In the Roman Catholic & Lutherian doctrines, “Thou Shalt Not Kill” comes before “Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery”. I’m pointing this out because I think that it’s something that bears keeping in mind in our stories, particularly as “children of the empire”… by which I mean modern North America and Victorian Britain, respectively. North America, collectively, was born of a time and place where violence was the way that the Empire was held together, one way or another. Sexual relations, even consensual ones on the other hand, were taboo topics by the social mores of the day for those people educated enough to worry about writing about the times.
I make note of the education level, because we know that Victorian London had a thriving trade in prostitution, so clearly someone was getting laid. No buyers means no suppliers. A booming supply side, on the other hand, means…
So it isn’t that sex wasn’t happening at all, and that it wasn’t being talked about ever. I think it is more accurate to infer that a particular social caste were worried about running afoul of the moral majority within their caste, and thus said and wrote the right things. This has left us in the current era with the idea that violence is “yeah, so?” and that sex is “oh, la-la!” in our writings.
I think that as writers, we have an interesting place in being able to make violence both matter of fact as well “dirty”. I think “good violence” ought to be “dirty”. It should be something that makes the reader blink and think every time someone’s blood hits the floor. We should be writing it as viscerally as we write our sex scenes.
I was told by one erotica writer that she tries to get all five senses into a good “dirty” scene. The smells, the sounds, the sights, the feel, the taste. What if we started writing our violence “dirty”?
One horror writer I know told me that she tries to ” focus on sight and sound” in her writing when she is “toning down the violence to something reasonable”. She also says:
… if you “overkill” the sensory imagery in the violent scenes, you’ll lose some of the subtler elements in that part of the story…
My understanding of what she is saying is that as a writer, if you present “dirty violence” you can affect the reader enough to jam your own signal. Which would mean that a writer or editor, by instinct, will want to turn the gain down on those scenes, taking the horrific sensation out of them.
If we do that, though… Are we not portraying violence as less noteworthy or less valuable to a story than a sex scene? Is that what we want?
If we try and render violence with the same detail brush as we do sex, I suspect that more of our action scenes will start resembling horror scenes. Horrific violence doesn’t need to involve a knife. When you get an accurate description about the effect of a 9mm bullet as it passes side to side on a human being’s chest, I think we’d all have problems remaining unaffected.
Scientifically speaking, a 9mm pistol bullet removes — as in tears out and splatters on the wall — the equivalent amount of a human being as described by a pyramid made of one shot glass sitting atop two others. It leaves a surface trauma the size of a small frying pan. So, look at your chest and pick the spot where you’d be ok with having a cast iron frying pan hit you and tear out a cone the size I described. Uncomfortable about a 9mm handgun?
What if I now wrote a paragraph describing what the protagonist of a story saw as his good friend was hit in the leg by a three shot burst from a 9mm sub-machine gun? The sound of steel ripping the thigh muscle from the thigh bone, with scream of fear, agony and shock; the smell as gunsmoke mingled with fresh blood; the sight of bare bone through ragged flesh, the blood spurting from a torn apart artery, the inability of the victim to remain standing, then flailing and toppling like a drunkard?
I think that we need to start “getting dirty” in our stories with our violence. If we don’t want to either implicitly condone or glorify it, we need to make it horrifying. We need to have our readers react strongly to the character that weeps when they kill, and to the one that doesn’t seem to care.
I think that something which we do not want in our writing is having our scenes of violence produce a “yeah, so?” reaction from our readers.