Pow! Writing about War and Violence

I don’t speak for everyone, but to me, there never was a more odious piece of literature than Homer’s The Iliad. It isn’t the ancient setting or the character names that include at least three lines of ancestry; nor is it the cause of such a barbaric, yet frivolous war (A spat over Helen of Troy). Instead, it’s the intricately dense, seemingly endless descriptions of battle—and to that effect, weaponry. Oh. My. God.Pass the screwdriver please; I’d like to jam it in my eye.

We live in a culture that loves action. In movies, the more explosions, the bigger the blockbuster. But in film there are special effects, visuals, sounds…muscled men. In books it doesn’t work the same way. And reader/writer types like us tend to prefer the meaning behind the battles over the mere portrayal of spilled blood.

I’m not ripping on Homer. In those days the story-telling tradition was primarily oral. Clearly the ancient Greeks fell some years short on literary technique. Centuries later, however, we’ve taken great strides in the formation of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. You’re out of excuses. It’s time to fine-tune your scenes including wars,fights, and violence.

Andy Fox → in Sculptures

Writing about War

I’ll admit I’ve never attempted this, but in college I took a course called Classics of War Literature. Later on in grad school, in a creative writing class, we practiced writing violent scenes. Based on my readings and writing exercises I’ll share what I’ve learned.

We know war is atrocious, but it can also be—as I once read—utterly boring. A good percentage of the time is a waiting game. Sitting, crouching, and preparing for an attack. Tim O’Brien, renowned Vietnam writer, and one of my personal favorites captures this notion in books like The Things They Carried, and If I Die in a Combat Zone.

That being said, good build up is essential. Dead, quiet time is great for character reflection, for basking in fear. Intensify the scene by including a stray bullet, a footstep, a cough, a shadow. After all, they say the sound of a killer climbing your steps is more terrifying the attack itself. Use this to your advantage in writing.

When the violence does erupt, it should be quick, intense, and powerful. The writing should convey total chaos. It’s also important that something changes as a result of the combat. Maybe a main character is killed or injured in the midst of the mayhem, but there should be no dwelling. In fact, it may not even be discovered by the reader until after the fact. Pain ensues, and the characters are now in waiting for the next onslaught. All is quiet again.

Writing about Fights (domestic, schoolyard, bar, or otherwise)

My novel includes a knock-down-drag-out between the protagonist and one of his heavy metal buddies. It wasn’t an easy scene to write; in fact, I rewrote it several times. After the exorbitant amount of practice, I noticed a few crucial elements that are needed to make “fight scenes” in fiction (or non-fiction) work:

• There has to be a good reason for fighting. If it’s two guys over a girl, she better be a special girl—good friends rarely throw punches over floozies. Unless of course there’s another issue at stake. Or if the two dudes have been firmly established as rivals.

• Generally speaking, physical fights don’t just happen out of nowhere. There should be a “testing” period before the match ensues. In other words, exchanged words, intense arguments, and smashed objects. In fact, a ‘fight’ may take an entire chapter to play out—just not the fighting part itself. Too much description of the violence (not unlike my favorite, The Iliad) can cause the reader to lose interest. Well-crafted tension building on the other hand, can lead to some awesome action.

• The situation should be emotionally charged. If it isn’t, you risk sounding cartoon-y. The fight should suggest deeper issues, reveal character flaws, or perpetuate themes.

• The less clichés, the better. Be creative. Go beyond punches to the face, or knees to the groin. Try an elbow in the eye. An ear twist. Finger biting. Really dig your heels in. Without fresh language to bring a brawl to life, your characters become robotic.

Like I mentioned above, create a perception of absolute chaos. The readers should hear the commotion in their heads as they read. There are ways to do this. Sound effects help—breaking glass, tumbling furniture. Other background noises may include a passerby yelling at the culprits to stop, or to keep going. It should be quick too. To the point of barely knowing what happened. Now that’s what makes a good fight!

Thoughts? How do you go about writing violent scenes?

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18 Comments

Filed under Characters, Plot & Structure, The Writing Life, Writing Tips

18 responses to “Pow! Writing about War and Violence

  1. My novel has a fight scene. It was a bit awkward to write at first–I worried about making it too cliché since I haven’t been in fights myself (not counting some pretty aggressive sibling wrestling years ago…). But I hope I made it realistic. It’s tough to write thrillers and not incorporate a fight scene or two. Great topic!

  2. I had a fight in my previous manuscript but I was worried it was either cliche or made my male protagonist look like a neanderthal. I think I did the scene right but I think it was out of character. Back to the drawing boards.

