different medium than prose, but I think the principles apply. So, I'm going to go with implied violence -- or even the threat of violence -- being more effective if your goal is to induce horror and squirms in your audience.

Dana King said...

Enough to give a feel for what's happening without getting prurient about it. Books, unlike movies, play out entirely in the reader's mind. Give him enough to run with and steer him. There's no way for you to know what will excite me or disgust me, or where the line is. I know, though. Show me where it goes and let me find the way that works best for me.

Travener said...

I hate to say "it depends," but it does, on how well the fight scene's written and whether it's just gratuitous or not.

Jay Stringer said...

My post today covers a lot of my feelings on violence.

I guess as a writer -and a reader- I want to be dealing in consequences and emotions. Violence is a consequence. Sometimes i's important to see it. But the emotion is the key. Does showing the violence detract from the emotion or enhance it? Does it get in the way?

If someone hits you without warning, you feel pain. If someone threatens to hit you, or raises their fist, you feel fear, tension and suspense. You cover up or flinch.

Usually i feel that the emotional pain is more interesting to write and read about than the physical, but that's not a hard and fast rule, and there is room for both.

Another thing is that I find casual mentions of violence, and short sharp bursts of blunt action, to have more impact than pages worth of well written grisly stuff.

Take a strange example- Wilco.

Their song "She's A jar" is a strange and dreamy little pop song. It's laid back and lilting, filled with powerful imagery and an easy going delivery. There is something slightly off kilter about it, but you drift along, seduced. Then the song ends with the line, "You know she begs me not to hit her."

Boom. The song hits you in the gut on the way out and leaves you asking a million questions about what just happened. But there's nothing graphic, no descriptions or details.

It may not even be about violence. It could be about hitting a drug or a drink, who knows? But the line itself, combined with the blunt and casual way it's delivered, hits harder for it's lack of detail.