Writing Violence, A Beginner’s Effort

I don’t write violence well, or at least not well enough.  I know this.  I also know why.  It’s not that I can’t ENGAGE in violence, it’s that violence to me is like sex.  Not being a voyeur, I’m not interested in every little in and out stroke (of the knife or whatever) and once the burner is fired, or the knife (eh) is in, I’ve lost interest and wonder off into the fascinating (to me) weeds of emotional reaction.

So, what is wrong with that? Plenty.  Remember how I said people don’t read because they want to KNOW the story (for that there’s Cliff’s Notes) but because they want to experience it?  Unless you’re writing romance — no, scratch that, some of the worst written scenes of violence particularly of women getting beaten I’ve seen are in Romances — or rather the sort of romance that’s a comedy of manners, you’re going to have some confrontation, action, at least a physical fight.

Yeah, part of this is being used to movies.  I mean even the A & E Pride and Prejudice had to throw in Mr. Darcy fencing and Mr. Darcy swimming (anyone got the drool mop?) to er… spice things up.

But a lot of it is the genre we write.  In fantasy and science fiction, it is simply not credible that you save the world, or the settlement, or defeat the big evil without the big evil fighting back, which is going to lead to violence.  (Yes, I DO know a bestseller who, when it comes to the big confrontation, writes the big evil just folding like a deck of wet cards.  You know what, I then have to make up my own battle in my own mind to even believe her books.) And in Urban fantasy, we really cannot believe these characters created for violence, vampires, werewolves, or dragons, are just going to fold up and take it.

A master at writing violence can hook you in and keep you going from the very first scene, taking you to every slash and parry of the fight, every crash and boom, and make you live it.  For a master class read the beginning of Larry Correia’s Monster Hunter International.  Also good is the Vimes-goes-bonkers scene at the end of Thud (the book itself is mixed) in which he takes untold punishment but will NOT lay down and die.  Think of it as your Inigo Montoya template.

This is not a master class.  I’ve been studying this for months, but I’m still an apprentice, paying a visit to my violence muse.

I could crawl, commando style towards it.  I could. But approaching the beastie across a vast expanse of expository prose will only bore the reader and give the monster time to ambush me.

I pop up, suddenly, from behind a clump of adverbs, and leap at the creature.

It is large, blood spattered, stinking of carnage and decay. Remember you must use your five senses.  Leap on it from above, yelling Banzai!  Yelling anything you want, really.  Sounds help us feel the violence of the clash.

Bam! I’m on top of it.  Its head is rubbery, slippery-gross, over what feels like a hard cranium.  Its claws reach up towards me: scythe sharp and about as long.  I lean backwards to avoid being known as “one eye molly” the rest of my life.

Argh.  Why didn’t I have my knife out when I leaped?  This is what comes from lack of practice.

“What a delightfully tender morsel you are,” it says.  “It’s been years since I devoured a lady writer.”

I have my knife out now — remember, idiot, scabbards with no clips. Geesh — and stab it in the eye while it says that.

It scream and blood spurts.  My knife comes out full of jelly-like stuff, and a lot of blood pours out in a geiser.  The monster shakes his head.  “You never learn.  Eyes.  I can grow those.”

It shakes its head and shoulders hard, throwing me, like a horse throwing a jockey.  I fly through the air and hit the far wall — since when does this place have walls — with a jar.

I can now see the creature as it gallops towards me.  Imagine a cookie monster the color of dried blood, with mad red eyes, and a mouth full of multiple row of teeth.  “Lady writers,” it says.  “Tasty and inept.”

I take stock of the situation.  If there’s a wall there’s other things.  And there are.  Just not many.  A horn of the sort used to signal distress, a pair of nail scissors, a… banana?  What kind of joker set this stage?

Stretching my arm, I grab the banana.  The monster is almost on me, its breath fetid and hot.  “Having a snacky are we?” I asks.  “I love banana flavored writer.”

I don’t bother answer.  Not much breath, anyway.  Instead I slip the banana under its lead flipper-like feet.

