I don’t write horror, but some of my novels contain certain elements of that genre. These shocking, violent scenes were moments that changed my characters’ lives.
Violence is an aspect of depth that is difficult for some authors to write well.
I dislike graphic violence that is there for the shock value. If the violent events don’t somehow move the story forward, change the protagonist profoundly, or affect their view of the world, you have wasted the reader’s time.
Understanding how to design certain action scenes and where they fit into a narrative is a critical skill we must develop if we want our readers to love our work. When you raise the specter of failure, you also raise the emotional stakes and keep the reader turning the page.
Random carnage has no place in the well-crafted novel, no matter the genre. The key word here is random.
When it comes to writing scenes that involve violence, ask yourself three questions:
- Will this event profoundly change my protagonist’s life?
- What does this event accomplish that advances my plot?
- Why is this event unavoidable?
Blood and sex do have their place in some of the best stories I have read, and they were watershed moments in the protagonists’ lives. Those passages were difficult to read but were the events that changed everything.
When you read Stephen King’s work, you find shocking events and horror. But more importantly, you see a narrative that was carefully thought out. Every event pushes the protagonist’s story to its conclusion.
They were the moments that changed the protagonists for good or ill. These scenes were crafted seamlessly into the narrative.
Violence in the horror novel is all the more frightening when it is subtly foreshadowed and unavoidable and occurs at a surprising moment. It is not random, not inserted for shock value or just to liven things up.
This means you must plan your horror novel with an eye to ratcheting up the fear and tension in every scene. The threat and looming disaster must be shown, and the solution held just out of reach.
At first, emotions are high, and the situation sometimes chaotic, and often the protagonist believes he can resolve the situation if he can just achieve one thing.
In the process of experiencing these events, the protagonist suffers doubt, fear they may not have what it takes, and their quest won’t be fulfilled. From this point on, the forces driving the plot are a train on a downhill run, picking up speed, and there is no stopping it or turning back now.
Within the overall story arc, you must insert scenes that illuminate the motives of all the characters, including those of the antagonist. The characters continue to be put to the test, and the subplots kick into gear.
These scenes allow the reader to learn things as the protagonist does. They offer clues that the characters don’t know, information that will affect the plot.
Those clues are foreshadowing. Through the first half of the book, subtle foreshadowing is important, as it piques the reader’s interest and makes them want to know how the book will end.
- The first event, the inciting incident, is the one that changes everything and launches the story. Because the best stories are about good people solving terrible problems, this incident has a domino effect: more actions ensue that push the protagonist out of his comfortable life and into danger. This peril can be physical or emotional–after all, many things rock our world but don’t threaten our physical safety.
- At the midpoint, another serious incident occurs, launching the third act, and setting them back even further. Now the protagonist and allies are aware that they may not achieve their objectives after all. Bad things have happened, and the protagonists must get creative and work hard to acquire or accomplish their desired goals. They must overcome their own doubts and make themselves stronger.
- Just when the characters have recovered from the midpoint crisis, another crisis occurs, the event that launches the final act. This final event is where someone who was previously safe may die.
- Each violent event should be worse than the previous. They begin relatively minor as compared to the final event and grow progressively more difficult. As the narrative moves on, the reader must fear the protagonist will fail.
What are the consequences of failure? Fear is powerful motivator, so raise the stakes and the tension as the story progresses.
Scenes that involve violence are difficult to write well unless you know how the action will affect your protagonist. What will their long term reaction be?
Also, you must remember to give both the protagonist and the reader a small break between incidents for regrouping and planning.
Action, aftermath, action, aftermath—often compared to the way a skater crosses the ice: push, glide, push, glide.
Writing violence well requires planning on the part of the author. It requires us to sit back and consider what events will be unavoidable and will change the characters for good or ill.
Then we must insert them into the narrative in the right order, subtly foreshadowed, and all consequences must be both logical and advance the story.
THAT is where writing becomes work, but when done well, you can end up with a great novel.
A novel that I wish I had written is Dean Frank Lappi’s Black Numbers, the first novel in his Aleph Null series. This a deep, violent novel with great characters and intentional plotting, and kicks off a brilliant series. Nothing that happens in that novel is random. Every event serves a purpose, that of pushing the protagonist to his destiny.
We learn from the masters. If you must write violence into your work, you must study the works of other writers. Stephen King’s early work is an excellent place to start and is available in the public library.
Credits and Attributions:
Portions of this post were previously published on the Northwest Independent Writers Association blog as Crafting Violence, © Connie J. Jasperson, October 15, 2017.