Bam! Smack! Pow! Tips for Writing Violence
by Elizabeth Blake
If your book contains action, then chances are you’ve agonized over how to make a fight scene engaging and titillating for your reader.
Here are some quick and dirty tips for including quality violence in your writing.
Consider your genre.
If you’re writing high-concept fantasy sagas, there’s a lot more room allotted for acrobatic nonsense. Flips and spins and triple-helix spirals, somersaults and walking on moonbeams. Basically, wire-fu choreography is allowed in magical kingdoms.
Westerns utilize very straightforward violence. Simple: drawing first, shooting first, or shooting better. General punching and rolling around, nothing too complex. In this world, men rely more on their strength of character to win a fight.
In a supernatural romance genre, especially when the author and audience are female, the fights tend to go one of two ways: Either they’re overly technical, with a blow-by-blow catalog, or the struggle is a quilt-work of disconnected ideas designed so the hero can swoop in.
Here are some things I’ve learned about the place where writing and fighting overlap.
Violence is messy. And fast.
This is especially true if the victim is generally unprepared, untrained, or unaware. Even experienced characters can be caught unaware by sudden violence. And the more abruptly something happens, the more startling it is.
Using this type of violence in your novel can be extremely effective or poignant, but too much of it can distract or alienate your readers. One of my favorite examples of good, sudden violence was written by John Sanford for his Lucas Davenport series. A character who has played a key role in the series for two decades is abruptly and lethally shot in the head with very little foreplay. Bam; and that’s the end of her. It was a devastating piece of realism.
Flow and pacing make a huge difference.
Keep the action flowing. Choose verbs that pop. Beware of using too much detail that will slow the action. Vary your sentence length. An action scene without action is like writing a love scene where the character fondles someone’s thumb for two chapters. The story needs to progress and characters need to engage with the activity that is happening to them.
Make sure your characters react in a way that’s true to their experience.
People who have never seen violence or ever been in a fight often freeze, turtle-up, or panic. If you have an inexperienced or young character, significant hesitation should be evident. I think this is especially important for writers of YA to consider. Unless your main character has been rumbling on the mats since the third trimester, they shouldn’t be able to do much more than flail and panic until they’ve had serious training.
Most people will react in the following ways: fight, flight, or submission. If your character is a total badass whose first instinct is to fight like a Navy SEAL, their backstory should support it with years of training, conditioning, and experience. Otherwise, there is a spectrum of responses to play with, but be wary of the character’s credibility.
Sometimes it’s more realistic – and more fun – if characters fight dirty.
When it’s life and death, the fight needs to reflect the urgency of the situation. The options are endless: eye-gouges, head strikes, joint destruction, disabling. Do beware, however: most readers like their heroes to be chivalrous. If your protagonist uses a dirty fighting style too often, their reputation can take a hit – even if they’re just doing what they must to survive.
If you want a quick glimpse into the dirty-boxing world, Panantukan is a popular example of this no-holds-barred fighting style.
A few more thoughts…
Like anyone else, I go through bouts of extreme laziness. When I finally get my duff in gear, I like to play rough: rock climbing, boxing, wrestling, and alarmingly brief dalliances with wing chun and ken po. Tonight I went to my first ever Escrima class (Filipino stick & knife fighting) and it brought several old lessons back into sharp focus.
First, good footwork is important. Losing awareness of your balance or surroundings for an instant can give your adversary the perfect opening.
Second, getting hit hurts. A lot. Fists, elbows, knees, sticks: it all sucks. Sometimes the impact is there and the breath is gone and you’re still trying to figure out how that happened while you’re flying through the air toward a mat.
Also, separating pain from damage takes time, and adrenaline dulls the edge. But adrenaline always wears off.
Third, weird things happen. Moves that shouldn’t work do. Moves that should work don’t. I’ve seen someone get knocked out cold without ever hitting their head. Curve balls happen, and you can play with some of these possibilities in your work.
While most of this advice is about hand-to-hand striking, I need to take one parting shot: please know the difference between a clip and a magazine. They are not and should never be considered synonymous.
Elizabeth Blake is a complex woman. She’ll tell you that she’s not that complicated, that her demands are simple: Coffee, good books, freedom, world domination… Elizabeth Blake is a sorceress of stories, a lover of letters. If you want to get to know her, visit The Mind & Heart of Elizabeth Blake, pick up her books, follow her on social media, buy her a cup of coffee or a glass of wine.