Then I jump aside.  It hits the wall with a thud. I have unclasped the sheathe on my other knife.  I don’t take it out yet.

Instead, I leap at the monster, and slam a knife into his eye, so hard that if it didn’t have a knife guard, my hand would be in its eye cavity.  And also sliced.  I suspect it can’t regenerate as long as you leave the knife in.

I then take the other knife out and slam it in its other eye.  It shrieks and flails, trying to get the knives out.  I pull its hand down, then jump on it, hearing bones break.  Then I do the same to the other.

Then I grab the nail scissors, nick the artery in the neck, where it runs close to the surface on violence-muses.  It is important to know your adversary’s weak points.

Finally I grab the horn and HONK because added sound is always good.  The floor is covered in blood and gore and ick.  It smells like a charnel house.  And I stand there, victorious, smelling of sweat and gore, and honking my little horn for all I’m worth.

The monster lies panting.  Finally he takes a deep breath and says, reasonably.  “You should have used the horn as a distraction before you used the banana.  I might have figured out the banana, otherwise.”

“I know,” I said.  “But I didn’t know where I was nor what I had to hand.”

“Mistake number one.  Always foreshadow.  You have a lot to learn.  See you next Wednesday.”

I sigh.  “Yep.  I’m gonna bring my guns.”


    1. Anything that is more active than mental, including smut can be more difficult to write because more involved. More stuff going on at once.

  1. Bwahahaha! Excellent! Yeah, I’m writing one right now. Explosions, shrapnel skipping across the pavement, staggering to one’s feet, where did that gun go?

  2. I have to choreograph battles and fights to music. Not in the scene, but I need something playing in my ear to help me pace who is moving how and where, with what effect. I actually “fight” some of the Cat Among Dragons fencing bits in my office, since I’m a left-handed fencer. *This* can be done, then the other guy does *that* and she does—Oops, nope, body doesn’t work that way so she’d counter like . . .

    One thing I’ve read in a few Large Press books is that the author and editor forget that humans have bones, especially in knife fights (?). No idea what’s going on, but the dagger/stiletto/hunting knife never encounters a bone. And in those stories knife wounds never really bleed that much. Ye Author and Editor need to spend Friday and Saturday night of a pay-day weekend in the ER parking lot.

    1. One of my husband’s complaints (and one of the first things he told me when I asked him for tips on a short-blade wielding character of mine.) was “They’ll have scarred arms.” He noticed when folk give their people scars it’s face and torso, not arms (which would be what people would be blocking with at knife range.)

      1. From reading about knife-fighting, not experience: If they block with arms and you’re ready for it, you can carve a lot of meat and tendon from their arm-bones in one quick slice. Which leaves that arm useless (hand no longer works) and bleeding out.

        1. Nobody blocks a knife with their arm. The reason why not will occur immediately you start thinking about it. Try a little playfight with rubber spatulas standing in for knives. See what happens.

          All the meat-heads and fighters I’ve ever met, and there have been quite a few, the scars are on the abdomen, chest, throat and face. Because those are your targets in a knife fight. Guts, head, major arteries and windpipe of the neck, lungs.

          Also, knife fights are short. Ten seconds, time enough for one or two passes. One guy is leaking, the other is running.

          I have seen a broken bottle fight. Two seconds, one to break the bottle, the second to stab the bouncer, then he was out of there like lightning. The bouncer dude, even though he was drunk as hell, was not going to give chase. Turned out to be a superficial cut, but he was done for the day. Because pain hurts, and a cut throat apparently hurts like the devil.

          Caveat for sword fighting, I’ve read some archaeology that the Romans liked to cut legs in battle. Short sword, big shield. Let the barbarians rush the line, then cut the legs out from under them.

          1. Check out the archeological finds from the Battle of Visby. Tells you a lot about what actually got done in the Middle Ages. Leg cuts were definitely popular.

            1. Ah, Visby. I’ve read about that myself. Wasn’t there at least one person who apparently had both their legs removed at mid-thigh by the same cut?

