Violence in Literature: When is Enough, Enough?
This is a genre related question, and its answer – even among contemporaries – is subjective. I’m a horror writer. I write about things that anally rape the things that go bump in the night. That said, I try not to make a scene any more violent than it needs to be to keep the story interesting.
Question: Is violence necessary in order to further a plot?
My Answer: Not always, not unless your genre is horror and scenes of a graphic nature are what the audience wants. However, and this goes for any genre, if there’s a character who’s prone to violence it may make your job of writing them much easier if you occasionally kick things into high gear and allow them to be the monster you say they are – even if only once. This will help to establish them as a bad-ass motherfucker who eats razorblades, drinks gasoline and craps shrapnel bombs.
The catch-22 here is that you need to know when you can do this and how far to take it when you do. The ‘do not cross’ line is a blurry one, but if you know your peeps, you’ll have no trouble keeping your crayon from straying too far. But (yep) it’s always important to remember to keep that crayon sharp and stab the reader once in a while. Take them a half step further down that dark alley, possibly raise their hackles in the process, but always keep them on their toes.
I’ll block out a very basic scene in order to show how I personally begin a scene I feel may need more (or less) violence. For the purpose of this exercise I’ve kept the description of violence as bland and low key as possible.
The Scenario: (I’ll make it a crime/thriller)
A woman and young boy sit across from one another at a table in a well-lit kitchen. Outside the window is black; the kind of inky dark that can only be found deep in the woods, where canopies of broad-leafed tree limbs block the moon and stars from sight. Miles from any paved roads, the call of crickets and infrequent ‘hoot’ of an owl provide the only soundtrack. The child, amid shovelling spoonfuls of colourful loops into his small mouth, is informing his mother of all the super-awesome stuff he and his daddy will be doing the next day during his very first fishing trip.
The mother is excited for her son and can’t resist a prideful smile, even though he should have been in bed hours ago. Her eyes move from his face to the clock on the wall. Her husband should have been back in time for dinner and she’s worried he missed the turn-off onto the one lane dirt road leading to their cottage. She flips open her cell phone and keys in her husband’s cell number. No answer. Again. A momentary frown creases her face before she leans forward and kisses her son on the forehead.
“Go to bed, Jake. I don’t want you to be a grumpy Gus tomorrow for daddy.”
The boy slurps the last of the milk from his bowl and hops down from his chair. “Okay, Mommy. G’nite.”
“Not so fast, mister,” she says playfully. “Dishes go in the sink.”
Jake picks up his spoon and bowl and as he turns to put them in the sink he stops and points toward the window with his spoon. “Daddy’s here!”
“No, honey, we would’ve seen his headlights come up the drive.” Even as the mother says this, she notes of the dead silence from outside the cottage. Gone is the cricket song, gone is the call of night birds. Headlights or no, she listens for their car but hears only the clock on the wall and her own heartbeat. Out in the night, there is a creak of rusty hinges ... then again, and again, and she expels the breath she doesn’t realise she’s holding.
“It seems,” she says, inwardly relieved that it is merely a case of an ‘unlatched shed door’, “One of us – and I’m not going to name names – forgot to close the shed door properly after putting their bike away.”
“Uh-uh,” says Jake. “He’s right out there. I saw a light.”
She steps close to the kitchen door and peers out in to the darkness. “You saw a light? Where?” Even as she speaks, she snatches the cell phone from her front pocket and dials her husband’s number. After a moment a familiar sound brings a smile to her lips. Faintly, barely audible above the hammering of her own heart, the William Tell Overture – her husband’s ring tone – wafts in through the open window.
Relief floods through her, and midway through turning to her son and nodding, saying, “It’s daddy,” a form much larger than her husband takes shape walking in the direction of the cabin. Each step the stranger takes toward the stairs leading up to the kitchen door the music becomes more distinct.
Frozen by fear and unable to process the who what why of their situation, the mother stares as the stranger – now close enough to see that it is a man – pulls a cell phone from his back pocket and holds it up to his ear. From the earpiece of her telephone, the mother hears, “I’m sorry. I can’t make it to the phone right now cuz I came down with a bad case of dead.”
The phone slides from the mother’s fingers and her heart hammers hard enough to crack ribs. His first step onto the stairs shocks her into motion and she turns and pushes Jacob ahead of her. Unable to keep panic from strangling her words, she cries, “Run! Hide! And whatever you do, don’t come out no matter what you hear. Mommy loves you, honey.”
Jacob begins to cry, but complies and disappears around the corner. His sobs dissipate into stifled hiccups as fear robs him of sound.
She turns back to the kitchen door just as the wood around the dead bolt cracks under the force of a blow from the other side. Another blow and the door bows inward, then shatters, sending wood splinters and shards of glass to rain down around her. Even before the broken door hits the floor the man charges through the opening. Spotting her phone on the floor where she’d dropped it, the mother dives for it.
As her hand touches the phone a boot descends, crushing plastic and bone alike, sending an agonizing stream of pain coursing through her arm.
“Tell me where the kid is and I’ll make this quick.”
“No!” Fuelled by fear, she ignores the pain and yanks with all of her might, but can’t pull her hand from under his boot. “Please ... my baby ... don’t hurt my baby.” In the next instant a hand clamps around her throat. Then his other hand.
Fingers squeeze and, distantly – like a freed champagne cork two rooms away – something pops within her neck. He hears it too, and chuckles. His rising laughter rings in her ears as numbness steals down her spine. Even as she is roughly hoisted to her feet, light recedes and her vision swims in a lake of stars.
