The Value of Violence

Last night I dreamt I went to went to Manderly again…

Actually, I didn’t, but it’s a famous opener for a reason. It sounds a heck of a lot classier than:

Last night, I dreamed I was running around with a bunch of kids fighting a bunch of other kids on a populated island, and then we holed up in a mobile home. I had just dyed my hair a blue that was both dark and bright, with streaks of lighter aqua and was thinking about how it really brought out my eyes when the bad guys came to the window and tried to get us. So this one girl lunged at them, a look of intense and horrible concentration on her face and the girl who was hanging in the window gasped as all her teeth turned to white chicklet gum and fell out of her mouth to the floor, blood spilling everywhere. So then they were really mad and their fists turned to small, flesh-colored cinderblocks, and they were duking it out with the intense girl and Clark Kent through this little kitchen window. It was pretty freaky, what with the block fists with the holes in them on both sides, but not wholly threatening. Until the trailer started to move and the slid across the packed dirt of the lot…

My interpretation: I’ve been thinking about action scenes.

The other day I talked about Monster Hunter International which is full of action. And that’s part of why I read it, because I’m not comfortable writing the fight scenes, and I need to read more and see how it’s done.

B and I were watching the special features on the Challenge of the Super Friends the other night and one of the things that kept coming up in the commentary was how there had was a period of relative non-violence for superheroes, where they’re tackling a lot of natural disasters and stuff, and that part of the awesomeness of Challenge is how they actually had cool villains to battle. (ah ha, tip 1, make it hard). Even so, they’re still not terribly hands-on and it is what it is.

In a lot of my reading, the action hasn’t been very hands-on, unless we’re talking the bedroom action (oh. yeah.). There’s been a lot of out-witting the foe. A lot of distance. The occasional surprise elbow from a spunky heroine that allows the hero to get the drop on the villain. So much threatening from weapons that are never fired that you start to wonder if any of these guns are even loaded. But, you know, it is what it is.

I don’t object to violence in my entertainment (as long as it remains entertaining). On the contrary, violence can pull you in, invest you, raise the stakes and make you feel the story like little else can. Sometimes the mere threat is not enough. The reader has to know you’re serious. Has to feel like you can might just cross a line–even if you’re in a genre where some lines are just never going to be crossed. As a reader, I’ve found the the shock value of a good beat-down is a way to get there. Wizard’s First Rule, by Terry Goodkind, is a great example of an author who just shackled me to a character with my utter devotion because he just kept on torturing the poor the guy and yet Richard would just keep getting up, finding his feet, and choosing to move on with his mission. (Of course, in subsequent books, he just pushed past my personal tolerance and I had to quit, but the first book will always rock.)

I think this is part of what’s going on with the popularity of paranormal romance. Certainly not all PNR is violent, but the fantasy aspects seem to lend permission to it, and I think we’re seeing more vivid stories and higher stakes than we were seeing in romantic suspense.

Or I’m just totally off base. I don’t know. I’m just yammering here.

Back to the Monster Hunters. MHI was most definitely hands-on, although there were also plenty of shotguns, grenades, and some anti-tank weaponry. Two things I noticed here:

1. The use of all five senses in the battle scenes. Carefully, of course, without getting in the way, but thinking about loss of hearing, the sound of screams, pain, the look and feel of spattering body fluids, the smell of battle, the dirt in the mouth,  rage, desperation… And delivering it all fearlessly as as a writer.

2. Sequences. These were rarely simple in-and-out missions with one fist fight to serve as the conflict before the prize. These battles started off with scary odds and then just kept growing. Just when you thought it couldn’t get any bleaker, something new would happen. Challenge after challenge after challenge, each one drawing you in, investing you emotionally as you turn pages to find out how the protag is ever going to get out of this and if all his friends will survive. So that by the time it’s over, you feel like you’re nearly as exhausted as the rest of the group.

So I don’t really have a conclusion. This isn’t one of those things where I feel like I know what I’m talking about. I just thought I’d throw out some observations about writing action and violence and see if anything bounces back. Got anything ideas?

