While writing Demon’s Whisper, the fourth in the Tales of the Thief-City series of short stories, I realised the series is unlikely to have decent fights. The style and the character don’t really lend themselves to extended fights (a shame as I like writing fight scenes). What fights there are will be short, sharp, and brutal, erring more towards violence than action.
Which led me to wonder how violent they should be allowed to get.
Violence in Media
How much does the debate over violence in media include violence in prose? I’m not sure I agree that depictions of violence can incite violence, although desensitising the audience to such things might be a more substantive argument.
Obviously violence in prose is different from violence in a visual medium. It can be easier to gloss over the harshness, allowing for a poetic description of the movements. Alternately it can focus more on the violence, with visceral descriptions of the damage done. Visual mediums can do these of course, but their strength lies in the momentum of the delivery: it’s easier to adjust the speed you read a book than the speed you watch moving images.
Violence isn’t unknown in children’s cartoons – for example, someone getting hit over the head with a giant mallet and only being knocked unconscious rather than their head cracking. If we get desensitised to violence from an early age, will prose really have any serious effect? [It’s been a while since I was a child so I’m unfamiliar with today’s cartoons, which may have had the casual violence sanitised out of them.]
The oxford dictionary defines violence as ‘behaviour involving physical force intended to hurt, damage, or kill someone or something’. While I can see someone as having violent intent, in terms of written violence I’m more inclined to use the term (for this rant) to mean achieved damage. This isn’t to say that all fight scenes aren’t inherently violent, but it can vary by degree.
Fight scenes, like all action scenes, tend to be fast-paced by their nature. Yet while fights always contain violence and are always action, action scenes aren’t necessarily fights, and violence doesn’t only happen in fight scenes – a torture scene can be more effective with slower pacing, and could well be more violent and disturbing.
Degree of violence in a fight
Violence in many kinds of stories is inevitable. As evolved as we are, our primal response to extreme stress errs towards the fight or flight reflex, and conflict is a fundamental part of stories (for many types of story I tend to write, violence, in the form of fight scenes, is expected. Not including it may disappoint readers).
In Demon’s Whisper the main act of violence turned out more crucial than intended. Originally it was a necessity to end the story, but it became more a part of the story, with effects that’ll probably last further into the series.
Does the writer have a duty to handle violence with care? To show it as abhorrent, or at least to show the effects of it? Should it have an impact on the story so that it doesn’t seem frivolous?
Or is the writer’s primary duty to the story, where reflecting too much on the violence is to be avoided if it affects the pacing?
And does showing the effects of the violence run the risk of being seen as focussing too much on such things, and bringing accusations of the story being grimdark? There’s a scale between fetishising the violence and having cartoon violence with no repercussions, but reaching either of these two extremes unintentionally would take some doing.
While something to be aware of, I’m unlikely to be guided by it. Stories have their own styles, with their own degree of violence, and letting the story find its own level is better than trying to force it to be something it isn’t.