Graphic Writing: Violence
The worst thing anyone can do when writing violence is worry about it. That just causes it to be either overly-descriptive, or too detached and therefore not interesting. This is a guide to alleviate that worry and help write about violence in a way that is accessible, visceral, and most of all, not cringe-inducing.
This essay contains graphic descriptions of violence.
To write about violence effectively you need to be confident in your words and what you want to put across; readers can tell if you are holding back or worried. That’s not to say your writing has to be explicit or graphic—you can write about violence subtly, insinuating rather than explaining—but rather that you must hold your nerve and not shy away from difficult paragraphs.
The words you use when writing about violence are essential to get right. It would be easy to slip into the trap of turning everything into a simile or metaphor (‘the crimson river flowed from her neck as she choked on the red tide’, ‘his arm snapped like a twig’) but—like all aspects of writing—less is more, and the fewer of these you use the more impact each will have. As such, try and avoid using clichés where at all possible: does his arm snap like a twig, or does the bone crack and break like a rotten branch in the middle of winter? Make it memorable; don’t just use imagery for the sake of it.
Some writers like to use medical terminology when describing the effects of violence. Unless your character is a medical professional, I’d suggest avoiding this. Others go for overly-descriptive, flowery language. It does sound nice, but does it work in the scene? Just use the words your character would use. Would they say ‘arterial gush’, ‘fountain of scarlet’, or ‘spray of blood’?
And, my brothers, it was real satisfaction to me to waltz—left two three, right two three—and carve left cheeky and right cheeky, so that like two curtains of blood seemed to pour out at the same time, one on either side of his fat filthy oily snout in the winter starlight.
A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
The distinct voice of Alex, Burgess’ narrator, is not broken for a moment, even when partaking in what likes to call ‘ultraviolence’ such as this. The choice of words defines the character as much as his actions, and by using this style Burgess’ novel stays with you long after completing it.
The other side of violence is the emotional, internal aspect. As well as using the right words to show what is happening, you also need to show how it affects those involved. How does the perpetrator feel when carrying out this violent act? How does the victim feel? If it is unintentional (for example, part of a building falling on your character) then how does the person involved react, both externally and internally? The main question you need to keep asking yourself, always, is ‘how do they feel?’
Freddie knocked on the door. The handle turned. It was locked. Tom picked up a heavy glass ashtray. He couldn’t get his hand around it, and he had to hold it by the edge. He tried to think just for two seconds more: wasn’t there another solution? What would he do with the body? He couldn’t think. This was the only way. He opened the door with his left hand. His right hand, with the glass ashtray, was pulled back and down.
Freddie came into the room. “Listen, would you mind telling…”
The hard edge of the ashtray hit the middle of his head. Freddie looked shocked. Then his knees bent and he went down like a bull hit between the eyes with a hammer, Tom kicked the door shut. He slammed the edge of the ashtray into the back of Freddie’s neck. He hit the neck again and again, scared that Freddie might be only pretending and that one of his great arms might suddenly grab his legs and pull him down. Then he felt Freddie’s wrist for a pulse. There was a faint one, though it seemed to stop as he touched. In the next second it was gone.
The Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith
In this scene Ripley questions whether he should murder Freddie, but as he cannot come up with a more agreeable solution in the heat of the moment he goes ahead with it anyway. Highsmith shows both his uncertainty over whether to kill, but also his complete acceptance that taking a life is justifiable and, to some extent, reasonable, using simple language and without any embellishment, thereby maintaining the tension. That internal conflict, plus the precise yet aggressive violence he enacts with both fury and an overwhelming calm, perfectly encapsulates the psychopathic tendencies of Ripley himself.
The language of a scene not only delivers the story, but shapes it in a way that elicits a reaction from the reader. Use it to your advantage by showing what you need to, and let the reader’s imagination fill in the gaps.
The main criticism with violent scenes, particularly in action or adventure novels, is how good at dealing with it everyone always is. Real life isn’t always like that. As a writer, you work hard to ensure your dialogue is realistic, your characters’ actions are realistic, so why not make the violence realistic?
Luca reacted instantly, his body slipping off the bar stool and trying to twist away. But Sollozzo had grabbed his other hand at the wrist. Still, Luca was too strong for both of them and would have broken free except that a man stepped out of the shadows behind him and threw a silken cord around his neck. The cord pulled tight, choking off Luca’s breath. His face became purple, the strength in his arms drained away. Tattaglia and Sollazzo held his hands easily now, and they stood there curiously childlike as the man behind Luca pulled the cord around Luca’s neck tighter and tighter. Suddenly the floor was wet and slippery. Luca’s sphincter, no longer under control, opened, the waste of his body spilled out.
The Godfather by Mario Puzo
Here, Puzo has presented Luca as a strong, powerful character, yet instead of imbuing him with superhuman strength that allows him to break the garrotte and escape from certain death, he is subdued and dies. Not only is his death violent but also calm, as it is told almost from the view of the witnesses who are more curious than disturbed by the murder. There is also incredible realism in terms of the physical reaction to strangulation, making Luca’s death humiliating and unforgivable.
