There was a lot of chatter about the violence in Mockingjay, the final book of Suzanne Collins's YA blockbuster The Hunger Games series. I paid attention because at that time, I had just finished my own struggle with how to portray a realistic war in my The Healing Wars trilogy. The challenge was to be authentic, but not make it so horrific I'd freak out my younger or more sensitive readers. Or bore those who aren't so sensitive. Every reader has a different tolerance level for violence.
The Healing Wars Saga ends, as the title says, with a war. As a storyteller, I wanted the war to feel real, and carry all the emotional weight a young girl experiencing this (again) would have. The "wars" in Nya's life have shaped her as a person. Skimping on that in the end would have been wrong.
However, it was a middle grade novel, with readers as young as eight years old. Being too realistic might scare them, and I certainly didn't want to give my readers nightmares.
But not addressing that issue rang false. Readers would point fingers and slap me around. They'd know I was shirking my duty as a storyteller, because for three books I'd been building up to that war. If it was too easy or over too fast, they'd feel cheated. Readers wanted to see how Nya dealt with it. What plan she'd come up with to make it all okay, like she always did. (and how that plan will screw up other things in the process, like she always did)
I did what I've always done. This was Nya's story, and she saw the world with Nya-vision. I approached the war from what Nya felt was important and what she experienced. Instead of going personal to broad (which is what I'd done up til then with the series, as Nya's world view expanded and the bigger picture unfolded) I went broad to personal. Nya is drawn more and more into that final war, and it becomes more and more personal for her as the final book unfolds. It's not just a concept. It's not just her past. The broad ideas of war become very, very real in personal ways.
I tried to show the horrors of war without being horrific, because they're Nya's horrors. She's lived with violence for a long time, so it doesn't affect her the same. I don't think the violence is gratuitous, because it's there to evoke certain emotions from my characters. It's not just there for the sake of showing the "truth" of war.
And since Nya is a bit of an optimist, there is beauty in the midst of all that horror.
Finding the balance between truth and horror can be hard, and not just because we want to respect those who might be put off by violence. Page after page of war is, quite honestly, boring as snot. From a purely plotting standpoint, books need more or the story falls on its face.
What can you do if you're working on a story that requires a lot of violence in it?
1. Don't just describe the violence.
Just like page after page of setting description, battle after battle or fight after fight gets boring--especially if you're in a detached POV looking down at the battle from afar. Find the personal story in that battle to humanize (or elvinize, or whatever you race may be) the fight.
Capture the emotions of that battle. The fear, the anger, the disgust, even the joy of victory. The violence is there to serve a greater purpose, so let that purpose shine through.
(Here's more on writing description)
2. Provide stakes that are more than just death.
Readers know you're not going to kill off your main characters, so unless you plan to actually kill some off (Joss Wheadon is a master at this), the threat of death won't be as tense as you'd expect. One of the most common complaints I hear about first person, is that readers know the narrator won't die. And killing off minor characters that no one cares about doesn't make readers worry more about the main characters. We know spear carriers when we see them, those ensign red shirts that are there to be cannon fodder.
Add stakes that have deeper meaning to your characters, and let them be things that can actually go wrong and happen in that battle.Let the deaths be symbolic, like the death of a belief, or something the protagonist held sacred. It might be the death of innocence or a cherish time in someone's life. Look for what can be lost that matters a great deal to your characters.
(Here's more on knowing where to raise the stakes)
3. Mix up the pacing.
Too much fighting can wear a reader down. Pacing is critical in battles, because you don't want to numb the reader to your exciting scenes. Throw in some quiet moments, some slower times to balance the fighting. Leave readers breathless, but give them times to catch their breath as well.
Escalation is a handy tool to help with your pacing here. Think of your plot like a wave, with each wave having highs and lows, and each of those highs (and sometimes the lows) getting stronger with every wave. Let the situation get bigger, more personal, more dangerous, more romantic, more of whatever it is you're building toward.
(Here's more on understanding the right pace for your novel)
Stories are personal, so when we have to get violent it gets tough. But if we remember why readers read in the first place, we can find that personal touch that not only puts the reader in the story, but makes them understand why things might need to get a little rough from time to time. It also helps us know when we're using violence as a storytelling tool, or just for shock value.
How do you feel about violence in novels?
Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions!
Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.
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