Looking for a quick way to punch up your narrative?
Need to kick off a scene with a bang?
Want to kill a whole lot of characters real fast?
Violence. I’m talking about violence.
Whether it’s hand-to-hand combat or a round of gunfire (or both), one of the least subtle ways to add intensity and conflict to a story is to add an element of violence. That’s not to say it can’t be effective, but that also isn’t to say that it’s essential. As hard as it might be to believe, there are countless ways to build drama and friction into a story that don’t involve guns, swords, lasers, or sweet, sweet roundhouse kicks to the face, and we’ll talk about some of those later.
For now, however, we’re going to consider when it might make sense to include violence in your narrative.
What genre is your story? Are you telling a thrilling political drama set in a cyberpunk, capitalist dystopia? Or maybe a magical girl space opera flush with Lovecraftian horrors from the outer reaches? Or some kind of pirate-robot heist? Depending on the setting and tone of your story, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect a certain amount of violence to occur within the narrative. Of course, if the genre you’re exploring is typically flush with confrontation and chaos, it could be interesting to subvert those elements and explore the space from a more peaceful perspective instead.
Who are your main characters? Are they used to violence or would it be new and strange to them? Are they part of a crew that looks out for each other or are they a lone wolf who’s had to learn to defend themselves? There are countless elements of a character’s backstory that could inform under what circumstances they might resort to violence. Understanding if it’s a knee-jerk reaction or the result of a slow-burning fuse will help keep their reactions feeling in character no matter how out of hand the situation (and potential chaos) gets.
If you’re still on the fence about whether your story needs more or less violence, I’ve compiled a few pros and cons for your consideration:
Pro: An unexpected element of violence can unsettle an audience in a sudden and visceral way. The moment can be as brutal or subtle as you want, but this really only works if the audience doesn’t see the violence coming. Bonus points if a pivotal character also didn’t see it coming--it’s an effective way to build an emotional connection between them and the audience.
Con: Too much violence--realistic or not--and you run the risk of losing your audience to apathy. You’ve heard the saying about too many cooks? Well, too much overly dramatic, blockbuster violence runs the risk of desensitizing your audience. Nobody’s really going to care if your heroes win in the end if they leave an impossibly high body count behind them. (Unless their ability to murder people is their defining character trait, then carry on Mr. Wick.)
Pro: Violence can be really funny. Intentionally farcical types or amounts of explosions and gunfire and blood can help keep a potentially distressing situation light and amusing. In other words, it keeps it from feeling real. This sort of thing is often used in cartoons--think Wile E. Coyote getting smooshed by an anvil after falling off a cliff and then exploding. Dude’s fine.
And in fact, showing people surviving utterly impossible amounts of damage can also lessen the direness of the situation, as can showing a character be utterly immune to the havoc they’re causing (bonus if a character beside them is just absolutely losing their mind.)
Con: The world is already a pretty violent place. I don’t have much to say about this point, except to ask, what is your depiction contributing?
More on that next time!