    • That’s a good point about the character coming across as a brute! I hadn’t considered that! I think if there was something that truly set your character off, it could be believable that he would fight someone. It’s all how you play it out.

  3. My Novel is chock full of fight scenes, fighting with my worlds magic system is a big part of the culture so its something I’ve focused on. A lot.

    While watching fights in movies is fun and provides some thoughts there is such a difference between how you visually convey movement and with written word… so now I’ve turned to looking more at how its written. I’ve looked at a few renaissance manuscripts on martial styles and I was amazed at how beautiful it was. I had spent too much earlier time looking at how us modern folk describe sword fights mechanically, so I could understand that better, but actually looking at renaissance manuscript the words were so evocative “Match your spirit while defending, and arms and feet with good measure, if you want to gain any honor…” or “like the sun the right foot must often come back, turning, to the place from where it first moved.”

    One thing I find that helps is to either draw or act something out… at least the general movement. When imitating a motion I want to describe I think about how it feels and if any of those feelings or motions can translate well to the emotional context of the fight. There is no fight without reason, and the physical blow are never the first stage.

    • Hi Elaine! So glad you stopped by. Thanks for your additional tips–you seem to know a lot about this topic. I know it’s in the nature in the type of writing you do. Nice idea about drawing or acting the fight out. That would give the writer a good indicator of whether or not it can physically work. I’m actually going over my fight scene in my head now and am starting to act out the movements as I’m sitting here. Very helpful!

  4. Awesome post!
    It’s funny that you mentioned waiting around for action in Vietnam (which I guess you could say I’m researching.) I just read somewhere that, due the to the Vietnam War being conducted largely from the air, soldiers experienced an average of 240 days per year of combat, as opposed to 40 average days per year for a soldier in World War II. No wonder our guys came back so shell-shocked!

    Anyway, I utterly fall apart in my fight scenes, although I think I’m getting a little better at them. I always try to get them over quickly, maybe because I hate hurting my characters! I have noticed that my eyes glaze over if the fight scene drags on too long in my reading too though, so that might also be part of the reason. I write what I like to read!
    Lots of good points here. This might make an interesting writing exercise.

    • Very interesting about Vietnam and World War II–I would have thought it was the other way around. Hmmm. I just keep getting images of Forrest Gump sitting in the rain. :)

      My eyes glaze over during long fight scenes too, and that was exactly my point in writing this post. I really believe the fight has to be emotionally charged, or else it becomes unnecessary.

  5. Excellent post! Great points made here.

  6. I’ve never written a fight scene. I know the first time I wrote a sex scene it took me several attempts to get it the write-right. Now, they are second nature to me. I had admitting this, but I only read Homer’s Iliad last summer. It was brutal, but did enjoy the poem/story and learned much about form in the process. I’d tell you I will never write a fight scene, but then again, I would have said that about fantasy, and last week I was taken away by muse and wrote one, and not a little one – 10,000 words. Great post. I’ve some place to come should my muse decide we need some Liam Neeson type action.

    • Sex scenes and fight scenes go hand in hand. It’s just too easy to screw them up! Glad you’re with me on The Iliad. I’m with you. I get the literary merits, and I loved The Odyssey, but it got to the point where I just couldn’t take it anymore. I’ve never written fantasy…I doubt I’d be any good at it. But its like you said, you never know, the writing has a mind of its own :)

  7. “…good build up is essential. Dead, quiet time is great for character reflection, for basking in fear. Intensify the scene by including a stray bullet, a footstep, a cough, a shadow. After all, they say the sound of a killer climbing your steps is more terrifying the attack itself.”

    I couldn’t agree more. Buildup is oftentimes much more engaging than the actual fight. And this is something I really miss in more contemporary writing.

  8. I’m not sure how I go about writing fight scenes. They just kinda happen organically, I guess. I’ve read a lot of heroic fiction since I was a kid, so maybe that helps. Whether my fight scenes are actually any good is another question entirely, but I’m working on it :)

    • Thanks for stopping by, Mike. I know what you mean. Initially my fight scene came about “organically” (love how you used the word) as well. But when I went back and looked at it, I could see how badly it needed repair. I’ve never read heroic fiction, but you’re right, I’m sure that would help with fight scenes. Sounds interesting.

  9. FYI – theres a good bit of advice – NaNoWriMo thread developing on Fight Scenes http://www.nanowrimo.org/forums/writing-101/threads/69288

  10. Thank you Elaine! I will check it out.

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