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Ankari

Hero Breaker
Moderator
I'm about to post an article on my blog about the utility of violence in a story. What is the point of it in a story? What is considered "good" or functional violence and what is considered "bad" or gratuitous violence? My opinion is that violence serves the same purpose as dialog: ideas are communicated between two parties who hold opposing views. Words have failed and violence replaces it.

There are other forms of functional violence, such as establishing tone, but these expressions are usually divisive and alienate many readers. Look at GoT, or the recent House of the Dragon episode. These shows attract a larger viewership, despite the presence of abundant violence. I think these shows (and the books they're based on), use violence in the "good" or functional form.

So, what are your opinions on violence in a story? What is good and what is bad? Do you tend to write a story with abundant violence, or do you like to scale it back? What guidelines do you use when dealing with violence in your stories?
 
I use it as a tool mostly. Some of my stories use it heavily, particularly the low fantasy or cyberpunk/dystopia ones. But even that I've toned down as the years go by. And my guidelines are mostly not to go overly gratuitous with it, unless it's supposed to be the sort of over the type thing. Otherwise if I don't need to use it in the story, it doesn't go.
 

Svrtnsse

Staff
Article Team
After a few moments of thinking...
I use violence as a threat, to build tension. Violence is dangerous and painful, and my characters mostly want to avoid it, but the possibility that it can happen at pretty much any time is a threat hanging over the story. Once it does happen, I try to keep it short, brutal, and unforgiving.
 

skip.knox

toujours gai, archie
Moderator
There are just so many different kinds of violence, even limiting it to physical violence. There's a great fight scene in Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets movie. It's great because it's incredibly clumsy. It's clumsy how the men fall into violence, clumsy in its execution, it's even clumsy how it ends. In other words, it's realistic. But it serves another purpose as well. Once we've seen this, we understand the threat of violence that permeates the narrative (it's about gangsters) is incredibly close precisely because the men are not in full control of themselves. They can fall into violence at any moment, for trivial reasons but with serious results. That is, however, a portrayal specific to that movie and I'm not sure it translates elsewhere.

Another kind of violence is abrupt and unexpected. I'm thinking here of Dolokhov (I think it was he) in War and Peace. He's shot off his horse at Austerlitz and he thinks, what has happened? Did I fall? Was I shot? I've been shot! Why would anyone want to shoot me? I'm a jolly fellow. No one would want to harm me. But here I am on the ground and there's French infantry. I should run away. Or should I fight? I should run. Am I a coward?

And so on. It's Tolstoy, after all. The violence itself isn't at all graphic, but the effects of the violence are profound. Tolstoy strikes the same note later with Andrei.

What constitutes bad usage? The easy answer is, anything that's ineffective. Or offensive (leaving aside attempts to define either term). Maybe more generally it would be any use of violence where the effect is contrary to the intent. We don't want the reader to sit back and cry out, that couldn't have happened (i.e., violate the world's magical rules and precedents). Nor do we want them to snort in derision (which is where people tend to snort) and dismiss the magic as weak or lazy or insipid. I guess all this is just elaborations on the term "ineffective." And it applies to physical violence as much as to magical violence--scale, believability, effect. A great example of bad usage can be seen in old movies where the hero has only to sock a fellow in the jaw, or maybe a crudely-deployed "karate chop" to the back of the neck, and the villain is out for the count with no effect on the hero.

I'm liking the parameters of scale, realism (believability, verisimilitude), and effect. A short list like that is easy to keep in mind while writing.
 

Mad Swede

Maester
I've got mixed feelings about violence in a story. Too often violent events are described in what I regard as uneccesary detail. GRR Martin is an example of this, as is Joe Abercrombie.

At the same time, you need violence or at least a credible threat of violence to maintain the perceived threat to the protagonists. And that threat needs to result in at least an injury either to one of the protagonists or to someone close to them otherwise the threat isn't credible. With that written, I think the use of violence has to be justified in the story and it's setting. By that I mean that it must either follow on from events (eg an argument which degenerates into a brawl) or the character must have some motivation (which might be personality, or stress or anger) for using violence.

