How to write about violence

If you’re going to write mysteries, thrillers, horror novels, or many other types of books, you’ll need to decide how to approach writing about violence and physical harm.

There are at least three ways to approach it:
1. Slow it down. Each step makes it clear just how bad it is.
2. Make the readers fill in the blank. Their solutions are usually far more affecting than yours, because they will think of the things that frighten them the most.
3. Underplay it. Use short, simple declarative sentences. Think Hemingway.
black eyes
A couple of years ago, I was running in my neighborhood when I fell, cracking the bridge of my nose, and scraping my face, hands and knees. I knew it was bad when I saw the expression of two guys I waved down to ask for help. Here are three ways to describe what happened.

Slow it down
“Running up 45th, April’s toe caught a crack in the sidewalk. The next thing she knew, she was in the air. Time slowed down, the way it did when you reached for a glass and knocked it over instead. She got her hands up in front of her as the sidewalk tilted at a crazy angle. Her palms skidded along the dirty concrete, but her momentum wasn't slowed.

Oh no, she thought, not her face! – then there was the solid surprise of her nose meeting the unmoving sidewalk.

And still April fell. Her front teeth hit the concrete, wavered, decided to stay put.

Finally she was still, face down, unmoving on the cool Sunday morning.

Make the reader fill in the blank
One minute April was running, mentally writing her next blog entry. The next thing she knew she was flat on the sidewalk. Something was terribly wrong. Her face felt wet.
##
The woman standing by the side of the road was frantically waving her arms. At least Josh thought it was a woman. Her face. Jesus Christ, what had happened to her face?

Underplay the prose
She ran up the hill. It was a Sunday morning. Her thoughts were elsewhere.

The sidewalk had lifted at an expansion joint. Her toe caught the crack. She fell very hard. She lay on the cement. Maybe she was okay. It was just a fall. She started to move but something grated inside. Her mouth tasted like rust.

Next to her was a bush with white flowers. She stared at it. Her vision was growing dark at the edges. The bush would look good in her garden.

She closed her eyes and was still.
More examples of fill-in-the-blank
I think the fill-in-the-blank idea can be the most powerful of the three. Here are two examples, one short and one long:

Five miles up the road, he opened the window and threw out the first of Karen Reid's teeth.
—The Intruders, Michael Marshall (the book does not say anything else about what he did to Karen Reid - but doesn't your mind supply a few details?)

************************
She swam against the grain of the ocean, using a short and sharp stroke and a smooth kick.

She did not see the murky shape drifting toward her. It was more than half-submerged, and it had eyes. When she barged into it, the silent mass reared up.

Her scream was muted, most of it locked in her throat.

On the beach, her sons threw sand at each other and the man with the device unearthed a nickel. The lifeguard rearranged his legs in a way that the girls below could see the filled harness under his neon swim trunks. A stray cloud blotted some of the sun.
One of the boys pointed with his shovel. "Look at Mommy."
—Widow’s Walk, Andrew Coburn
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Thanks! This will be very useful for an upcoming scene in my novel. :-)
Go hurt someone! Or, if you really want the reader to stay on his or her toes, kill someone! Preferably someone the readers likes. Then it's clear that no one is safe.
I like the fill in the blank best, I agree it's the most powerful of the three. It has elements of "slow it down", too, so double whammy.
Sometimes I wonder at authors who make things too detailed - like they're enjoying it too much!
Thanks for this! I have to lose a knife fight and beat a guy over the head with a towel rack soon. This post should come in useful.
Also, I just finished The Body in the Woods and I really like what Alexis did at the climax.

Edited at 2014-07-28 05:07 am (UTC)
I took a walk one day, taking the same route they had (would? did?) and looked for weapons they could use. I was afraid someone would be nervous of me snapping photos of their loose bricks or ceramic pigs, but it was pretty quiet.

If you want to ask me any questions about the knife fight, you could email me at april@aprilhenrymysteries.com. I take a kung fu weapons class and we use training knives all the time. Or I could ask my sifu if I don't know.