Back when one went to the video store on the weekend to troll for movies, it was commonly understood by all my friends that I should be left at home. One of the problems is that I have an incredibly thin skin for violence. Of course no one wants to be stabbed in a dark alley or caught in a bar fight, well ok I guess there are some people who might like the bar fight, but most people seem able to cruise through fictional violence unscathed, and find it to be a normal part of a balanced movie. For whatever reason, I can’t.
This limitation extends to a lesser degree to books. I don’t want to read about it, and I certainly don’t want to write about it. That said, some of my desert island books have passages of horrifying violence. The truth is that violence is a part of life, and when written powerfully and with purpose, it can give the rest of a story a depth and resonance that couldn’t exist without it. I’d love to write a book that’s on people’s desert island list, but I just can’t see myself writing scenes like those found in The Sparrow, or book one of the Outlander series.
On the other hand, I rather enjoy writing expansively about sex, and I know that such passages make other readers uncomfortable. “Why,” they ask, “Does a good writer need to go into so much detail? It’s possible for a deft wordsmith to communicate intimacy or subtler dynamics without descending into the pornographic.” My response to such confusion has been to observe that many great books have long passages of landscape description. These aren’t necessary to advance the story, but if they’re well written, they are their own defense. For me, sex is fun to read and write about, and violence isn’t. Both forces are central to life and death, and unavoidable I feel, if one wants to write powerfully about the range of human experience.
A few years ago I made the mistake of reading a Stephen King book: The Stand. Unusually for me, I wouldn’t stop reading it until the end, even though I hated almost every minute of it. I guess that’s a complement to Mr. King in a way, who hardly needs it he’s so rich and famous, but I’ve always been a sucker for post-apocalyptic tales. Even more unfortunately for me, I’d inadvertently chosen the more recently published extended version. I think “extended” was code for: expanded to include exhaustively detailed descriptions of the hideous and gratuitous violence that had already been dished out in the earlier work. I skipped freely through pages and pages of the vile stuff, experiencing a growing indignation that someone thought this was good to write, and that several million other someones thought it was good to read. All right I’m out of step with the zeitgeist: whatever. (Parenthetically, I’m sorry if I’ve offended any Stephen King fans, and I’ll say in fairness that I really enjoy reading his work when he’s writing about writing.)
Is it possible to move the reader with brevity and simplicity instead of excess? I’ve seen this done brilliantly in the context of sex and intimacy, ironically, or perhaps not, in The Sparrow. It contains non-graphic and understated passages about sex that were so beautiful they made me cry, as well as passages of violence so shocking that friends I recommended it to still hold a grudge. We live in a violent world, but as a writer, my concern is more with its effects.
Simplicity and aftermath: that’s where I decided to start. “A battle field is a terrible place.” This is a quote from a recently published chapter in my fan fiction story about the founding of Hogwarts. My terse description of the battle field is of how it seems to one wandering there when the battle is almost over, not of someone in the thick of the fight. Likewise, instead of vivid descriptions of a surgeon performing repeated necessary amputations, I state that a shield wall is effective, but leaves limbs vulnerable. Any healer hoping to be worth her weight in bandages needs to have the right equipment, and a strong assistant to help as she does terrible things to people for their own good. Too euphemistic? Overly simplified? Perhaps, but I don’t think I can do it any other way, and I don’t really want to.
Violence often changes lives: damaging them, or propelling them in directions hither-to unimagined. War dislocates people even if they’re not involved directly. How does it affect those who fight, or who deal with the immediate aftermath of suffering and death? This is what I’m still figuring out. It’s always bothered me when fiction, the written, or especially screen variety, treat violence as a plot mechanism alone. I begin to see the temptation of this easy course, but am determined to avoid it. I live a very sheltered life. However, I suspect it would be a mistake to assume that because people in, say, the Middle Ages witnessed violence much more often than I do, and were much more closely tied to the cycles of birth and death, that, therefore, they were indifferent to its effects. Its effects, nightmares, flashbacks, situational anxiety, or other kinds of personality dysfunction probably aren’t unique to our era. Writing about the consequences of these things can, I hope, be as impactful as writing lurid descriptions of someone having a gun stuck…, well never mind, you can read The Stand if you want more detail.
Sex sells; people love to read about it. Violence sells too, and people also want to read about that. I’m fine with keeping myself clearly on one side of that dualism. Having made that choice, I’m really enjoying the challenge of how to write powerfully and with resonance about both.