I am well acquainted with how the human body moves when fighting, either with weapons or bare-handed. I know this personally as I was the goalie on a women’s hockey team in my late teens. Also, at the age of nineteen, I married the bass player in a heavy metal band. We were divorced several years later, and while we remain good friends, some aspects of those years were difficult to live through.
The human body moves in many ways when fighting, some of which are effective, and others not so much. In the 1990s, I studied Shao Chi Chuan, a gentler form of martial arts. I write about people who fight, and I draw upon my personal experience.
But let’s talk about literary violence. Random gore and sexual violence have no place in the well-crafted novel. The keyword here is random.
Blood and sex are sometimes a part of the more profoundly moving stories I have read. Those scenes showed meticulous plotting, and the incidents were watershed moments in the protagonists’ lives.
At times, those passages are difficult on a personal level to read. However, if they are moments that change everything, they do have a purpose. Events that change the protagonist’s life for good or ill must be crafted, and transitions must make them fit seamlessly into the narrative.
I rarely read horror, except that which is written by Dean Lappi. The violence is all the more frightening in his books because it is subtly foreshadowed and unavoidable and occurs at a surprising moment. All the things that make you feel squeamish are not random, not inserted for shock value, or just to liven things up. The characters are multidimensional, and the world they live in can be terrifying.
If you are writing horror, reread the works that inspired you. Follow their lead and plot your novel well.
I want to make this extremely clear: 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.
Whenever you must write scenes that involve violence, ask yourself five questions:
- Is this scene necessary, or am I just trying to liven up a stagnant story arc?
- What does this scene show about the world my protagonist lives in?
- Will this event fundamentally change my protagonist and affect how they go forward?
- What does this event accomplish that advances the plot toward its conclusion?
- Why was this event unavoidable?
Suppose the choices the protagonist has made prior to this point do not make this scene unavoidable. In that case, the violence is gratuitous and doesn’t belong there.
Some books open in the middle of the action, and I have done this on occasion as a prologue to show a backstory event. However, this kind of opening can confuse the reader, who is at the disadvantage of not knowing what is going on.
When you open a novel with the characters already thrust into the middle of an action scene, it should introduce the characters and show the root of the crisis. The key is to make it clear that it is a backstory event, and you should make it character-driven.
Whether it is shown in the prologue or the opening chapter, the first event, the inciting incident, is the one that changes everything and launches the story.
I love stories about good people solving terrible problems. The first incident has a domino effect. More things occur that push the protagonist out of his comfortable life and into danger.
Their peril might be physical or emotional. While I have experienced violent situations, I’ve also faced many things that shook my world but didn’t threaten my physical safety.
Fear of loss, fear of financial disaster, fear of losing a loved one—terror is subjective and deeply personal
Either way, the threat and looming disaster must be shown, and the solution should be held just out of reach. If it was resolved too easily, why? What sort of trap was laid, and why did they take the bait?
As in real life, emotions run high. The situation is sometimes chaotic, but the protagonists believe they can resolve the problem if they can just achieve “the one thing.”
Despite their growing doubts, the characters continue to be put to the test, and the subplots kick into gear.
Scenes form the overall story arc structure, but please, don’t waste the reader’s time with pointless banter. Each conversation or event must show something new and propel the plot forward, moving the protagonist and antagonist further along the story arc to the final showdown.
In the early part of the story, each scene should illuminate the motives of the characters. Like a flower gradually opening, the reader gains information at the same time as the protagonist does. The reader may see clues from the antagonists’ side, which the characters don’t know will affect the plot in the future.
Those clues are foreshadowing, showing why the forthcoming action is unavoidable. Through the first half of the book, subtle foreshadowing is essential, as it piques the reader’s interest and makes them want to know how the book will end.
The midpoint in the novel is a place where a watershed moment should occur. It launches the third act and makes the characters’ struggle more difficult.
At this point, the protagonist and allies are becoming 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.
Through experiencing these (sometimes) violent events, the protagonist suffers a crisis of faith. They fear they may not have what it takes, and their quest won’t be fulfilled.
Just when the characters have recovered from the midpoint catastrophe, another disaster occurs, the event that launches the final act. This event is where someone who was previously safe may die.
Scenes that involve violence are difficult to write well unless you know how the action will affect your protagonist. Also, you must remember to give the protagonist and the reader a small break between incidents for regrouping.
This requires planning on the part of the author. We consider how each battle or catastrophe will be unavoidable. We must also ask ourselves how surviving it will change the characters for good or ill.
Incidents that raise the very real specter of possible failure elevate the emotional stakes and keep the reader turning the page.
Our task is to design the action scene so that it fits naturally into a narrative. This is a critical skill we must develop if we want to move our readers emotionally.
In the next post, we’ll discuss contrasts, and how the transition from conflict to quiet and back again can make or break your narrative.