Fictional Violence

Okay, so despite the recognition that I am now writing this in a fishbowl, which just serves my already-prevalent paranoia and chronic though sometimes well-masked shyness, I have to ask my fellow Goats how you deal with the problems of writing real, honest-to-God violence into your fiction--instances of people being horrible to each other, and not by accident. I've noticed that many of the stories I admire tend to handle the violence off-stage: it's related by someone who wasn't there, for instance, but who heard about it secondhand. I like this because it tends to dampen the effect a bit, but sometimes it can also seem dishonest.

Where have you seen on-stage violence done really well in fiction, by the narrator, and without flinching? I'm suddenly thinking I have to read Denis Johnson again because of the Shepard talk, but where else? What elements are necessary to keep violence from sliding into melodrama, for example?

I seem to be having a good deal of difficulty with this issue at the moment, even though the violence in my current project seems to be necessary, even cathartic. The hurdle is coming at a most inconvenient moment and I need to get over it in a hurry. Therefore I turn to you, O sages, and ask humbly for what advice you may have to offer. Lurkers are also welcome to weigh in if they have thoughts on the subject.

Thanks in advance.


Pete said...

Time is what gets me. Violence is usually pretty quick (unless it's torture, I guess). It strains POV, then, to write it clearly and honestly without slowing it down. For this reason, I think short, clipped, forthright sentences are best. You don't want to overdescribe, but you don't want to cheat the intensity of it. Sometimes i think of it as a starburst.

ian said...

It might depend on the context. If the character committing the violent act han't, until then, been prone to violence—or if the moment itself doesn't, at first glance, seem like it's leading to violence—then I think the understated approach that Pete suggested might be best. The shock of the act occurring will carry the scene's power. Come to think of it, that might also be true if it's clear a violent act is about to occur.

Here's how Dosotoevsky does Raskolnikov's killing of the old lady (which we've known is coming for a while) at the beginning of Crime & Punihsment, the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation:

He could not waste even one more moment. He took the axe all the way out, swung it with both hands, scarcely aware of himself, and almost without effort, almost mechanically, brought the butt-head down on her head. His own strength seemed to have no part in it. But the moment he brought the axe down, strenght was born in him....

It goes on from there, and we do get the image of blood pouring out of the old woman "as from an overturned glass," but everything after that 'graph is, in my reading, anticlimatic. The scene's tension has been released.

Of course, the opposite way to do violence—and it almost never works—is with dark humor. See just about any episode of the Sopranos for that.

kclou said...

Philip Roth offers an interesting approach toward the end of _The Plot Against America_. I'd refer you to the pages if I had the copy before me, but basically what he does is offer not the event but the event as seen through a detailed study of its aftermath. It's not off-stage, but it's not exactly in scene, either. I found it original and persuasive.

Interestingly, he handles the ending in a not entirely dissimilar fashion, and I don't think it works well at all (as if the final pages are an afterthought). But the violence scene I like. It's a pretty gruesome one, too.

PJKM said...

A lurker writes: I recently read a novella by Alessandro Baricco called "Without Blood" that begins with a scene of quite horrific violence, handled with a very spare simplicity - really well done.

And this week I read "Saturday", Ian McEwan's new novel, which includes two scenes of violence on a more domestic scale - for me, always more scary. One is on the street, and one during a home invasion. McEwan conveys the menace of the violent encounters, almost worse than the actual physical acts of violence themselves. It's an absolutely brilliant book.

We were discussing this in class today - how to avoid melodrama. I think that happens when you let go of everything but the violent action - i.e. lose control over the subtlety of your language and characterization.

segall said...

As long as McEwan's on topic, the death-by-hot-air-balloon scene in Enduring Love, while not a typical instance of violence, is as graphic and horrifying as you could want.

I'm also quite partial to the shooting scene in Stanley Elkin's The Living End, which is grimly understated.

And if you want to go for broke, there's always the Tralala section from Last Exit to Brooklyn. Always good for a chuckle. Read it out loud to the whole fam.

(I guess this little cataloguing is an extended way of say I've never had the cojones to try writing the violence myself...)

TLB said...

These are some great suggestions--some to reread right away, and some to catch up when I have a moment. I'm starting to think maybe the problem is partly that I haven't set it up well enough yet to justify it. That seems to be the big problem in all my fiction, to be honest.

Slowing it down, check. Spareness, check check. I forgot about Raskolnikov, Ian--good call, I love Crime and Punishment. Those Russians really know their violence.

PJKM, my dear, you are never a lurker. Gabba gabba one of us.

dunkeys said...

I agree w/Ian; "Effective" violent writing is highly dependent on context -- type of violence and intended effect, right? Do you mean a narrator describing something physically or emotionally violent that he/she has done? How do you want to us to feel about the narrator? Or is it a third-person scene, and do you want the violence to turn us against a character, or toward another? And so on.

I doubt that's helpful, but the examples of great violent passages in literature are so varied and wide-ranging that it's hard to pick a few.

