Writing violence in fiction: How much?

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How much violence are you writing in your fiction? Is it enough? Is it too much?

Fiction and violence

Nearly all fiction writers are going to have violence of one form or another sooner or later in one of their short stories or novels. Fiction is about conflict, and violence is one of the most common forms of conflict. Even romance writers will occasionally have a sword-slinging hero rushing in to save the day, or a pistol-packing thug as the villain. In horror, violence is almost a given. Violence is also common in much fantasy and science fiction. And what would a Western be without a revolver or two or a lever-action rifle?

But sometimes, for some readers, violence can be too much. It can be too powerful, even to the point of turning the reader off a certain story or author. Possibly such a reader won’t even finish the tale they were reading.

What can a writer do about this? How can the writer know when their fictional violence has gone over the top?

It’s not easy. In fact, it’s mostly subjective.

The writer has to take into account the genre in which they are writing and the potential reading audience. Violence obviously is a bit more acceptable in horror, for example. But even within the horror genre, there are many different levels of violence that could be portrayed. As examples, there is generally a huge difference in the violence as portrayed by an author like Dean Koontz than there is by someone like Joe R. Lansdale, a known “splatterpunk” writer. Koontz’s violence tends to be over fairly quickly and doesn’t focus on prolonged torture or gore. Lansdale, on the other hand, gets his hands dirty with the red stuff, then makes you do the same while smashing your face down in it.

Would you want your readers to have to deal with that level of violence? Maybe you do. There is such an audience for over-the-top violence. Some writers enjoy delving into the darkest parts of humanity, as do some readers. Some writers intentionally set out to be offensive, even going out of their way to do so, but even this has its place; if nothing else, such literature can get people thinking and talking.

Most authors, however, will not want to go quite that deep into violence. Violence is often a necessity in fiction, but the truth is the majority of readers won’t want to dwell on it. And that’s fine, too.

Writing goals

Much of this depends upon the writer’s goals and what they wish to accomplish with their career and any given piece of their work. Someone striving for more mainstream success should generally shy away from writing graphic violence. Horror writers have a little more room to work with, as to some extent do action writers, thriller writers and writers of Westerns. But even within those genres, there is much wiggle room. The best thing is to be familiar with your genre and its audience; this will help you know the boundaries of the levels of violence which you can approach in writing. And it can help you decide how far you want to stay within those boundaries, or if you want to leap over them.

And readers need to remind themselves what they are reading is only a story. It’s fiction. It’s not real. Yes, stories can have power, but only the power you allow them to have over you.

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A former newspaper editor for two decades in Ohio, West Virginia and Kentucky, Ty now earns his lunch money as a fiction writer, mostly in the fantasy and horror genres. He is vice president of Rogue Blades Foundation, a non-profit focused upon publishing heroic literature. In his free time he enjoys tabletop and video gaming, long swording, target shooting, reading, and bourbon. Find City of Rogues and other books and e-books by Ty Johnston at Amazon.

3 Responses

  1. Rob Adams
    | Reply

    My two main barometers are audience and story. Is the violence level and level of detail appropriate for the genre and expected audience? And, does the violence advance the story? I’m generally not a fan of violence for the shock value. The same applies to sex and the level of detail offered there.

  2. Charles Gramlich
    | Reply

    I started writing horror around the same time as the splatterpunk movement got going and so I can sling some serious violence and gore if I want. In splatterpunk, if you could make someone look away you counted that as a win. In horror fiction, and sometimes in other genres, violence can become an art form in itself. that said, these days I write mostly adventure fiction and it certainly has quite a lot of violence. But I try to mellow my gore a little more and I know a lot of readers can be turned off by it.

  3. A.J. Kinney
    | Reply

    I am all for violence that progresses story and character in whatever medium I am engaged in. What turns me off is excessive blood use. In television or movies showing a grizzly murder where the sticky red stuff is pasted all over is visually dull. In a book I don’t want to read “blood was here, blood was there, blood was everywhere,” that just seems lazy. For me a violence sweet spot is the one that tells less and implies more.

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