    2. Not so much choreograph, as stage block in my case. The full on fight scenes in the Gatch FF I’ve done have been drafted out by mapping the fight scene, using icons to represent the characters, arrows to indicate movement and notes in the margins. When that proves insufficient, I’ll try duplicating the move myself. Logic being that if I can [grossly] do the move, then the character will be able to do it. For complicated moves, I draft my sister.

      Fun times indeed.

    3. I do the same thing, pretty much–I pick a good ‘fightin” song and choreograph the fight to that. Though I don’t fence–I use my past experience in martial arts. Which means I write better hand-to-hand combat than I do, say, swordfighting. But I write better swordfighting that anything to do with guns, because I’ve actually read up/done a tiny bit myself with swordfighting and can logically see it in a way I struggle with in a gunfight. (By comparison, the few gunfights I’ve written tend to be brief indeed, because I’m stuck at the level of “find cover, aim, shoot”)

  3. You mean you can’t have your Hero face off against the Bad Guy both ready to fight, then have your Hero being patched up by the Healer saying “Man Alive! Bad Guy almost got me”? 😉

        1. Wonderful movie, my first exposure to adult animation.
          As I recall Evil Wizard was using old 8mm reels of Hitler speeches to generate an army of demons. Seemed highly appropriate that Good Wizard pulled out a German Luger in the final confrontation.
          Sorry for the spoiler, but most have either already seen the movie or really need to.

    1. But you can have them just stare at each other while they mentally play out each move and countermove in their imaginations and because they know each other so well. Darn, what was the name of that martial arts movie where the opponents did that?

      1. I know they did it in Game of Shadows, the Sherlock Holmes movie with RDJ.

        Do you mean Hero with Jet Li?

    2. Walter Jon Williams actually got away with that in, I believe it was Ten Points For Style, “I’d never actually seen one human being climb another before.”

      And there’s the ax dance scene in one of Ringo’s Ghost novels.

      You can break any rule if you’re good enough.

      1. Ah. A Majistral omnibus; I didn’t know there was one.

        Not one of Williams’ better works, but I’ll give him extra credit for the alien Elvis impersonators.

  4. More usually, I have the aftermath of violence in my books, rather than a blow-by-blow description – but there was one scene I was particularly proud of, where a woman with a long, long grudge finally catches the villain who murdered her husband by surprise … and shoots him five times – very carefully and deliberately – with a Paterson five-shot Colt revolver. I did have to consult with a reenacting expert over that one. The original Patersons shot rather small bullets … and she didn’t hit anything vital the first four times.

    1. Is that the one where the historical record has pretty much the whole town saying that nobody saw this killing in public, and that they had no *idea* who could have done it? “Worst case of suicide I ever saw.”

  5. In one of the Books of the Wearing The Cape Series, there’s a comment by Hope/Astra concerning superhero supervillain confrontations that goes sort of like the following.

    Most times that a superhero confronts a supervillain, there’s no fight. Because, most supervillains know what the superhero can do and knows that even if they defeat/kill the superhero, they have painted a big target onto themselves and other superheroes will be after them. Of course, the superhero knows that even if he defeats/kills the supervillain, he’ll have to fill out tons of paperwork and he doesn’t want to do that.

    But then there are the other times… 😉

    Mind you, in the books we see more of the “other times”. 😀

  6. One valuable tip I’ve learned is listening to veterans or law enforcement describe their experiences. You get a host of interesting little details, like how to scan a room for weapons or ambush spots, and how a lot of times there are simple instructions printed on a lot of military equipment, not because soldiers are stupid, but because in the heat of battle it’s hard to think.

    1. Anything can be a weapon. O2 bottle, or even inertia (guy gets off cot, driver slams on brakes), bottle, etc.

  7. One thing I absolutely hate is when a guy’s got his arm or leg literally blown off and he’s able to make an articulate speech before expiring, as if agony and shock don’t matter.

      1. I imagine that could be the case when someone is stabbed or shot and doesn’t know it yet, but I’m talking cases of full-on dismemberment by ordnance here.

