In self-defense, hesitation can kill. We’ve talked about that One-Mississippi before, yes? Waiting to act—even when that wait is a natural “Is this really happening?” moment—can mean the difference between striking before the attacker grabs, or having to fight with a bleeding head injury. It can mean the difference between an escape made on your feet or fighting a losing battle the ground.
That push against hesitation must be balanced against circumstances, though. If a drunk gets handsy with me in the pub, I shouldn’t hesitate to stop him… but I should not slam the ridge of my hand against his throat, gouge out an eyeball, and stomp his ribcage until I puncture a lung.
Hesitation can kill a story, too, especially when it comes to emotional impact. We writers shouldn’t shy from realistically portraying the cost of making choices or exploring the consequences of action and inaction. But writers must, too, find a balance—especially when depicting violence in accordance with genre expectations.
As a writer who tends to the darker side of things, whose created worlds use violence as a tool so freely that some characters are casual about its practice, the choices made scene by scene will either keep readers engaged or push them away.
Some pushing is all right; I’ve resolved myself to the fact my work is not for all readers. That’s the primary reason I opted to open Sand of Bone with a scene in Raskah’s point of view. Readers who find that scene overwhelming, or merely not to their taste, will not much want the rest of the novel. I’d rather have readers know from the start what sort of world I’m asking them to invest in.
So… how do we find that balance? How do we portray a fight or discuss an injury in a way that isn’t too clinical nor too graphic, yet still strikes the right emotional notes? And—as importantly—how do we sustain that without either boring the reader as the violence continues or—worse!—falling into the trap of constantly escalating violence?
For this writer, the answer lies in understanding, deeply understanding, the point-of-view character in the moment of violence.
(Going forward, I’m going to use a couple examples from Sand of Bone—not enough to be plot-spoilers, but enough to betray flavor.)
Raskah, Sand of Bone’s primary antagonist, has a relationship with violence that is at once distant and intimate. It’s more of an aesthetic appreciation coupled with an enjoyment of its power. In the first chapter, he muses, “…an oil flame gave blood and iron and skin and sweat a captivating sheen that nightsight could not.” I’m telling you, my darlings, what Raskah—and therefore you—can expect to see in the coming pages as Raskah watches two trained fighters battle in his private chamber.
For the reader, it’s a warning. For Raskah, it’s anticipation—and that’s its own sort of reader-warning, to be honest.
By the end of the fight, when one fighter collapses and the other weeps, I opted against describing what either fighter looks like at that moment. There is no talk about broken teeth, deep and gaping wounds on the arms, or liver-dark blood seeping down a leg to pool inside a boot. Sure, I could have gone there, but that isn’t what Raskah would tell you about. The gore isn’t his focus. The power is.
So instead, you read of Raskah walking over splatters of blood and sweat so he can watch the fighters lose their last strength and stamina, to watch one slip into unconsciousness and the other into exhausted panic. Then I offer only a small bit of specifics—”…he rammed his elbow across the bridge of her nose and kicked her gut… saw only his sister’s face twist with pain when the blow cracked bone.”—to close out the chapter.
The violence is essential to the story’s opening (and continuing plot), and absolutely vital to understanding what Raskah does, and why, throughout the following novels. Yet the fight Raskah witnesses is not meticulously related for the reader, blow by blow. The injuries are not described in detail. Even so, it makes some readers deeply, deeply uncomfortable.
It isn’t about what is described or left unspoken, you see. It’s about what little details Raskah chooses to notice and celebrate. It’s about how much he enjoys the violence inflicted at his command. No eyeball-hanging-from-its-socket description will deliver the same emotional punch.
Later in the novel, Raskah delivers violence again, but this time it’s seen through the eyes of a different viewpoint character—one who has much to lose, one who fears becoming a target of that same violence. Riner notices different details once the violence starts, certainly, but that’s not what cranks up the tension. Instead, it’s Riner’s constant awareness of possible and impending violence that puts the reader on edge.
“There was no way to foster Raskah’s trust without risking Lamak’s jealousy.”
“His gaze remained on the iron rod, expecting any moment for it to swing…”
“Riner scrambled back and lurched to his feet, wishing he dared to cover his ears against the scream…”
The details Riner does notice are about the results of the violence he witnesses—dribbling blood, a sunken eye, a shattered cheekbone—and his reaction is just as visceral—running, vomiting, shaking. He notices the details that most disturb him because he so fears becoming Raskah’s target.
Lastly, there’s Pyrius as he watches a fight between two of the Blades under his command. It’s a bloody match, and though Pyrius notices that, his observations are more precise:
“She dodged his attempt to tackle her, but the stiff edge of his hand snapped against her temple and sent her reeling. Her foot slid over the grit, forcing her into a barely-controlled side roll to avoid landing on her backside. She lurched to her feet just as he charged again. But this time, she ducked low beneath his punch, turned her elbow toward his gut, and let his own momentum throw him over her hip.”
Certainly the fight is about the comparative skill of the two combatants, but it’s mostly about what Pyrius sees and assumes. He watches the fight as one who is not only skilled in close combat, but one who teaches it. His observations are detailed, right down to understanding not only how the fighters are moving, but why. Momentum, control, posture, type of strikes and targeting… In this case, it isn’t about the violence so much as what the choices of, and reactions to, violence reveal to him and about him.
As a writer, I must constantly check myself as I write violence and fight scenes because, as a reader, I “grew up” on Stephen King and Glen Cook, military fiction and true crime. Toss in the fact I love martial arts, and I understand I can easily cross the line between storytelling and self-indulgence.
But the story-tension we tend to associate with violence isn’t about the violence at all. It’s about what the violence does to the character—whether the character is inflicting or enduring the violence.
It isn’t a tool so much as a mirror, a shadow, a representation of the characters and their culture. It’s a form of communication between the characters, between characters and society, and between the story and the reader. It’s not a means to an end, but a means to an opening that exposes the characters without their knowledge.
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