Something else…

I really think that nothing helps you grow as a writer like a really good crit. The biggest thing that the indie movement has working against it is a lack of good editing. Editors are out there, but we don’t know who to go to, we’re concerned about the costs, will it be worth it, should I trust this person’s opinion of my work, etc.

I would like to have professional editing and proof-reading recommendations, but so far these have been services I’ve traded with friends since I’m lucky enough to have some BAMF indie friends. I’d love it if you would email me with your experiences using professional editing services. What you thought of the quality of the work, how long it took, how much was paid, anything about the process that a fellow indie might like to know. Email me with those stories, ask your friends to do likewise, and if I can collect enough info I’ll be able to present them in some way hopefully others can benefit from. Please specify if your editor work on your content, or proof-reading only. Please understand that I’m looking for client testimonials and will probably not include info sent by editors directly. Please ask your clients to contact me.



Filed under writing

22 responses to “The Value of Violence

  1. Of course this is something that I think about often, given that I love writing action scenes. For someone like me with enough of a background in martial arts that I understand it on a conceptual level (whether I can still accurately pull off a drop kick or not), I often have too much information in my brain for what’s going on. There’s definitely in my brain this sort of play by play of choreographed action. You’ve seen me do this on your last trip to visit where I drew maps and got in the floor and figured out how that fight scene with Joss would go sequentially. For my part, I also have a spouse with an 8th degree black belt who likes to help me choreograph, and then hours upon hours of viewing time of MMA fights, martial arts movies, etc.. And what I have to do in my brain is to really get that play by play clear first, and then think about it as a movie. When you watch a fight scene in a movie (a good one anyway), the camera is going to zoom in on details. It’s not JUST a matter of people whaling on each other. So you have to think about your camera and WHAT details are gonna be focused on–that’s where those five senses come in (that was a good observation)–because a play by play is boring to most readers and will bog them down–you have to pull the reader along with your verbal camera, showing them the most important parts–the strength and the weaknesses. And don’t be afraid to continually up the stakes. Punish them. Be a sadistic little writer. That means the payoff is way better in the end.

    • Great advice, Kait! The play by play can definitely get boring when it’s not done right, because we don’t care about the sequence of punches without those other senses coming into play to help us experience what they mean. You get that in a movie because of the acting, camera work, etc., but you don’t get it in a book unless the author gives it to you. It’s in more than just action scenes that writers often have a difficult time getting the important stuff that’s in their head onto the page, and often with action they’re so focused on calling the shots that they neglect to record that, thinking it’s somehow already there when it’s not.

      Getting the experience of it is a strength of mine, but calling those shots, imagining a sequence of events that flows and is actually interesting to read is something I really need to work on, so I was really lucky to have your help on Hush Money. Plus it was also damned entertaining and the hummus was excellent.

  2. I tried writing violence for the first time in Guardian Vampire. It’s HARD! I like writing love scenes, but the action is tough for me. I’m really going to have a challenge when the violence starts happening in the garden gnome story.

    When you are struggling with a certain type of scene, do you always try to read a book that’s got sort of the same scenarios? Not just with the violence, but with other types of scenes?

    • When I’m stuck on anything, I often go looking for things to inspire and then call it productive procrastination. I’ll tell you, when I was young and virginal and trying to write romance, I had to read a lot by way of research. I’m not sure any of it really helped as 80s book sex was really not much like actual sex.

  3. Claire

    DEFINITELY the use of all five senses during an action scene is essential. Excellent point/tip. I feel like that, more than anything, pulls you in and helps you experience the scene along with the character(s), rather than being merely a casual observer. I think that, above all else, is probably the most important component of writing an action scene, even more so than getting all the technical stuff right. Like K said, “a play by play is boring to most readers.” Sticking with the broad visceral details — and keeping those details as visceral as possible — is paramount.

  4. One of the key plot points in “Ravenmarked” is that the heroine, Mairead, has lived a really sheltered life in an abbey and knows nothing about defending herself. She asks the hero, Connor, to teach her, so I had to figure out how to write that. I went to YouTube and watched self-defense videos, and that really helped. I also watched videos on how to shoot an arrow (even though I’ve done that), which helped me get the form right for how he taught her to do that. And, my husband used to be in law enforcement, so he showed me some of the ways they were taught to control criminals. I think it’s a choreography thing. If you see it, you can replay it.

