How to Write a Murder Scene

18 Mar
Claire Vaye Watkins won the prestigious Story Prize for her debut collection of stories, Battleborn. Her story, "The Last Thing We Need," appeared in Granta 111.

Claire Vaye Watkins won the prestigious Story Prize for her debut collection of stories, Battleborn. Her story, “The Last Thing We Need,” appeared in Granta.

American films are full of violence; in fact, the anticipation of death is probably one of the reasons that people go to the movies. There’s a visceral, perverse thrill in seeing someone killed in front of your eyes, and that feeling is harder to create in writing than it is on the screen. It’s difficult to replicate the speed of a gunshot or the blind, chaotic feeling of participating in a fight. Some writers try to copy the techniques of film: a lot of choreography (punches, kicks, and ricocheting bullets). But the best writers use techniques that are only available in written fiction to create powerful scenes of violence.

Claire Vaye Watkins has written such a scene in her story, “The Last Thing We Need.” It was published in Granta, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

The scene takes place at a gas station in the Nevada desert. The narrator is a high school kid working the night shift for the station owner, a man who keeps a shotgun under the counter. He’s doing his homework and doesn’t see a car pull up. As you read the scene, pay attention to two things: the choreography (who did what) and the delay (what details are given to slow down the action):

I looked up and the guy was already coming through the door at me. I looked outside and saw the ’66 Chevelle, gleaming under the lights, grasshoppers falling all around it like rain.

I tried to stop him but he muscled back behind the counter. He had a gun, held it like it was his own hand. He said, You see this?

There was a bandanna over his face. But Beatty is a small town and it was even smaller then. I knew who he was. I knew his mother worked as a waitress at the Stagecoach and that his sister had graduated the year before me. The money, he was saying. His name was Frankie. The fucking money, Frankie said.

I’d barely touched a gun before that night. I don’t know how I did it. I only felt my breath go out of me and reached under the counter to where the shotgun was and tried. I shot him in the head.

Afterwards, I called the cops. I did the right thing, they told me, the cops and Bill Hadley in his pyjamas, even my father. They said it over and over again. I sat on the kerb outside the store listening to them inside, their boots squeaking on the tile.

Every time I read this passage, I’m struck by the line, “I shot him in the head.” It’s blunt and direct. The language does not try to convey anything other than the barest of facts. This is important because badly written violence tends to be overwritten. The language tends to tell the readers not only what happened but also how they should feel about it (anxious! afraid! sickened!) and how it occurs (in a flash! suddenly! out of the blue!). So, how does Watkins avoid those mistakes and write a powerful scene? She does two things:

  1.  She uses simple sentence constructions to convey the choreography. By simple, I don’t mean in the grammatical sense—one subject/verb pair—though there are several of those types. For instance, this is a simple sentence: “I only felt my breath go out of me and reached under the counter to where the shotgun was and tried.” The beauty of a simple sentence (in the grammatical sense) is that it’s usually crystal clear. While you never want your readers confused about basic elements in a story, you especially don’t want them confused during the moment of greatest importance. That said, by simple construction, I mean sentences that use as few words as possible, like this one: “I tried to stop him but he muscled back behind the counter.” Imagine how else that sentence could have been written. Stop is a vague word, right? Another writer might have described the exact physical movements used in the attempt to stop the man. It might have worked. Who knows? But it might also have lost the sense of purpose. In all the arm-grabbing and shuffling, the reader might have forgotten the elemental goal of stopping the man with the gun. Who really cares how motions were involved? The same is true of the word muscled. Again, Watkins eschews detailed description and again boils the movement down to its essence: stop and muscled back. She’s conveyed the physical dynamics of the scene (one person is stronger than the other) and also the basic action in only twelve words. Written stories can never approach the speed of film, but they can still move quickly, as Watkins has shown.
  2. She interrupts the action with plain information. Beginning writers tend to try to make each sentence in an action sequence more intense than the previous one. But this is almost always unsustainable. Another strategy is to switch back and forth between intense action and something that isn’t intense. Watkins interjects the actions in the gas station with basic info: “But Beatty is a small town and it was even smaller then. I knew who he was. I knew his mother worked as a waitress at the Stagecoach and that his sister had graduated the year before me.” Imagine if, in advance of reading this scene, someone told you that the best way to write a murder scene is to tell the reader, just before a man is shot and killed, how big the town is. You’d likely think it was terrible advice. But what it does in this scene is heighten the tension. A man with a gun is one thing, but a guy you know with a gun is entirely different. Watkins keeps switching back and forth between action and info: “The money, he was saying. His name was Frankie. The fucking money, Frankie said.” She does the same thing with the narrator, telling the reader that he’d never touched a gun before. These interjections slow the action down but also make us lean into the page in anticipation. What started as “stop and muscled back” becomes “The fucking money, Frankie said and I’d barely touched a gun before.” In other words, the information makes the scene more personal, which, of course, makes it more tense.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write a violent scene, using the scene from Claire Vaye Watkins’ story “The Last Thing We Need” as a model:

  1. State what will occur. Know what your destination is. In Watkins’ story, a teenage gas station attendant shoots an armed robber. Don’t worry about crafting a great sentence. You’re just reminding yourself what the endpoint of the action is.
  2. Describe the choreography in simple sentence constructions. Your goal is a sentence like this one: “I tried to stop him but he muscled back behind the counter.” Boil the action down to quick descriptions of purpose. What are the characters trying to do? When the purposes are clear, it becomes easier to introduce complications. So, for instance, you might write, “He grabbed at the money, and I tried to pull it away. The bills  ripped down the middle.” Try to choose words that accomplish two things at once: statement of action and description of how that action occurs. Consider the difference in the scene if muscled was replaced with slipped. It might make the man harder to shoot in the head. He might be too quick, and so the scene would play out in another direction.
  3. Interrupt the action with plain (uncharged) information. By uncharged, I mean that if you read the information out of context, you wouldn’t think twice about it. But you can’t insert just any old info. You need a goal in mind. Are you trying to make the scene more personal for one of the characters, as Watkins does? Are you trying to make the characters more hesitant or eager? Do you want more or less urgency?  Do you want them thinking of ways to safely extricate themselves from the scene, or do you want them escalating the tension? How do you want the characters to feel after the scene is over? Regardless of your goal, the information should be simple. Characters who are about to engage in violence probably don’t have a lot of mental space for abstractions or reflection. The information should be the sort that they would likely be instantly aware of during the moment.
  4. Switch back and forth between action and information. The idea is not so much to keep applying pressure on the reader but to take short breaks from the tension so that the reader wants to know what will happen. One way to do this is to repeat one of the pieces of information that you’ve introduced. Watkins does this by revealing and repeating the identity of the man with the gun: who his mother was, who his sister was, his name, and his name again. The result is that the scene becomes increasingly personal for both characters because they know each other. You can do something similar by taking one piece of information and showing it to the reader in slightly different ways. (Genre writers, especially mystery/detective/crime writers, often do this. At a moment of high tension, the character will notice a refrigerator humming too loudly or a scratch on the floor. Sometimes this fact will get incorporated into the scene somehow, either directly or by causing the character to remember/realize something.)

The key to a scene like this is twofold: use short, clear language that reveals multiple things at once and add moments that step away from the tension to reveal information that is initially uncharged but that becomes important as the scene progresses.

Good luck!

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2 Responses to “How to Write a Murder Scene”

  1. Marina Costa January 22, 2017 at 8:02 p01 #

    Reblogged this on Marina Costa.

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  1. How to Write a Murder Scene | 55 and counting - March 22, 2014

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