The end of "A Good Man is Hard to Find" certainly comes to mind -- the near/distant terror of the family being killed. Paul Bowles: scenes in _The Sheltering Sky_ and "A Distant Episode," for example. The entire narrative of _Lolita_ is shockingly violent. The opening chapter of your fave novel, _The Lovely Bones_. _Blood Meridian_ is a violent book about violence. The letters of _Les Liaisons Dangereusus_. Shakespeare.

One of my personal favorites is the death of the main character at the end of _Under the Volcano_. It's absolutely horrifying; it's written twice, even, in two chapters, from two perspectives . . . and Lowry makes it pretty beautiful and terrible.

Hope that helps!

dunkeys said...

And was anyone else surprised at how lazily written the Dostoevsky passage is? "Scarely aware of himself"? "Almost without effort"? "Almost mechanically"?


ian said...

Actually, dunkeys, you get a lot of that in properly translated Dostoevsky. Characters almost doing this and that, breathless, slamming doors, etc. From what little I know of his biography, I gather he composed aloud—he dictated The Gambler in a month!—which from my own writing experience tends to lead to the sort of qualifiers you pointed out in your post. I don't mind it. In a novel, I think you get more slack to be stylistically "sloppy." Can you imagine slogging through a 600-page novel in which every last sentence is a perfectly honed jewel?

Blood Meridian and Under the Volcano are great choices. The final sentence of UtV is one of the most brutal ever written. Blood Meridian gave me nightmares.

ian said...

But now that I think about it Blood Meridian probably wouldn't be very helpful for TLB. Its violence is relentless: mythical, biblical, whatever.

Confucius said...

This is a great troubling craft question, one I probably should figure out how to explore with students. Bowles and McCarthy sprang to mind immediately on my end too. But they're so good at violence, and focused on it. Maybe an example from someone like Cheever (who wouldn't at first come to mind?) could be helpful. Here's how he handles violence at the end of GOODBYE MY BROTHER:

"Get your face out of mine," he said. He walked along.

Then I picked up a root and, coming at his back - although I have never hit a man from the back before - I swung the root, heavy with seawater, behind me, and the momentum sped my arm and I gave him, my brother, a blow on the head that forced him to his knees on the sand, and I saw the blood come out and begin to darken his hair. Then I wished that he was dead, dead and about to be buried, not buried but about to be buried, because I did not want to be denied ceremony and decorum in putting him away, in putting him out of my consciousness, and I saw the rest of us - Chaddy and Mother and Diana and Helen - in mourning in the house on Belvedere Street that was torn down twenty years ago, greeting our guests and our relatives at the door and answering their mannerly condolences with mannerly grief.

It goes on for another few sentences. The brother, of course, isn't dead. But what was interesting for me, typing this, is how quickly the action shifts from the (briefly) physical right into the first person narrator's head, and dwells there for the rest of the paragraph in a telling fantasy. Pretty cool technique, and it makes the brief violent act more horrifying and resonant still. Plus, what a sentence that is!

It also occurred to me how both sad and funny this is at the same time. Humor I guess is something that probably shouldn't be forgotten in the midst of writing even serious violence.

dunkeys said...

That Cheever example is great -- it's more "ordinary" in a good way. Domestic violence in a more literal sense. And it's also a release of hatred (who DOESN'T want to smack Tifty by that point?) for both the character and the reader, which is a pretty awesome effect (and as such allows for humor, too, I think).

But I'm reeling here . . . Dostoevsky wrote "The Gambler"? "You gotta know when to hold em," etc? That's brilliant!

(And reminds me of the original title of Tolstoy's _War and Peace_. . . .)

bR said...

I think one possibility is to focus really intently on the moment preceding the violence. Here's an example from Lily Tuck's "The News from Paraguay":

"Rage consumed Franco. He was dumb and numb with it. He could not have said what time it was or what day. He was not aware of any person around him or of any person speaking to him; if there were birds singing or church bells ringing, he did not hear them. Like a black funnel cloud, rage spiraled inside his head, spreading to his neck, straining the muscles there and settling in his chest, making his heart pound too fast and loud, forcing his breath out of his ready-to-burst lunds, making his arms and legs tremble and ache, and his hand shake as he closed it into a fist to hit Benigno as hard as he could."

The next paragraph goes on to describe Benigno's broken nose: the snap of the bone, the blood. But the reader's real access to the violence of the act comes, in my opinion, from that moment immediately preceding Franco's action when we see him in all his rage.

On a related note, I also think Tuck's use of the negative is really effective--those two sentences where she describes all of the perceptions Franco does NOT have at the moment he is consumed by his anger. Normally, I'm not sure that's such an effective way to define a character's experience, but that line "if there were birds singing or church bells ringing, he did not here them" really distinguishes the moment for me.

TLB said...

Hey everybody, thanks for the suggestions. The Cheever story was a good call, Robert--I'd never read it before, and it turned out to be exactly the inspiration I needed today. I'm still feeling a little nervous about the scene but I feel better equipped now.

You guys rule, what can I say?