    And Susan, I totally agree with you on “Wizard’s First Rule.” Put any man in a room with a Mord Sith and you find out what kind of man he really is. The fact that Richard kept getting up and resisting made him an awesome hero.

    Good post. I love this stuff. 🙂

  5. Carolyn Williamson

    I remember reading an article by well-known mystery writer, Lawrence Block, called “Let’s hear it for sex and violence.” He does fine with the violence, but his sex scene consisted of three sentences of the hero cuddling on the couch with a woman. Romance writers do it better.
    The late Jack Bickham said to save any emotional feelings until after the fight. I disagree. However, a writer friend who boxed claims he didn’t notice any pain until the fight was over. I try to give my heroes and heroines pain while they fight, but spend most of the time having them trade blows.
    Carolyn Williamson

    • Just as general commentary, if you’ve got them in a real, SERIOUS fight, typically the adrenaline is going to totally obscure most sense of pain (short of stuff like broken limbs and very serious injury) until after the fight is over. That’s just biology and how the fight or flight response works. Pain receptors aren’t as active at that time.

      • This, to me, is kind of like the procedural thing we talked about a little while back. It may be that most people don’t feel a lot in the way of pain during a serious fight due to adrenaline. Still, we’re watching a fight play out on TV and what do we say? “Ouch! That had to hurt.”

        When you’re in an action scene, it’s not as though you’re dwelling on or describing any one thing in detail, so I don’t see a problem with using an occasional pain response in with the rest of it, if it helps engage the reader. The average person, possibly especially the average women’s fic reader, likely doesn’t have a lot of experience with fighting and probably isn’t thinking about the science–assuming that overall you’re doing your job and writing something absorbing that holds her interest.

        With all due respect to the gentlemen you mentioned, Carolyn, I sort of think that emotional feelings are less important to male writers, and to the readers who follow them, than they are to female writers and their readers. Certainly, it’s not an all-encompassing rule, but the I think the trends are present. Just like women need to have an emotional connection in sex, women may be more tied into what they’re reading if the author can manage to get some feeling in there without destroying the pace and urgency. So I support your view of doling out a bit of pain with the action.

  6. Lovely post. I’m saving this for later for all the points you bring up as well as the helpful comments. I don’t do action scenes very often, but I’ve tried my hand at them and it was hard. Much harder for me than sex scenes.

    I basically focus on the details rather than worry too much about describing what is going on. Hmm, that probably sounds worse than it is really, but at the same time I realize I’m something of a “sham.” I sort of wave my hands and distract the way street magicians do to hide the fact that I don’t completely know what I’m talking about. Then I do try to draw from what little personal experiences I have and add concrete details.

    I know that as a reader, I don’t really care for a play by play, just about some details so I can have an idea of what’s going on.

  7. christel42

    LMFAO. Seriously. I have the teeth-falling-out dream a lot. It’s stress-related. 🙂

  8. Jonathan Eli

    Great information. Thank you. I have tried to get it right in The Last Cabbandeum and my other book but sometimes rereading them I wonder. You have to look at it from several different angles to get all the process and what’s happening down. I appreciated being on the inside, in a way, of Lauralynn’s writing of Guardian Vampire and the original fights scene to the finished product. I feel very fortunate to have her working on my work.
    Thanks again, Susan.

  9. Pingback: Movies Are Our Friends: Fight Scenes – Part I « Builder of Worlds

  10. Joe

    I’m totally with you on the difficulty of getting good editing. I’m trying out a handful of professional editors right now on various projects, and I’ll try to remember to pass them along if they’re any good. Are you looking for line edits, copyediting, proofreading or what?

    The EFA is a good place to start looking. (

    • I think the aspect I’ve seen the least information on is editors who work primarily with the content rather than the text. Things like structure and pacing and opposed to grammar and typos. Thank you!

  11. Pingback: Writing Fight Scenes With Movies: Part II – The Matrix « Builder of Worlds

  12. Pingback: Writing Fight Scenes With Movies: Part III – LOTR: The Two Towers « Builder of Worlds

  13. Pingback: Writing Fight Scenes With Movies: Part IV – Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country « Builder of Worlds

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s