Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Critique—VAD: Violence as dialog

Sharon Wildwind

I love my critique partners. I’ve had the privilege of being asked to critique a whole range of works in progress. Some were just so bang on I felt as though I was reading an award-winning book. Others needed work before they got to that stage.

After about the umptidith critique, I saw patterns. There were five areas that most writers—including me—oh boy, including me—needed to work on. Because they popped up so often, I devised a set of initials for the big five that I could jot down in the margins. The five areas are
• What body language? (WBL)
• Perfectly nice syndrome (PNS)
• Stop telling, start showing (STSS)
• Very special old pale (VSOP)
• Violence as dialog (VAD)

For the next five weeks, I’m going to blog on one of those areas each week. Let’s start with violence as dialog. Much of what I learned about using violence in writing was taught to me by a fight choreographer who works in television and the movies, and by my husband, who practices a western martial art.

Violence should flow out of the story. It is a dialog in which physical actions replace words. Plant seeds early and throughout the book for the characters’ ability to meet violence with violence. The character doesn’t have to be a martial artist expert or have super strength, but if a ninety-pound weakling takes on a motorcycle gang single-handed, with no foreshadowing, it won’t read true.

Start with something small: a character taking a swing at an inanimate object, or squashing a bug, or getting red-faced, uncontrollably furious when life frustrates them to the max. Show that they have a potential for rage.

Build in a physical component. Give them some regular exercise, a reasonable diet. You don’t have to send them off to the gun range or the dojo, but if you do, see how you can use that as a story element.

Build in an emotional component as well. Maybe it’s a fear of heights. If my character doesn’t like high places, I can get a lot more emotional mileage out of setting the final, violent confrontation on a swinging bridge, or the glass-floor of the Calgary tower, where there seems to be nothing but air and a sheer drop under the character’s feet.

Violence may be one of the lines your characters won’t cross, which we all know, really means they won’t cross until this book. Being the crafty authors we are, we’ll poke and prod and twist both the situation and the character until they MUST resort to violence. Watch the movie, “High Noon,” which is one of the best examples of how people behave when faced with violence.

Be as sparing with physical dialog as you are with verbal dialog. All violence should advance the plot. Match the consequences of the violence to the importance of the violence in advancing the plot; the violence on which the resolution of the story turns should have the most emotional and/or physical costs.

When violence happens, the body kicks into a flight-or-fight reaction. Time slows down. Senses become more acute. In extreme cases, beserker rage takes over and the person may not remember details of the fight. This is also known as a fugue or dissociative state and may cause the person to selectively forget the violent encounter.

If your character goes into a true fugue state, she may not have the capacity to remember the violent encounter because the chemicals coursing through her body may have prevented the memory from being laid down. She will, however, retain the emotional reactions to something she can neither remember nor understand.

All violence has physical costs. It must cost the character something, even if it is only having to buy a new shirt or make a quick trip to the doctor. Physical effects may take hours or days to appear after a fight. This is especially true with a blow to the head. Injuries may not be painful at first. Vomiting and the shakes are common a few minutes after a fight, as is an intense desire to eat uncontrollably and/or to have sex.

The effects of violence linger. It may take days or weeks to recover emotionally from a violent act, even if the physical consequences were minimal. Nightmares after a fight are a common reaction.

All violence should be a turning point in a character’s emotional life. A character may discover she loves violence, or hates it, but she should not come away emotionally unaffected.
Writing quote for the week:

In a series, as the character becomes deeper (more well-developed), the stakes go up when the character is exposed to violence. Part of the power in a violent scene has to do with where it takes place. ~unattributed quote from a panel member, Lover is Murder Conference, 2007


Darlene Ryan said...

"A character may discover she loves violence, or hates it, but she should not come away emotionally unaffected."
Thanks for saying that. I just finished a book where the main character was beaten almost to death and wasn't changed by the experience one bit. Argh! It's the first and last book I'll read by that author.

Joyce said...

Excellent post, Sharon!

I never thought of violence as dialog before. And I agree that the character must be changed in some way.

One thing that bugs me is when a character gets the crap beaten out of them, then in the next scene they run a marathon or look like they could win a beauty pageant.

Anonymous said...

I completely agree with both of you. One of the reasons I like Nancy Pickard's work so much is that her character is strong in the face of violence, but pays a price each time.