Tag Archives: writing violence

How the Written Universe Works: Choreographing Disaster #amwriting

The most powerful books in the Western Canon of Great Literature explore the human experience. Drama, heartache, disaster, and violence are the backdrop against which our lives play out.

Buddha quoteReaders connect with these stories across generations and across the centuries because the fundamental concerns of human life aren’t unique to one society, one technological era, or one point in time.

In my last post, we touched upon choreographing violence, but didn’t discuss some of the root causes. Violence often follows disaster.

Some disasters are caused by the cyclical ebb and flow of weather patterns, and others are the effects of human activity.

  • Possible effects of famine: food deprivation leads to starvation and disease.
  • Possible effects of severe drought: droughts lead to wildfires, famines, and pandemics.

Drought and famine feed societal unrest:

  • Lust for power: The bullies rise to the top, inciting their followers to violence against those perceived as weaker.
  • Lust for wealth: Bully warlords may mount an armed invasion to steal resources a neighboring society has acquired.

Even a slight lowering of the standard of living can feed civil unrest.

One disaster we may all face at some point is famine. Hunger exists in this world, and while many worthwhile charities do their best to alleviate it, famine is an enemy that takes no prisoners.

On a human level, hunger affects a person forever after. People can survive on very little, and unfortunately, many do. To have only enough food to keep you alive forms a person in a singular way. Their physical growth will be less than that of a well-nourished person, and their worldview is narrower. They have no energy to spare for anything beyond their day-to-day existence.

Christian_Krohg-Kampen_for_tilværelsen_1889Acquiring food becomes their first priority. Having a surplus of food becomes a reason to celebrate. To go without adequate food for any length of time changes a person and makes one determined to never go hungry again.

Unfortunately, for some, their desire to be well-fed will lead them to make choices that challenge the accepted morality of those who are not hungry.

Droughts often cause famines and worse. To go without water is to die. Thirst is a more immediate pain than hunger. The human animal can survive for up to three weeks without food but only three to four days without water. Rarely, one might survive up to a week.

Even brackish water must taste sweet when one suffers from a lack of potable water. And when one is without food, foods they would consider repugnant under other circumstances will fill their belly.

Look at the continual strife in third-world countries (not Ukraine, which is different and not a third-world country). You will see how long-term droughts have precipitated widespread famine, leading to civil unrest. Gang wars are fought over the right to own a water source, and these conflicts can erupt into revolution.

We forget this when we have plenty to eat and never have to worry if we will have water in our faucet as long as we can pay the bills.

But if we learn anything from the empty grocery store shelves in 2020 and the current supply chain crisis, it is that our well-fed lives are perched on a one-legged ladder.

Disaster on a wide scale can and will happen. But what of those small tragedies people face each day, deeply personal catastrophes, which only they are experiencing? These are also the seeds of a good story.

ContrastsLove and loss, safety and danger, loyalty and betrayal—the eternal themes of tragedy and resolution. Hardship contrasted against ease provides the story with texture, turning a wall of “bland” into something worth reading.

In real life, everything seems to be going along well. Life is good, calm, and peaceful. Then the tornado hits, the wildfire comes through, or the tidal wave—whatever the tool nature uses to destroy you, it decimates your home, your community, leaving you and your neighbors with nothing.

Then we must deal with the aftermath, cleaning up, searching for belongings, and searching for loved ones. This kind of disaster cuts deep into a person’s psyche.

Severe weather, fires, famines, and floods are terrible to live through, and many harrowing stories emerge from these experiences. Stories of apocalyptic catastrophes resonate because disaster drives humanity to bigger and better things, and those who survive and rise above it become heroes.

However, disasters regularly happen on what seems an unimportant level to people who have resources.

Consider the situation of a single mother working two part-time jobs. If she lives in my town, she lives where there is no public transportation. Other cities in my county have access to public transit, but not my community.

She struggles to pay for fuel, but what if her car breaks down? How will she get to work? All her money goes to fuel, childcare, rent, and utilities. What little she has left after those bills are paid goes to food.

She has no resources and no way to pay to repair her car. Without her car, she will lose both jobs. That is a profoundly personal disaster, one she and her children might not recover from.

How would you write her story?

Augustus_Edwin_Mulready_Fatigued_Minstrels_1883We writers must make our words count. We have to show the comfort zone in the moments leading up to the disaster, not too much, but just enough to show what will soon be lost.

Then, we have to bring on the disaster and write it logically so that the events make sense. We can’t tell the story. We must show it as if we were painters—and we have to inject real, believable emotion into the experience.

Open a new document and save it to your background file. Describe the disaster in great detail. Then save and walk away from it. Let that scene rest and move on to something else. When you return to it, re-read it, and see what you can cut and condense and still have the bones of the action. Use verbs and power words and go light on descriptors.

The window shatters, and I stare, dumbstruck. A two-by-four impales itself in the wall beside David amid a slow-motion shower of glass shards. The wind roars, tearing the door from my hand and slamming it shut.

Verbs in that scene are: stare, impales, shower, roars, tearing, slamming. Show the bones of the event by using verbs with powerful visuals, and the reader’s mind will fill in the rest.

Once the events are in order, we must show the aftermath of the calamity and the roadblocks they must overcome to recovery. We add the characters’ real-time reactions and emotions. Finally, we must leave our characters in a place of comparative happiness and security.

Employing contrast—ease against hardship—gives texture to the fabric of a narrative. When an author makes good use of courage in the face of personal disasters, readers think about the story and those characters long after it has ended.


Struggle for Survival by Christian Krohg, 1889, oil on canvas.  Now hanging in the National Gallery of Norway. Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Christian Krohg-Kampen for tilværelsen 1889.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Christian_Krohg-Kampen_for_tilv%C3%A6relsen_1889.jpg&oldid=301415583 (accessed June 7, 2022)

Fatigued Minstrels, by Augustus Edwin Mulready, 1883, oil on canvas. Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Augustus Edwin Mulready Fatigued Minstrels 1883.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Augustus_Edwin_Mulready_Fatigued_Minstrels_1883.jpg&oldid=335802594 (accessed June 7, 2022)


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Crafting Action and Violence #amwriting

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.

crafting violenceThe 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:

  1. Is this scene necessary, or am I just trying to liven up a stagnant story arc?
  2. What does this scene show about the world my protagonist lives in?
  3. Will this event fundamentally change my protagonist and affect how they go forward?
  4. What does this event accomplish that advances the plot toward its conclusion?
  5. Why was this event unavoidable?
Excalibur London_Film_Museum_ via Wikipedia

Excalibur London_Film_Museum_ via Wikipedia

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.

WordItOut-word-cloud-4074543Scenes 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.


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