I also feel that using violence needs to have consequences. I don't just mean death or injuries. As a retired soldier who served on a number of UN missions I've seen quite a lot of violence in the field, but what I've seen far more of is the aftermath of violence. By that I mean the psychological effects on people - and these aren't pretty. This isn't something which many writers depict accurately or even at all. But I feel that if you get those effects right then the threat of violence becomes a very credible threat indeed, and you don't then need as many violent scenes. You also get more opportunities for character development.

As for depicting the violence, I tend not to go into too many gory details. I don't feel I need that to convey the horror of what is happening. At the same time, any description has to be reasonably realistic to be credible. I've seen too many descriptions of the hero punching someone across a room, or a very sharp sword decapitating someone without the head falling off. Sorry, but neither of those things are realistic and they don't work for me. And what does the protagonist look like after they've killed someone in a sword fight? They won't have clean clothes. How long does it take to clean up the mess? Because it is a mess...
 

Ankari

Hero Breaker
Moderator
By that I mean the psychological effects on people - and these aren't pretty. This isn't something which many writers depict accurately or even at all.

Can you expand on this more? What psychological effects have you witnessed? What were the sources of violence that caused them?
 

skip.knox

toujours gai, archie
Moderator
PTSD is widely recognized, and is only the most recent understanding. Terms go back to things like "battle fatigue" and "shell shock." The effects can be devastating to the point of ruined lives and suicide. I would be most cautious in discussing specifics from real life here.
 

pmmg

Istar
My only measure for stuff is along the lines of how likely it is. The threat of violence always exists, real world of fantasy, and life always lives under the surface tension of it appearing. Course, in a fantasy tale, the likelihood of violence goes way up. You cant wander into a camp of orcs an expect no violence.

The gore factor has a lot to do with the tone of the story, and messages it projects. Since gore is likely when people are swinging maces and axes, blood is going to spatter and ill try to capture that. I'd only dwell on it, though, if its important to the story.

For the depiction of violence, I think it is best when it is used as another means of revealing the characters, and showing things about them through the course of it. Characters reveal themselves in how they confront and react to problems and outcomes. Violence is just another vehicle by which that can occur.

I think my attitude is just along the lines of things like violence, sex, rape, money, murder, bad things, death and taxes are all just things that may or may not become likely to happen in a dangerous world, and the world always carries the threat of it. I believe in giving the story what it needs, so...its all on the table once the story gets started.

I would say, my own writing tends to be in the pg13-soft R level range. I dont really see dwelling on it. I am more interested in what it means to the characters, and what it means to the story.
 

skip.knox

toujours gai, archie
Moderator
Mad Swede bring up the issue of effects, which in turn brought to mind my own interest as a historian in this question. The 20thc effects (and 21st, now ... congratulations, humankind!) of combat have been well documented, but much less so have earlier centuries. I wonder if anyone knows of some scholarly work on the topic.

I'm thinking specifically of the effects of being, say, a Swiss mercenary in the 15th century. Or of being a soldier in the armies of Charlemagne. There's been some stuff on Crusaders, but mainly the First Crusade and the incidents around Antioch. Not really a general study.

Going back further, what about being a Roman veteran, back when the requirement was twenty campaigns? Or the effect of being a Spartan? The usual portrayal is of stone-cold killers, but humans are humans and I suspect that was more ideal than reality.

I wonder if the kind of warfare wasn't a factor. Massed rifle fire had to be a very different experience from shield-and-sword. I know there was horror at the bloodshed of Blenheim, simply because of the scale. There's the little book Simplicissimus, which recounts all sorts of horrifying deeds during the Thirty Years War. I wonder about the effects of a lifetime of Reisenfahren going off to campaign in Livonia or Lithuania, for all that the ones going were volunteers.

