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.
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?