I am still in the final stages of getting 'Billy Ninefingers' to print. As you may have guessed from the title of my forthcoming book, I am well acquainted with violence.
Unless you are writing erotica or gore/splatter horror, random gore and rape have no place in the well-crafted novel. The key word here is random.
Blood and sex do have their place in some of the best stories I have read, and they were watershed moments in protagonists’ lives. Although those passages were difficult on a personal level to read, they were the moments that changed everything, changed the protagonists for good or ill, and were crafted seamlessly into the narrative.
Violence in the horror novel is all the more frightening when it is subtly foreshadowed and unavoidable, and occurs at a surprising moment. It is not random, not inserted for shock value or just to liven things up. This means you must plot your novel well.
I want to make this extremely clear: If the violent events don’t somehow move the story forward, change the protagonist profoundly, or affect their view of the world, you have wasted the reader’s time.
When it comes to writing scenes that involve violence, ask yourself three questions:
While some books open in the middle of the action, this can be confusing for the reader, who is at the disadvantage of no knowing what is going on. I prefer books that begin at a place where things are going relatively well for the first page or two.
The first event, the inciting incident, is the one that changes everything and launches the story. Because the best stories are about good people solving terrible problems, this incident has a domino effect: more actions ensue that push the protagonist out of his comfortable life and into danger. This peril can be physical, or emotional–after all, many things rock our world but don’t threaten our physical safety.
Either way, the threat and looming disaster must be shown, and the solution held just out of reach. At first, emotions are high, and the situation sometimes chaotic, and often the protagonist believes he can resolve the situation if he can just achieve one thing.
Because of experiencing these (sometimes) violent events, the protagonist suffers doubt, fear they may not have what it takes, and their quest won’t be fulfilled. From this point on, the forces driving the plot are a train on a downhill run, picking up speed, and there is no stopping it or turning back now. The characters continue to be put to the test, and the subplots kick into gear.
Within the overall story arc, there are scenes, each of which propels the plot forward, moving the protagonist and antagonist further along the story arc to the final showdown. In the early part of the story, each scene is a small arc of action that illuminates the motives of the characters, allows the reader to learn things as the protagonist does, and offers clues regarding things the characters don’t know that will affect the plot.
Those clues are foreshadowing. Through the first half of the book, subtle foreshadowing is important, as it piques the reader’s interest, and makes them want to know how the book will end.
At the midpoint, another serious incident occurs, launching the third act, and setting them back even further. Now the protagonist and allies are aware that they may not achieve their objectives after all. Bad things have happened, and the protagonists must get creative and work hard to acquire or accomplish their desired goals. They must overcome their own doubts and make themselves stronger.
Just when the characters have recovered from the midpoint crisis, another crisis occurs, the event that launches the final act. This final event is where someone who was previously safe may die.
Scenes that involve violence are difficult to write well unless you know how the action will affect your protagonist and remember to give the protagonist and the reader a small break between incidents for regrouping and planning. Action, aftermath, action, aftermath—often compared to the way a skater crosses the ice: push, glide, push, glide.
This requires planning on the part of the author, who must sit back and consider what events will be unavoidable and will change the characters for good or ill.
Understanding how to design the action scene and where it fits into a narrative is a critical skill we must develop if we want our readers to love our work. Events that raise the specter of possible failure also raise the emotional stakes, and keep the reader turning the page.
Connie J. Jasperson is an author and blogger and can be found blogging regularly at Life in the Realm of Fantasy.
I recently had the good fortune of having my manuscript professionally edited, courtesy of a NIWA drawing. I learned some things that might be of interest to other NIWA members.
I learned that reader interest can lag when there is “head hopping.” My opening chapter begins with the story told from the perspective of a grandfather, but at the very end of the chapter we see the grandfather from his granddaughter’s point of view. I can fix this “head hop” easily. I just didn’t know to watch out for this particular writing oops.
The editor also suggested that I write out a notecard for each scene and run a colored marker across the top, coded one color per character. I can then spread out the cards and see how the scenes flow in each chapter. In my case the scenes in some chapters came across as too choppy and it was suggested that I stitch together some of the scenes. I was advised that short chapters could work once we are well into the story, but very short chapters are distracting in the front half of a novel.
Finally, it was gently suggested that I take a look at the setting of my characters’ witty repartee. I had some clever banter going at a high terror moment and I hadn’t handled it deftly. Ouch! I quite liked my heroines pluck and cleverness but poorly placed is poorly placed. In the future I will look at clever exchanges with a more critical eye to make sure the verbal candy works. Writers are often advised to “kill your darlings,” and I may have to do in a darling or two to get my story fixed.
Thank you, NIWA, for making this learning opportunity possible!
For more on “Kill your darlings,” see this story:
Contributed by Ellen King Rice