        1. I know of a case where a guy opened a door only to be attacked by a man wielding a machete. The guy grabbed a baseball bat by the door and proceeded to put his attacker into ICU. The guy with the machete cuts? He was stitched up and set home.

        2. Next town over had that on July 4. Idiot makes sparkler bomb, blows apart tib/fib and crawls away before realizing why can’t move leg.

        3. I was going to bring up the boy who had his arms ripped off yet still called 911, then went and sat in the bathtub to keep from dripping blood on the carpet, but I just looked it up and he DID get knocked unconscious first, but I don’t know if that was from shock or if he hit his head, too.

      2. And none of that crushed-by-a-car-and-pinned-in-just-such-a-way-that-his-insides-are-held-together-for-awhile crap either.

              1. In Operaworld, you can always sing while dying. The most famous one being Mimi, who sings a long aria while dying from tuberculosis. In the lungs.

                (And to be fair, an opera singer has so much practice singing in weird positions with weird breath support, that in a world where everybody sang recitativo instead of speaking, you probably _would_ be able to sing an aria during your death rattles. But we do not live in such a world.)

                    1. If Shonen Jump published an opera, people would sing while spewing blood from their mouth.

      3. How much pain are we talking about, though? I’ve never suffered traumatic amputation, but have had crushing injuries that were numb. When I shattered the bone in my thumb, it didn’t hurt as bad as a sprain, and in fact I thought it was a misdiagnoses until I flexed it and it bent between the joints – and then I felt significant pain. I’ve had some injuries I didn’t notice until I saw the blood.

        There’s shock, of course, and unless there’s a quick compression of a pressure point and a tourniquet applied there’s going to be rapid blood loss and loss of consciousness. Still, the level of pain from some injuries aren’t what you think, and if you hit the right nerve, a minor impact can be more excruciating than a significant injury.

        1. Adrenaline is a wondrous thing. Your body can he in such shock you don’t recognize it at all. Never mind some apocryphal stories about stuff like pcp users jumping from 2nd story and running on broken legs.

          Real life is stranger than fiction.

        2. It’s the articulance on the spot that sounds so unusual. It never feels right: like a pitched battle stopping so the hero can expound with a speech.

  8. Why do I get the feeling that we will see that scene again when the collaboration you’re doing with Larry C. comes out?
    Or something very similar.
    Of course when John Ringo wrote Grunge with Larry I’m sure all John did was pencil in “and then violent bad stuff happens” and let Larry flesh that part out. John being such a timid romantic type himself. Hey! He did win romance author of the year a while back.

    1. Larry did write in his intro: “…there were a few scenes that… well, I’ll just say, my kids read these books, John. Those scenes can live on as apocrypha.”

      So at least there will be no, “Oh, Earl Harbinger, no!” moments.


      1. Oh but such an easter egg…MC opens door and just says this as earl walks by Marlboro in mouth.

  9. There are a finite number of ways physical trauma happens in a hand-to-hand fight. However, mood, atmosphere, environment can make a big difference. And, if you do fight in the real world, you incorporate your environment in your actions. (My aikido sensei always liked to point out you don’t have to bring the telephone pole to the bad guy, you can bring the bad guy to the telephone pole…)

    I wrote a fight scene in a (communal) shower. The floor was both wet and slippery (so even experienced brawlers goofed up) and had rough edges of tile that caused abrasions when someone fell or got thrown. Skin was slick with water and didn’t allow for good grips.

    Real fights happen fast. You get injuries you only realize minutes later. I’ve been boxing for years, and only now can I *barely* follow a pro boxing bout and understand what happened as it happens. I’ve also spoken with people who may *coff* have run with a violent crowd at a point in their lives, and they also say–real fights are over quickly.

    But *we* need our drama 😉 I like to use an observe-act-react structure, keeping sentences and paragraphs short and punchy, and repeat as necessary. “The Black Hat reached for his knife. Good Guy flung his coffee mug, missing BH’s head but spoiling his aim. He had to stop BH before he got to the donuts!”