There are many questions, and the sources are exceptionally thin.

Then, to all that, we can add what about battle magic. Might there not be effects there? Not only for the magic user, but also for ordinary soldiers who had to serve in armies where magical forces were also in play?
 

Ankari

Hero Breaker
Moderator
For the depiction of violence, I think it is best when it is used as another means of revealing the characters, and showing things about them through the course of it. Characters reveal themselves in how they confront and react to problems and outcomes. Violence is just another vehicle by which that can occur.

This is an excellent example of using violence in a story. It acts as a vehicle for the reader to understand more about the character than simple description or dialog. Depending on the PoV, it can also show what the character focuses on, thereby revealing more of the character's psychology.
 

Ankari

Hero Breaker
Moderator
I'm thinking specifically of the effects of being, say, a Swiss mercenary in the 15th century. Or of being a soldier in the armies of Charlemagne. There's been some stuff on Crusaders, but mainly the First Crusade and the incidents around Antioch. Not really a general study.

Another excellent point. Does violence in more ancient times leave behind the same psychological scars as what we see in the present? The sheer scale of damage modern warfare unleashes compared to the past is astonishing. I think there is more to it as well. Not just violence, but destruction. I think if entire cities were flattened under a rain of fire and ash, the past victims would think it a biblical event.

But even on a lesser scale, violence nowadays can be too immediate. A gunshot can kill so quickly as to make witnesses wonder on the futility of life. Back when swords were the main weapon, the process of death was generally more drawn out. In that delay, there is more room for hope.

But my question to Mad Swede was more than just the PTSD problem. There are many layers of trauma below PTSD. I'm sure even social behaviors change. Customs are born and old ones buried. I was wondering if he meant those psychological changes.
 

Mad Swede

Maester
Can you expand on this more? What psychological effects have you witnessed? What were the sources of violence that caused them?
OMG. What a question to ask a veteran with PTSD. But you asked in good faith so I'll do my best to answer.

People become very detached, almost nihilistic in some cases. They don't seem to relate to anything, just sort of sit staring. If you can get them to do things thye have trouble concentrating, or they seem very tired, like it's all been too much. You have to sort of lead them by the hand because they don't always seem to be able to prioritise things, or they focus on small things. They can get sudden mood swings, and some sounds or events will trigger almost panic reactions in them. I have a friend who stills dives under a table if he hears a sound like a car backfiring. Nightmares are common - I still get them, waking up soaked in sweat in the middle of the night. Anxiety and distrust, irritability, and a desire for very fixed routines. Being very tense, almost hypervigilant, never able to relax. Insomnia - I sometimes don't sleep. Very restless sleep. Flashbacks - oh how I hate them, but still they happen. And some develop acohol problems.

And also, sometimes, an acceptance of violence and methods that in other circumstances they would have reacted against. Things like walking up to a captured enemy soldier, cutting their d*** and b**** off and then leaving them to bleed to death. A willingness to be at least as nasty to the enemy as the enemy were to them. There's also a lingering sense of hatred and a desire for revenge. Old tales get told, of how great great grandfather helped beat them last time, and what he did to them. And the spiral just goes on, usually downwards. You get domestic violence too, people seem to sort of react with violence in situations where before they'd have talked it through. Casual violence and harsh punishments seem more common, like the rules of society have take a 400 year step back.

Children aren't children any more, they seem grown up and somehow responsible. But they also seem a bit lost, like there's something missing from them. And they can never quite go back to being children, even when they're not yet 14. When a child has had to take charge of others, has been a leader, they grow up in a way which stops them ever going back.

But also, an acceptance of other veterans and their behaviour without even batting an eyelid. There can be a sense of brotherhood, and sense that you all understand one another. Those who haven't been there don't understand (and that isn't criticism).

I don't know if this makes sense?
 

Ankari

Hero Breaker
Moderator
I don't know if this makes sense?