Realism can be both the actions of your characters, and their reactions. For example, if you are writing about a Navy SEAL who has spent the last decade carrying out extremely dangerous missions behind enemy lines, there’s a good chance they’ll be able to handle being shot in the shoulder and carry on taking out henchmen whilst breaking into the villain’s lair. However, why do people always get shot in the shoulder? No one actually aims for the shoulder—they aim for the head or the central body mass: the chest and stomach, where the most damage will be caused. And if your character is not a Navy SEAL but instead, say, an accountant thrust into a world of espionage by accident, who gets shot in the shoulder, they may have a rush of adrenaline to get them out of the situation but as soon as that wears off they will be in a lot of pain and unable to function properly.
Eric turned round and swung the axe at me. I ducked and rolled. I landed and jumped up, ready to spring away, but he was back smashing the axe into the door again, screaming with each massive blow as though he was the door. The axe head disappeared through the wood, became stuck; he wriggled it mightily and got it out, glanced back at me and then heaved the axe at the door again. The flames from the torch threw his shadow at me; the torch lay propped against the side of the door and I could see the new paint had started burning already. I got my catapult out. Eric had the door almost down. My father still hadn’t shown. Eric glanced back at me again then smashed the axe into the door. A sheep cried out behind us as I fumbled for a steelie. I could hear the crackling of fires on all sides and smell roasted meat. The metal sphere fitted into the leather and I pulled.
The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks
This scene is both violent and realistic, as Frank, the narrator, is battling with Eric. There are no guns or car chases, just a catapult with some ball-bearings and an axe, yet it is just as tense as a shootout as the dynamics are the same. The realism in the scene makes it all the more plausible; someone chopping your front door down with an axe is so much more terrifying as it has a greater potential to happen.
Research always helps when redrafting, and violent scenes are no exception. That’s not to say that your story must adhere to the physical rules of this world, but it must follow the rules of its own universe. The most realistic parts of violence, however, must be the individuals involved. How they experience and react to what is happening is key to your reader maintaining their suspension of disbelief and remaining within the story you are telling.
A lack of tension is the downfall of all bad violent scenes; but this can be solved with the pacing of the scene. There is often a temptation to overly describe the acts of violence by going into intense detail about who does what and the physical results, but that level of description can kill the pacing of what should be an exciting and visceral scene. Using short sentences or clauses and breaking up actions with punctuation, coupled with bare-bones action and a lack of embellishment, can create strong tension and bring the violence to the fore. Additionally, maintaining a solid paragraph can add to the momentum, and selecting short, simple words with harsh syllables can emphasise the brutality of the moment.
With a single sharp thrust, the nearest gold cloak drove his spear into Tomard’s back. Fat Tom’s blade dropped from nerveless fingers as the wet red point burst out through his ribs, piercing leather and mail. He was dead before his sword hit the floor.
Ned’s shout came far too late. Janos Slynt himself slashed open Varly’s throat. Cayn whirled, steel flashing, drove back the nearest spearman with a flurry of blows; for an instant it looked as though he might cut his way free. Then the Hound was on him. Sandor Clegane’s first cut took off Cayn’s sword hand at the wrist; his second drove him to his knees and opened him from shoulder to breastbone.
A Game of Thrones by George RR Martin
Martin’s description of violence here is both graphic and subtle, as by using words such as ‘cut’ and ‘opened’ he insinuates steel tearing through flesh without laying it all out on the page. The scene is both brief and memorable, retaining a sense of horror whilst keeping up the pace of the story.
Imagine you are watching a film adaptation of the scene you are writing. Is it a fast-paced, hectic sequence? If so, write it as one. Are you instead imagining one slow-motion punch and the subsequent teeth-shattering impact? If you are, that is how you express it on the page. Pacing can make or destroy a scene, and whilst there is a time for dwelling upon the moment, breakneck violence deserves to be described as such.
Jason grabbed the man by the neck, clawing at his throat, yanking him up off the seat. Then he raised his bloody left hand and thrust it forward, smearing the area of the killer’s eyes. He released the throat, surging his right hand down towards the guns on the seat. Bourne gripped a handle, shoving the killer’s hand away; the man screamed, his vision blurred, the gun out of reach. Jason lunged across the man’s chest, pushing him down against the door, elbowing the killer’s throat with his left arm, grabbing the wheel with his bloody palm. He looked up through the windscreen and turned the wheel to the right, heading the car towards a pyramid of rubbish on the pavement.
The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum
Ludlum’s use of pacing in this sequence allows him to build layers within the violence as it escalates and the stakes are raised. The car is already in motion, but as the fight intensifies the scene accelerates; words become shorter and blunter, the actions almost descending into a list, and all superfluous words are removed to power the scene forward into the inevitable and destructive crash that follows.
Tension is the backbone of all stories, but in scenes of violence it must be at the forefront of your writing. Use it to both captivate and shock your readers, evoking the same chemical reactions within them as your characters are experiencing. Good writing tells a story, but great writing brings you into it.
Seb Reilly is a writer, fiction author and occasional musician. He lives by the sea in Thanet, Kent, with his family and two cats.