      1. You mean its not like anime, where a fight between two opponents might drag on for several episodes?

    1. I once put a fight in a story that mentioned the protagonist being out of shape, dodging a knife but not a foot, and immediately cutting to getting her face ground into the carpet with her enemy kneeling on her back, trying desperately to remember how to get out from underneath. It seemed to work.

    2. The actual ‘fight’ is over in less than a second, but during the entire movie Doc and Ringo build up to it.

    3. While the fight can be rather quick, it can seem a whole lot longer. Every tight situation I’ve been in has seemed to last longer than it actually did,

      I used this in a scene once. The protagonist is in a desperate fight and is wondering Where are the guards?> They win by driving the sword deep into the adversary’s stomach, and slice it sideways as they draw it out. The guards are there as the would-be assassin dies. Then the protagonist learns the entire fight happened in the time it took the guards to come down the stairs. It just seemed longer.

      Note: One of my grandfathers witnessed a lethal fight in a hardware store where a guy ripped open a fellow’s abdomen with a scythe. The fellow gathered himself up, and with one hand holding himself together, picked up another farm implement and killed the other man. The doctor cleaned up the survivor as best he could, sewed him up, and sent him to a big city hospital, but there were no antibiotics in those days and the guy didn’t make it. My point here is that even though the guy was cut open, it didn’t mean immediate death because there was little damage to internal organs and didn’t strike a vein or artery. Had the scythe hit something significant, the guy would have died then and there.

  10. “I mean even the A & E Pride and Prejudice had to throw in Mr. Darcy fencing and Mr. Darcy swimming (anyone got the drool mop?) to er… spice things up.”
    Nah, that was in the book. I swear. 😀

    1. Did any of you see that nightmare-inducing giant statue of “wet Mr. Darcy” they were wheeling about the UK a few years back? I saw it in an article, and cursed the artist, because it took awhile for me to enjoy that particular scene again without seeing the Uncanny Valley twenty-foot tall version… o.O

  11. “I DO know a bestseller who, when it comes to the big confrontation, writes the big evil just folding like a deck of wet cards”

    This ^ reminds me of why I quit reading M. Lackey. Two and half books setting up a battle that never happened. Whaaa. I want the fight. I want the flying body parts and spraying blood. (well, that and the cut-out characters that she just moved from book to book.)

    1. That can kind of work, if there are plenty of other fights and if the supposed big finale is presented just right. I know Matthew Stover will sometimes end his books with the hero winning by a cheap shot or through tricking the big bad guy just when it looks like there’s going to be a throw-down.

    2. This is why I found some of David Eddings’ latter books so very disappointing: the good guys were *always* ten steps ahead of the bad guys. It got downright boring, and even when there *were* fight scenes…there was no tension in them.

      (And yeah, also why I mostly stopped reading Ms. Lackey–a whole lot of nothing kept happening.)

        1. That, too. And cookie-cutter characters who were the same as the characters in the last several books, just with the names changed.

          I’ve seen this before. I figure it happens when a writer has been a best-seller (or whatever) too long, and somewhere along the line lost a good editor who would smack them upside the head and say “NO ! This is terrible. I know you can do better than this!” It’s why I stopped reading Anne McCaffrey, and RA Salvatore, and David Eddings, among others…

      1. No, I didn’t put on weight – that’s just where my inner 5 year old boy is stored when not in use.

        1. And hours later I’m perusing, notice my own post, and am struck by the image of the inner 5 year old spring forth from my torso, like the alien from that movie. Maybe I should go to sleep before more disturbing thoughts occur…….

  12. I went to Westercon in 2013 and happened across a swordfighting expert demonstration. The presenter showed a fencing move he’d always wanted to see in print, where the aggressor basically impales the sword arm and cuts the tendons in the wrist. Nasty little useful trick, that, especially as you employ it before you really close with your opponent.

    1. Useful unless the defender does NOT react quickly with an edged weapon in the other hand; if he does, both may die. Rapier and similar sword-fights are wicked fast.