The previous bit of writing was all set up in order for you to get to know the characters, even if only on the basest of levels, in order to feel something when the shit hits the wall, which it has. It’s easier for a reader to stomach the murder of lesser known characters than ones they know and love.
- Mother and child – lightly sketched. Hell, I only named one of them.
-Alone in an isolated cabin – cliché, but effective for the purpose of this exercise.
-Stranger lurking in the darkness – again, cliché (and very under described). I chose not to go into too much detail for the same reason a writer doesn’t describe the train that just squashed a penny on a rail – The train, like the prowler, is nothing more than a tool used to get the job done. I raised the stakes a little near the end of that portion, but not enough to cause nightmares. Right here is where the decision is made as to how a scene should be finished and/or padded out (according to what you know of your target audience).
I like to call this type of scenario “Puppy on the highway”. It’s formulaic and it’s tried and true. You know there’s a villain up to no good, and you also guess the husband is most certainly dead. The scene could end many ways: they can be saved by some miraculous form of deus ex machina (i.e., a passing patrolman/woman randomly spots hubby’s car in the bushes and runs in for the rescue), the woman and child could escape through a window and lose the stalker in the forest, the husband may not have been killed and shows up in the nick of time, but none of these are the direction this scene needs to go. This scene will end badly for the woman and child. (Yes, the puppy on the highway is pancaked beneath the bald tires of a Fiat Brava, driven by a pimple-faced hormone factory named Nick during his first shift as a Dominos Pizza delivery dude.)
Next, I did what I like to call the ‘C.S.I. ending’. That’s cuz you see none of the actual violence, just the aftermath.
It’s now morning and soft light filters through the thick branches, casting a dappled grey pall over the entire area. Several police cars are nosed in on the far side of the lawn beyond the yellow ‘CRIME SCENE’ taped barrier; the kitchen door lies in ruins at the entry; and a thick trail of blood streaks the white-washed staircase, and leads off into the bushes.
The sheriff stands near the kitchen table, a wallet-sized photo of a man, a woman, and a child is in his hand. He stares at the photo so he won’t be seeing what was once – judging by the photo – a very lovely woman, but is now nothing more than a pulpy, meat jig-saw puzzle floating in a lake of her own blood.
He pockets the photo, and then takes a deep breath to stifle a sudden need to gag. After the nausea passes, he keys the walkie-talkie clipped to his chest, “Landry, any sign of the kid yet?”
After a beat comes the reply: “Nothing yet, Chief. The trail leading into the woods stops at a set of tire tracks – a pickup if I’m guessing right. Aside from a few footprints, there’s not much here. We bagged a spoon so far, but that’s it.”
The sheriff’s shoulders, already rounded by years of dealing with the worst one percent of the population ninety-nine percent of the time, slump a little further as he leaves the scene in the kitchen in the hands of the county coroner.
Kay-so, we know the mother is dead and can be fairly certain (given the brutal nature alluded to during topical description of the remains of the mother on the kitchen floor) that her husband is also now a maggot motel with plenty of vacancies. The child remains a mystery. The reason I’ve done it in this fashion is because there’s a line not crossed by leaving the fate of the child as simply ‘ambiguous’. However small of a chance there is that the child somehow lives through the ordeal, it leaves the reader with a glimmer of hope.
Now, within the scenario I bypassed the meat and went straight to the leftovers. There was a master plan behind doing that. The scenario works regardless of the fact that the reader hasn’t seen how the woman was butchered, what state the child was in when he was dragged from the cottage, or even whether or not the father was still alive. With this type of blank canvas a writer can add violence to suit their taste without having to worry about plot retention and reader reaction. I ultimately wrote it in this way for you, the writer, to make you think about how much violence YOU would add to it.
If you want to get down and dirty, the intruder can slow things down a little after he pops her cork – maybe sing Eye of the Tiger to her as he cuts off her eyelids. He can also get creative with a few items from the kitchen drawers; possibly find a few more uses for that slap-chop dicer. You can make a concerted effort to describe that ripping of raw chicken sound you get when flesh is torn from a limb, or the moist slap of that same flesh hitting the floor after being discarded. The child can try to save the mother and be beaten about the head and neck with one of his mother’s severed limbs – the world is your oyster when it comes to writing violence into your story. For a coup de grace you could show the boy screaming as the intruder drags him by the hair, kicking and screaming, through the puddle of hair and hamburger that used to be his mother.
After all that I’m gonna tell you something: you already know the answer to ‘how much violence is enough?’, but think there’s a stone tablet somewhere out there with the ‘right’ answer on it. Only you know how far to go, how much violence you can safely get away with before a reader drops your book into the trash. What I’ve given you is a model to start with when approaching a questionable scene: start bland and add spice as needed. Stir. Repeat as necessary.
Slight caveat: you can’t keep everyone happy, so it’s okay to ignore that one raving retard at the back of the room. If you were to ask them, they probably don’t read the warning labels on their prescription medicine either.
Get out there and knock ‘em dead.
Thanks for allowing me into your head for a little while
Novels (finished and otherwise) Dropcloth Angels, Shakespeare’s Dead, The Class of ’88 Must Die!, Merry F---ing Christmas.
Short works (sold and unsold): No Rest for the Wicked, Seaside Suicide Note, The Ballad of Old Tom Younger, Margin Call, The Adventures of Moses Jones and the Angel of 5th Street, The Saviour.