In stories, violence has a way of dominating the scene, elbowing out character and setting so that the violence is all that you can see or remember. This is fine for some stories—sometimes violence does take over—but for other stories, it distracts from more important things.
So how do you keep violence in the background? A great way to learn would be to read Amanda Eyre Ward’s novel The Same Sky, which begins with a murder and a reaction that is noteworthy in its understatement. You can read the opening chapters here.
How the Novel Works
The novel begins with Carla, a young girl living in Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras. Her teacher has gone missing, and so she sets out to visit his house along with her friend, Humberto. The scene that follows immediately introduces us to a discovery of disturbing violence:
The front door was open. Our teacher and his wife were dead, lying next to each other on the kitchen floor.
Imagine the range of sentences and details that could follow this discovery. It would be natural for the characters and us, the readers, to dwell on the bodies, to become fixated on them, noticing and remembering particular details: some gruesome and some strikingly normal. But this isn’t what Ward does. Notice how she makes something else the focus of the scene:
The robbers had taken everything in the house. Our teacher, like me, had a mother in America, in Dallas, Texas, a gleaming city we had seen on the television in the window of the PriceSmart electronics store. The point is that our teacher had many things—a watch, alarm clock, boom box, lantern. Luckily, our teacher did not have any children (as far as we knew). That would have been very sad.
Humberto cried out when he saw the bodies. I did not make a sound. My eyes went to my teacher’s wrist, but his watch was gone. His wife no longer wore her ring or the bracelet our teacher had given her on their one-year anniversary. The robbers had taken our teacher’s shoes, shirt, and pants. It was strange to see our teacher like that. I had never seen his bare legs before. They were hairy.
Instead of grisly details, we’re shown their possessions. In fact, we see the possessions first, through a brief bit of context, and then we see their absence. It is through that absence that the bodies are revealed: “I had never see his bare legs before. They were hairy.”
This misdirection accomplishes three important things:
- It keeps the gore at bay. Remember, this is the opening chapter of the novel. If those first pages contain a high level of uncomfortable detail, it begins to set a tone for the novel as a whole—a tone that might not be appropriate for the story. This isn’t a Quentin Tarantino film.
- It reveals the characters’ relationship with violence. Take this same murder and put it Austin, TX, where Carla will eventually end up, and the reaction would become quite different. In fact, Scott Blackwood has just published a novel about just such a murder: See How Small. The emotional resonance in that book is very different. In The Same Sky, the characters have become accustomed to murder and violence. As a result, they’re less visibly jolted when it occurs—whether through numbness or its routine nature.
- It gives us a sense for the characters’ real concerns. More important, perhaps, than what they don’t notice is what they do notice: “a watch, alarm clock, boom box, lantern.” It’s like the line from Sherlock Holmes: “When a woman thinks that her house is on fire, her instinct is at once to rush to the thing which she values most.” What these characters notice tells us what they value and need, and it is those values and needs that will help shape their decisions in the novel.
The Writing Exercise
Let’s write understated violence, using The Same Sky by Amanda Eyre Ward as a model:
- Decide on the type of violence. There are many kinds, not all of them physical. Some are emotional and mental. You can even think large scale and consider cultural violence: the aggression that groups enact against each other. An important distinction to consider is the difference between violence suffered by a person and violence witnessed by a person. Someone witnessing violence can, in some cases, turn away. But if that isn’t possible if the violence is being perpetrated against them—or, it’s more difficult and requires, perhaps, an interior numbness or turning away.
- Choose the new focus of the scene. Ward has the children focus on their teacher’s possessions. This makes sense because these are things that would be present in the house, along with the bodies, but their children’s familiarity with them allows the scene to step out of the moment and recall how they appeared before the violence occurred. So, think about what is in the room or place along with the violence: room furnishings, plants, cars, colors, sounds, smells.
- Create a reason for the character to pay attention to this new focus. What does the new focus (the thing, smell, color, etc) remind the character of? How does it make the character feel before the violence actually occurs? Does it highlight a scarcity or bounty in the character’s life?
- Add the violence to this setting. This addition will, of course, create a kind of contrast, a juxtaposition with the thing you’ve focused on. This contrast will create tension: where does the character look? It’s possible that the more severe and disturbing the violence, the more difficult it will be to look away. The more familiar or mundane the violence, the easier it will be to retain the character’s attention on the thing you’ve focused on. The closer you entwine the violence with the new focus, the more heightened the tension will become. This tension is important because only a severely disturbed person could totally ignore a scene of violence. The key, then, is to background the violence and, thus, insert the tension into the character’s thoughts. That tension will likely stay in their thoughts even after they’ve left the scene.