    2. I hear that there’s a move in Pekiti Tirsa Kali- a Filipino martial art – that does that with knives, sort of. It’s not a stab though, but slash. In fact, you’re supposed to slash not just tendons, but major arteries and the series of moves end with the attacker having inflicted damage to legs, elbows, and a major stab in the armpit. From what I read about it, every move is meant to be offensive, with the intent of taking out the opponent and not necessarily alive.

  13. Real life pathologists are always bitching that their fictional counterparts never get to have knife fights with the baddies, even though the baddies in horror flicks are always showing up (very obligingly) in the morgue, right in range for all the pathologists’ favorite knives.

    Pathologists like to cut through bodies. They may also have a few anger issues.

    1. Melanie Dawn had a physicians’ brigade in one of her books once. It wasn’t precisely intentional—they were traveling and had to fight their way out of trouble—but they were efficient and, as this was well into a bitter war, they were very, very angry.

    2. Hmm… the problem with something like that is that, unless the pathologist is actually trained to fight with the knives, he’s likely to find out quickly that using knives to cut an unmoving body is FAR different from trying to cut someone who is also trying to cut them.

      Which could make for an interesting little skirmish, especially if the guy survives (either by chance or by intervention, probably), and learns a lesson from it.

  14. “It shakes its head and shoulders hard, throwing me, like a horse throwing a jockey. I fly through the air and hit the far wall — since when does this place have walls — with a jar.” Where did the jar come in?
    When did the monster grab it, and did it throw the jar at you?

        1. But Joel’s right! As many a tinny electronic voice in a car tried to warn us, the door is a jar! Whether it falls and breaks open, or it’s thrown at the monster (or author,) something’s going to be able to enter, or leave!

  15. I’ve been leaving the Bad Guys off-screen for fights lately. I’m not really interested in what happens to them, I just want to see the robot spider shoot that spinal mounted rail gun. ZAP! Iron bullet at 10k feet per second. The gore can be left to the imagination, as can the drifting red mist.

    The over-penetration issue is an exercise left to the reader. ~:)

  16. One area where you may not actually have violence is man vs environment stuff. Think the Martian.

    One other thing to note is try not to bullshit the reader. Don’t try and go all Tom Clancy or Correia with weapon porn unless it’s right and serves purpose.

      1. the thing is… in A Few Good Men I liked them being called Burners and ‘just working’ with no explanation, my thought being that to the character and settings they aren’t fantastic devices just tools. Also, in that world, brands and caliber differences aren’t likely….

        1. There are some. Some are more utilitarian, some work in all circumstances (almost) but my characters aren’t into it. They just want to do what they want to do.

          1. What I meant was that there wasn’t a “Colt Pacifica 2100” or a “Glock 10kw” or a “Callahan Full-Bore Autolock”

            they are just tools, and just work.

            BTW, I *am* a gun nut and real “Welcome, Mr Nightcrawler” as it was posted. I just really like the way it worked in your stories as well.

  17. Sarah,
    I’ve read Noah’s Boy, The Big Ship and the Owl, Transhuman, and a few others. I enjoyed them all and think you handle violence just fine. Look at Heinlein, with a few exceptions (Glory Road, Troopers) his violence consists of (something) happened and little detail, then moving on with the story. This modern fetish for overly detailed fight scenes puts me to sleep. I wouldn’t strive to be something you’re not. You’re fantastic the way you are.

  18. Not sure why, but after reading this, I was thinking about things that a writer could do to practice writing violence. Seems to me a good way to practice would be to take a sporting event — the Olympics are coming up, there’s always football, soccer, and such? Or does American TV have competitions with teams of tv folks gleefully trying to climb walls, kick balls, and such physical events? Take one of these, and tell us what happens. Put us right in there, as the ball hurtles past the guards, and there… Yes, he headed it towards the net, but… It dribbled past the edge of the net, just millimeters outside, as the fans roar in frustration.

    Anyway, that’s my suggestion for practice in writing violence. Write a sports event!

    1. I like it. Also, I use the show American Ninja to see what extremes the human body can achieve without genetic enhancement. If they can do it, so certainly can my MC.

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