Three Ways to Deal with Violence in Books

The pen is mightier than the sword as shown with a writing utensil and a dagger

Violence has always had its place in stories. In early religious writings, myths, and legends, you can find enough murders, robberies, and assaults to keep a full time police force busy for years. However, how the violence is handled has varied. Sometimes it’s gorily descriptive; sometimes dismissively (or discreetly) vague.

Many genres currently gravitate towards action—in things like fantasy, we seem to want the main characters to go and do things, facing challenges that might be fatal—and with action comes the problem of violence. How close is close enough? Do you show the scenes where the crime takes place? Or do you just visit the aftermath, like so many detective stories, where we gawk over the dead body and wonder how the crime occurred without ever seeing it in action.

Looking at some of the classics, I’ve discovered three ways to deal with violence.

  • Close exposure. This can be found in some third person close narration, first person, and even some omniscient narration, if the author so chooses. It basically means that the writing is done to put the reader as close to the action in that scene as possible. There are no fades-to-black; no scene cuts. No reprieves. You’re getting a front row seat, and you’re going to experience it all—as much as the author can manage, anyways.

The arguments for this style are that it allows the reader to really feel things with the characters. The sights, smells, tastes are all there, and nothing is omitted. If the main character gets mugged, the reader should come away feeling like they were mugged, too. But this is violence we’re talking about: do we really want other people to go through every detail of horror? Does it make them a better person for having their soul seared by cathartic trauma?

  • Offstage. This is the favorite of Greek tragedies. We know someone gets killed, hung, murdered, assaulted, etc. but we aren’t there when it happens. It occurs between scenes, and all we’re left with is the aftermath.

Some writers (and readers) deprecate this method because of its lack of immediacy. They complain that the reader rides the action, and then, when the moment of tension and horror occurs, they get pulled out of the scene and have to wait it out. It’s as though the character has to go through surgery, and all we get to do is be in the waiting room for it all to be over. Does the writer not trust that we can handle it? Or are they too squeamish to face the violence themselves?

  • Retelling. In this format, the action is clearly grounded in the past. You are getting details, but everything happened yesterday or years ago. The protagonist may be much older, recounting an anecdote from his or her past to another character in the novel or to the reader, directly, but there is a definite sense of distance in this method.

No matter how detailed the author gets, the reader can take comfort that this all happened long ago and they can’t do anything to change it—and even, perhaps, comfort in the thought that the storyteller has processed it enough to where he or she can talk about it. It’s kind of a compromise between close exposure and off-stage; the reader is still there, kind of, but everything is filtered, like the front page headlines of a newspaper, because it doesn’t feel like it’s happening right there, right now.

Over the next few posts, we’re going to be examining these three methods, looking at a few examples and seeing what works, what doesn’t, and why. We’ll also examine the philosophical elements to writing about violence, asking how our method of handling violence can affect readers. There isn’t necessarily a right or wrong method, but I think there are some things writers should consider before they sit down and write that juicy scene of gore and despair.

What about you? What’s your favorite way to handle violence? Do you prefer all the details, or are you fine with skipping it?

Copyright 2015 Andrea Lundgren
Photo by Penywise, Creative Commons






7 thoughts on “Three Ways to Deal with Violence in Books

  1. Great list! Looking forward to reading your next few posts on the topic.

    I like an offshoot of the “off stage” method, having the violence happen in scene but outside the POV’s field of vision. So it’s observed through other senses.

    Something like, “even through the solid brick walls, James could hear Mitchell scream and plead for his life.”

    Or maybe, “the sirens ended abruptly with a crash and then a plume of smoke in the distance.”


    1. Good point! By handling the offstage violence that way, we avoid having to have a messenger who reports it: basically, the character’s senses do that job. But it’s definitely happening away from the POV character and thus, away from the reader.

      What would you do if the POV character is the one experiencing the violence, though?


      1. Ha! Good question. I guess I’d have him lose his sense of sight. So the event could only be described through sound, feel, taste and smell. Yikes! That’d e gruesome.


  2. I don’t enjoy being traumatized by what I watch or read, so I don’t try to traumatize my readers with really graphic scenes. If I do need to describe something violent, I do so very carefully! Sometimes I use the retelling or offstage methods. But if I’m right in the action, I relay the emotions of the person going through the hardship more than the visual details of what is happening. The reader can still relate to how the character is feeling, without having to actually experience the violence visually or even sensually. Hopefully that makes sense. If handled just right, a scene can still be gripping and creepy even without a direct description of the violence taking place.


    1. Interesting! An emotional description, as it were, instead of a physical one? I would think that was even harder to write, but I can see how it might help spare the reader from picturing or experiencing some of the physical trauma.

      Thanks for sharing!


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