It does. I'm sorry if my question reanimated some demons. It was asked in good faith. The best a writer can do is represent the subject matter as earnestly as possible, and when they are detached from the subject matter, then accounts from those who have experienced it are the best we have to go by.

I'm curious about the veterans accepting other veterans without judgment. As you said, it speaks to a brotherhood, one formed from the trauma of the experience. I wonder when the acceptance ends, if it does, when an action or an idea conflict with something held dearly.

Thank you for your participation in this thread. I hope I'm not making you feel uncomfortable with my questions. If I am, please let me know.
 

Mad Swede

Maester
It does. I'm sorry if my question reanimated some demons. It was asked in good faith. The best a writer can do is represent the subject matter as earnestly as possible, and when they are detached from the subject matter, then accounts from those who have experienced it are the best we have to go by.

I'm curious about the veterans accepting other veterans without judgment. As you said, it speaks to a brotherhood, one formed from the trauma of the experience. I wonder when the acceptance ends, if it does, when an action or an idea conflict with something held dearly.

Thank you for your participation in this thread. I hope I'm not making you feel uncomfortable with my questions. If I am, please let me know.
Acceptance, at least in the groups I'm involved with means accepting who we are and why we are the way we are. That doesn't mean we accept things like domestic violence, or rape, or casual violence against others. That just isn't OK. But we would understand why someone had ended up like that. It means not having to explain if we suddenly break down in tears, or go quiet or whatever. We know why. It just means being there, like clasping someones shoulder to say "I understand". I'm not sure I could ever explain to you what it means, not properly.
 

pmmg

Istar
Well, having played my son at Quake last night, I think I could have used more utility of violence and less personal gore.

Though exceedingly gory and full of nihilistic violence, I dont think the game would be any fun without it.
 
That is probably a big thing, especially within gaming or movies. Sometimes it may be so over the top that it's silly and kind of fun. Which is why you end up with such things and chainsaw swords and axes, along with guns with chainsaw bayonets being wielded by American Football line backers or cyborg orcs with laser eyes. Though under proper circumstances, they can go quickly from silly things to decently scary with the violence they can mete out.
 

Queshire

Auror
One also needs to keep in mind the genre and desired tone of a story. If you're writing a story about superheroes you're going to see a lot more henchmen punching and mid-battle quips than if you're writing something grittier or with a focus on realistic fighting.

For me the big thing is the attitude the characters bring to fighting. Being a murder hobo is one thing, but being a callous murder hobo is another.
 

Mad Swede

Maester
Well, having played my son at Quake last night, I think I could have used more utility of violence and less personal gore.

Though exceedingly gory and full of nihilistic violence, I dont think the game would be any fun without it.
I don't know that I agree with you. To me, that's using a depiction of violence to make up for poor or limited gameplay. As a comparison, try playing 3D Monster Maze on a ZX81 or an emulator. No gore, no hi-res colour graphics, no sound, just a T-rex out to get you.
 

Mad Swede

Maester
One also needs to keep in mind the genre and desired tone of a story. If you're writing a story about superheroes you're going to see a lot more henchmen punching and mid-battle quips than if you're writing something grittier or with a focus on realistic fighting.

For me the big thing is the attitude the characters bring to fighting. Being a murder hobo is one thing, but being a callous murder hobo is another.
Attitude yes, but also the reasons they have for using violence. Why do they turn to violence? And how do they feel about it? As a veteran I'd even ask if they feel anything about using violence, because in my experience someone who has seen a lot of violence might be so accustomed to violence and hence so unfeeling about it that they don't even think twice about using violence, much less think about about the consequences.

It was Isaac Asimov (in one of the Foundation books) who wrote that violence was the last refuge of the incompetent. Whilst that's true up to a point it could equally be argued that only the incompetent wait until violence is the last resort, simply because then you only have one way out and both you and your opponent know it. So the build up to the use of violence also needs thinking about in a story, because it can determine how the use of violence works out for all concerned.
 
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