Tag Archives: writing about violence

How to Carve Out Space for Character Development in a Violent Setting

17 Jun
Benjamin Alire Sáenz won the PEN/Faulkner Prize for Fiction for his collection, Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club. The stories are set along the border between El Paso and Juarez and center on the Kentucky Club, two blocks south of the Rio Grande.

The stories in Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s collection, Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club, are set along the border between El Paso and Juarez and center on the Kentucky Club, two blocks south of the Rio Grande.

There are places in the world that dictate the type of stories that happen there. Violence exerts an overwhelming gravitational pull, and a story that at first has nothing to do with violence—a love story, or a story about family or business—will eventually get pulled into orbit around the violence that exists in the place. Set a story in Mosul, Iraq, and it will eventually run across militants and dead bodies. The key as the writer is not to avoid the violence at all costs but to resist it for as long as possible—in other words, to allow the story to develop dimensions beyond the inevitable.

An excellent example of this resistance can be found in Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s story, “He Has Gone to Be with the Women.” It was included in his collection, Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club, which won the 2013 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. You can read it now at Narrative Magazine.

How the Story Works

If you hear a reference to Juarez, Mexico, you automatically prepare yourself to hear a story about violence. For a time, Juarez was one of the most dangerous cities in the world. Many of the residents on either side of the border knows real stories of people who have been murdered or kidnapped. From the safe distance of Washington D.C., it’s possible to believe that violence is the only thing happening there. And yet the people who live along the border go about their lives, and so, as a writer, it’s crucial to push back against the readers’ expectations of cartel executions. It’s necessary to find a way to create characters who have lives that exist outside of, or alongside, the violence.

This is exactly what Sáenz does in his story. In it, two men meet at a coffee shop in El Paso. One is American, and the other is Mexican. The border, and it’s associations, are present from the beginning but not at the center of the story, which instead follows the developing romance between the two men. It’s not until a third of the way through the story that violence forces itself onto the page:

Monday morning, I got this text from him: I thought about you when I woke up this morning. I read the text and then reread it. And then reread it again.

I felt like a schoolboy reading a note from a girl. No. A note from a boy.

I didn’t know how to answer his text. I only engaged in the practice because my nephews and nieces demanded it of me. We wrote silly and affectionate things to each other. But this was different. Finally around noon, I texted him back. Stay safe. That’s what I wrote. That’s when it occurred to me that I was afraid. I didn’t like to think of Javier walking the streets of Juárez, doing an errand, going to a store and getting killed, randomly, for no reason. What good does it do to be afraid? He was right. Of course he was right. But so many people had left already. Why couldn’t he leave too? I knew the answer to that question even before I asked it. He wasn’t the leaving kind. He loved his Juárez. I could see that in his eyes, in his unshaven face, in the way he moved and talked. I could almost taste his love for that poor and wretched city in his kisses. It enraged me that Juárez had become so chaotic and violent and capricious. A city hungry for the blood of its own people. How had this happened? I was sick to death of it, sick to death of the body count, sick to death that every killing went unprosecuted and unpunished. You could kill anybody. And what would happen? Nothing. The fucking city no longer cared who was killed. Soon, they would just be stepping over the bodies. Stay safe. Stay safe. Stay safe.

Because Sáenz has created characters with lives and concerns other than avoiding violence, he’s able to make their interactions with the violence personal, as opposed to the generic way that cable news viewers react against stories of border violence.

So, how does Sáenz create these characters without letting them be overwhelmed by the violence that surrounds them? First, he introduces us to them in a place that lies outside of the violence: a coffee shop in El Paso, the safer side of the border. Of course, a coffee shop doesn’t have to be safe. Think about the coffee shop scene in the film Children of Men. When the bomb explodes, the viewer understands that no place in the film is safe. Sáenz could have done that in his story, but if he had, we wouldn’t have gotten a chance to know the characters except as people caught in violence—which is how we know Clive Owen’s character in the film. But the point is to know these characters as more fully developed people. So, Sáenz puts them in a safe place and shows us nuances of their lives:

I always noticed what he was reading: Dostoyevsky, Kazantzakis, Faulkner. He was in love with serious literature. And tragedy. Well, he lived on the border. And on the border you could be in love with tragedy without being tragic.

He drank his coffee black. Not that I knew that.

Sometimes, I could see that he’d just come in from a run, his dark wavy hair wild and half wet with sweat.

He was thin and had to shave twice a day. But he only shaved once. There was always that shadow on his face. Even in the morning light he appeared to be half hidden.

Sáenz develops these details. The two men have conversations about their jobs and families, and when the violence is mentioned, it’s in the contexts of these things. For instance, here’s one of the men, Javier, talking about his uncle, who has cancer and whose care is being managed by Javier:

“He used to love to go out. He would laugh and tell me about how life used to be for him. Now, he won’t go out. He’s afraid. Before, the only thing he was afraid of was my aunt. Now, he’s like a boy. He cries. He reads the newspapers. He thinks he’s living in Juárez. I tell him that we’re in El Paso, that he’s safe. But he doesn’t believe me. He’s afraid to go out. Nos matan, he says. I try to tell him that no one’s going to hurt us. But it’s no use. Every time I go out he tells me to be careful.”

By the end of the story, when the violence cannot be avoided, its inevitable arrival is so much more personal than if it had been directly present all along.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create characters in the midst of some overwhelming situation, using Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s story, “He Has Gone to Be with the Women,” as a model:

  1. Determine the overwhelming situation. As the writer Ron Carlson says, every story has two parts: the story and the world the story comes into. Almost every story, including blockbuster films whose sole purpose of existence is to blow stuff up, spends time developing the characters who will be consumed by the situation. In blockbuster films and many genre novels, though, the character development is as lean and minimal as possible (think of the description of Robert Langdon in The Da Vinci Code: “Harrison Ford in Harris tweed”). In those stories, the violence or destruction (or aliens, monsters) shows up almost immediately. But in Sáenz’s story, the violence doesn’t really appear until the end. So, decide what situation will eventually consume your characters: violence, family or marriage drama, economic distress, death, disease, or any inescapable deadline.
  2. Determine how that situation will affect the characters. You can be succinct. Someone will die, get sick, get divorced, get shipped off to prison or war or work in some far-off place, or get fired. Know where your story is headed.
  3. Put the characters in a place that is outside of the situation. You likely already know how the characters will behave or respond when the situation presents itself. There are, frankly, only so many ways that people can respond to inescapable deadlines or outcomes. Now, find out how your characters behave when the deadline is out of sight and (mostly) out of mind. Find a location where this is possible, some emotionally neutral or positive place. Put them there and see what they do. What other parts of their lives are revealed?
  4. Choose one of those parts and develop it. Sáenz gives Javier an ailing uncle, and that uncle’s health worsens. Think about the parts of your characters’ lives that you discovered: how can you make those parts dramatic? How can they change or develop (improve or worsen)? How can this change draw other characters into the person’s life? It is this dramatic arc that you’ll focus your story on. The inevitable deadline or outcome will arrive eventually, but if you make the reader forget that it’s there, its arrival will be all the more effective and impactful.

Good luck!

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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