Writing rough stuff

Other posts in Rhobin’s Rounds

Rhobin’s question for July, 2018: How do you handle/use violence in your stories?

We live in a fairly horrible world, and the news keeps rubbing our nose in all the nastiness. When I read for fun or relaxation, I don’t want more of the same, so I won’t write it either.

At the same time, conflict, savagery, violence… it’s part of life, so if I want to write about life, it’ll be there.

The golden middle is, violence is a tool for character development, advancing the plot, and maintaining tension.

In real life, there is no “justified violence,” except for self-defense, proportionate to the threat. In fiction, violence is justified if without it the story would be unrealistic.


OK, enough of generalities. When I was writing Sleeper, Awake, I was determined not to have a villain. Every character was a good person, from the character’s internal reality. I still couldn’t get out of violence. Jealousy drove one young man to commit the first assault in a thousand years. My heroine, Flora, had flashbacks to savage rape by her husband. A giant bear attacked her, and she was rescued by two youngsters who abandoned their secret quest in order to help her.

Without these events, there would have been no story.


My latest novel, Hit and Run starts with a horrific mass murder of little kids, and there is a steady peppering of other violent events throughout the story. And yet, every reader so far who has chatted with me about it, or reviewed it, has been impressed with the positives: the reactions to these violent events. Precisely because of the violence, characters within the story grew, and became better people. Reviewers have said that they’ve been inspired to change their attitude to criminals, thanks to reading this story.

The same is true for Guardian Angel. The story starts with the aftereffects of violence. My little heroine dies because of violence. Major character Gerald transforms his life thanks to guilt over an act of violence. Without these events, there would have been no story. But the consequences of these actions advance the plot, force my characters to grow, and induce intense emotion for them — and therefore for the reader.

For me, this is the only legitimate reason to describe violence in my stories.

The same is true for other devices, for example romance. See my previous post about this.

Writing is not a photograph, but a charcoal sketch. The author uses a few bold lines to indicate action, movement, emotion — the full range of human experience. It is the reader who then fills in the details. When violence is needed, it should be there. To my mind, any more than that drags the story down.


I often get comments from other writers on these posts. That’s wonderful, and more please, but I’d also love comments from people who enjoy a good book, but don’t write novels themselves.

Please visit my colleagues in this round, and comment on their offerings as well.

Connie Vines
Skye Taylor
Anne Stenhouse
Fiona McGier
A.J. Maguire
Anne de Gruchy
Victoria Chatham
Rhobin L Courtright
Judith Kopek
Marci Baun

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About Dr Bob Rich

I am a professional grandfather. My main motivation is to transform society to create a sustainable world in which my grandchildren and their grandchildren in perpetuity can have a life, and a life worth living. This means reversing environmental idiocy that's now threatening us with extinction, and replacing culture of greed and conflict with one of compassion and cooperation.
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12 Responses to Writing rough stuff

  1. Connie Vines says:

    Dr. Bob, as always your posts are informative and compassionate. I look forward to next month’s post.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Bob, Thanks for your thoughtful and insightful post. I, too, don’t understand the need to write violence as entertainment. I did once see guidelines for writing Westerns which specified lots of violence. I hope that meant escapism for desk bound men, but not aspiration! anne stenhouse

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dr Bob Rich says:

      Yes, I refuse to read books that glorify violence. But one classic western sticks in my memory: “Shane” by Jack Schaefer. There, the violence is definitely a tool for psychological growth, and the message is one of love and caring.

      Like

  3. Rhobin says:

    Hi Bob. I think those who read your novels and learn how characters change due to violence also change for the better. You help readers grow into more compassionate individuals.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Dr Bob Rich says:

    Thank you, Rhobin. I’ve had a recent insight: every human on this planet is an apprentice Buddha.
    🙂

    Like

  5. ajmaguire says:

    I’ve found myself abandoning books that use too much violence and/or don’t seem to be showing an effect on the characters because of that violence. Amusingly, one very famous author who said “life is meaningless and full of pain” is among the list of those I just can’t read. It’s one thing to watch a show for an hour, it’s another to devote half a day or even week to reading something that dark.

    Like

    • Dr Bob Rich says:

      I am one up on you: I don’t own a TV! Haven’t had one since 1975.
      Stephen King is without doubt a great writer, but I just can’t read his books. I’ve tried, but am always stopped by “Why on earth would someone focus on this terrible stuff?”

      Like

  6. Skye-writer says:

    Bob, I love your quote about writing being a charcoal sketch – applies to all of our writing, but your explanation of violence to drive the story forward and force character growth also applies to other aspects as you suggest. Great post.

    Like

  7. Dr. Bob – your line ‘The golden middle is, violence is a tool for character development, advancing the plot, and maintaining tension’ is absolutely bang on. And I liked Shane, too. I have a very tatty first edition tucked in my bookshelf.

    Like

  8. Dr Bob Rich says:

    Thank you, Skye. Perhaps the worst thing of putting in too much detail is when some erotic writers describe the sexual act. Maybe some people find it stimulating, but…
    🙂

    Like

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