The role of violence in storytelling

Heh, did I say a couple of days? I meant a bit more than that. But I, at least, had some good reasons — I’ve been working on my book again while also handling some potential job stuff. I don’t want to say anything specific for professionalism reasons, but I’d be really excited to get either/both. I could go from having no jobs to having multiple! Also, you can’t blame me for the lack of updates, loyal reader(s?), because if I don’t start getting paid at some point I won’t be able to afford to keep this font of wisdom flowing. And then where would we be? (Without over long intros, probably. Will they ever stop?)

Ok, so onto the day’s subject — violence. First off, show of hands: how many of you completely abhor fictional violence? That’s right, no one — because it’s great and useful. Oh, wipe that skeptical look off your face — I have reasons to support my claims. I’ll even acknowledge that fictional violence can be dangerous, though not for the reasons you might be thinking of. Let’s jump into it, shall we?


It's the one thing "Call of Duty" stories have going for them

It’s the one thing “Call of Duty” stories have going for them

It’s probably not that hard to understand why violence is useful and satisfying in “oh shit” moments. Just like in real life, it’s dramatic when people die or get hurt — especially if you have a connection to the people in danger. And it’s also super satisfying to see someone you love escape danger (or someone you hate choke on some lead. Or acid. Whatever). But using violence to make a point is far more nuanced than making you concerned or happy — it can communicate a lot about the story and the characters in it.

Imagine a story’s villain for a moment. Give him a gun and a hostage, who he’s trying to get information out of. First off, you already know he’s the kind of person who is willing to use the threat of violence to get what he wants. Then he threatens the person’s family to provide an incentive. The hostage gives up the info and the villain doesn’t hesitate to shoot them in the head. Maybe he even orders his minions to off the (dead) hostage’s family anyway, just to prove a point. But that point isn’t for anyone in the story — it’s for you, the audience. The writer wants you to understand that this character will go to extreme lengths to get what they want, but also that they’ll kill people for other reasons. Maybe those other reasons are spite, an appreciation of carnage, or a handful of other traits. It’s character development, and it’s far more effective than just having someone recap another person’s crimes. Show not tell, and all that.

But violence can be used to develop anyone — not just the people you’re supposed to root against. I mean, just think about it — how someone handles extreme violence says a lot about them. Will a protagonist break down the first time they kill someone or will they brush it off like it’s no big deal? Conversely, how do they handle losing someone to violence? They could be sad, angry — hell, they could even be happy (wouldn’t that be a curve ball!).

At the same time, violence can also be commentary on something apart from the characters. Perhaps the author wants to let people know he doesn’t like a particular vice. So, in his story, the character is brutally killed, ideally in the pursuit of the vice in question. That’s basically the author saying “HEY, DON’T DO THAT OR YOU’RE GONNA END UP LIKE MY CHARACTER. DEAD.”

Violence can also be used to do things like foreshadow future events. Going back to the villain with the hostage scenario, imagine a protagonist ending up in the same situation. The villain wants information from him and is threatening the protagonist’s family. The audience knows what will happen if the protagonist gives up the info, so there’s an increased sense of dramatic tension as we observe. We know that his family is toast if he talks, so we root for him to not give in. It also puts us in the same mindset as the protagonist, who (of course) almost never talks. So when they pull off some crazy shenanigans to escape and save their family, we’re not wondering why they knew to keep their mouth shut — it was our idea in the first place and it makes us feel smart to see the protagonist do something we thought of. It doesn’t matter that the author basically pulled an Inception on you.


Some men like to watch the world burn. Some men have a plan. Others, a gravelly voice.

Some men like to watch the world burn. Some men have a plan. Others, a gravelly voice.

Using violence does have its pitfalls though — and those pitfalls are the very reason many people like to blame real life violence on fictional violence. When you use violence just for the sake of making something happen, you’re being an idiot. If you are watching/reading something and people just explode or die for no reason, the person who wrote that is an idiot. This isn’t the sandbox mode of Grant Theft Auto V or SAW. We’re dealing in stories here. Even GTA-esque games have those (SAW movies, on the other hand, sadly don’t), and surprise: the writers use violence for a purpose. It’s crucial to treat every act of violence like a cliche comic book villain — as if you’re sending a message (like the ones we talked about above).

Of course, that doesn’t mean the characters have to know the reason for the crazy violence they commit. The Joker is a perfect example of, as The Dark Knight puts it, “someone who just wants to watch the world burn.” And characters with those motivations are allowed to exist, but no one needs to see them carrying out endless acts of violence unless it moves the story along somehow. Not only does it get boring after a while, but it can eventually start to get frustrating.

After all, if a character just went around shooting someone in the head every time they showed up and no one ever addressed why that had to happen, that wouldn’t even make sense. Eventually someone would ask what the hell was going on, and the character would have to answer. Their answer might not paint an entire picture, but it’d be better than everyone else shrugging the slaughter off like it’s no big deal.

What’s more, it’s important to be delicate when handling violence, because someone in the world probably experienced the exact thing that’s being displayed. People have had loved ones murdered, been raped, and gone through any other violent act you can think of. Don’t belittle their trauma by just tossing in something messed up because nothing else is happening.

Just remember that even if a particular character doesn’t think things through, the person writing that character should. Every action should have a reason, but violence especially needs to be handled with care. It’s powerful, but it can blow up in your face.


This is what being blown up probably looks like. It doesn't look this person is sleeping, and it shouldn't.

This is what being blown up probably looks like. It doesn’t look Sarah Connor is sleeping, and it shouldn’t.

This may be a more controversial perspective, but I think it’s a mistake to rob an act of violence of its weight. If someone is going to get shot in the head, there should be a huge mess after. If a crowd gets caught an explosion, there needs to be some limbs scattered about. If it looks like the victims just went to sleep, the violence’s effectiveness can evaporate. Like I’ve said, violence is a big deal, and it should be treated that way. Books should get descriptive and shows should look like that picture above.

“Wouldn’t that make people uncomfortable?” you may wonder. Damn fucking straight it will make people uncomfortable — that’s the underlying point of all violence. After all, you’re not supposed to be comfortable when anyone dies because getting killed is a sad, horrible thing. People often complain about the world’s youth becoming desensitized to violence, but that’s only because people don’t handle showing violent acts well. If people saw the true horror of what a gunshot wound to the head looks like, or the sad reality of an explosion’s epicenter, I think society would have a better appreciation for not being violent in the first place. I mean, if seeing people die makes you uncomfortable, there’s a good chance that you won’t want to see (or make) dead people in real life.

And then news outlets can shut up about how fictional violence begets real violence: a.k.a. we can’t think of anything else to report. Anyway, another post soon (see how useful it is to be vague?).


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