Tips, Writing

Write the Novel — Violence as Dialog (VAD)

This is the fourth of our five discussions about critique comments that show up over and over. Today I’m writing about VAD: Violence as dialog.

Think love scenes are hard to write? Try getting violent down on paper. Writing authentic violence is like making authentic Cajun food. A lot of people who think they know how to do it, don’t. My mother, born and raised in south Louisiana, never intentionally blackened a fish and, were she still with us, the average restaurant offering called Jambalaya would send her into hysterics.

Writing violence is one of the times I leave the computer and write in longhand. There is something about pen on paper that lets me get closer to the subject.

Much of what I learned about writing violence came from F. Braun Mcash, a television and movie fight choreographer; and from my husband, who practices a western martial art.

Build to a violent confrontation slowly

Violence should flow out of the story. It is a dialog in which physical actions replace words. Plant seeds early and often that show characters’ abilities to meet violence with violence. The character doesn’t have to be a martial artist expert or have super strength, but if a ninety-pound weakling takes on a motorcycle gang single-handed, with no foreshadowing, it won’t read true.

Start with a small event: a character taking a swing at an inanimate object, or squashing a bug, or getting red-faced, uncontrollably furious when life frustrates him to the max. Show that he has a potential for rage. Also show if he gets off on violence or not. Bonus points if we build in something in his past where violence went horribly wrong.

Build in a physical component. Give her regular exercise, and a reasonable diet. We don’t have to send her to the gun range or the dojo in every other scene, but the reader needs to know that she has a reasonable chance of winning a physical fight.

Violence and setting

In a series, as the character develops, the stakes go up when he is exposed to violence. Part of the power in a violent scene has to do with where it takes place. ~unattributed quote from a panel member, Lover is Murder Conference

Very few violent scenes take place in the front yard of a vine-covered pink cottage. Place can be used to build in an emotional component, too. Maybe it’s a fear of heights. If our character doesn’t like high places, we can get a lot more emotional mileage out of setting the final, violent confrontation on a swinging bridge, or the glass-floor of the Calgary tower, where there seems to be nothing but air and a sheer drop under her feet.

Violence as dialog

Violence may be one of the lines our characters won’t cross, which we all know, really means they won’t cross until this book. Being the crafty authors we are, we’ll poke and prod and twist both the situation and the character until they MUST resort to violence. Watch High Noon, which is a wonderful example of how people behave when faced with violence.

Be as sparing with physical dialog as we are with verbal dialog. It may help to write a verbal exchange, then convert each statement to a physical action.

“Get out of my way.”

“Not this time.”

“I said get out of my way.”

“Make me.”


Michael blocked the hall, feet apart, arms crossed over his chest.

Once action begins, dialog stops.

Michael blocked the hall, feet apart, arms crossed over his chest.

Gerard sneered. “Get out of my way.”

First of all, words stop the flow of action. Second, we have such a hard time resisting throwing in words like sneered, demanded, hissed, and so on, which are likely physically impossible. Try to sneer dialog some time. It’s not easy.


Michael blocked the hall, feet apart, arms crossed over his chest. Gerard tried to go around him. Michael shifted his weight and blocked him. Gerard’s pulled back his fist. They had taken each other down so many times in training, Michael knew Gerard’s body as well as he knew his lovers. As Gerard’s fist came towards his jaw, he moved his upper body to one side, caught Gerard’s arm, found the vulnerable notch in his wrist, and spun his partner around pinning his arm behind his back. With a practiced hand Michael extracted handcuffs from his belt pouch. The first cuff clicked closed around Gerard’s wrist; a louder click sounded as the second cuff encircled the water pipe. He made sure to take Gerard’s handcuff key before he left. Gerard was still cursing when the elevator door closed.


Violence costs

All violence should advance the plot. Match the actions consequences to how importance the violent act is in advancing the plot. Violence on which the story’s resolution turns should have the most emotional and/or physical costs. All violence should be a turning point in a character’s emotional life. A character may discover she loves violence, or hates it, but she should not come away emotionally unaffected.

When violence happens, the body kicks into a flight-or-fight reaction. Time slows down. Senses become more acute. In extreme cases, beserker rage takes over and the person may not remember details. This is also known as a fugue or dissociative state and may cause the person to selectively forget the violent encounter.

If our character goes into a true fugue state, she may not have the capacity to remember because the chemicals coursing through her body may have prevented memory from being laid down. And no, she won’t get her memory back at a convenient point later in the story because the memory was never built in the first place. She will, however, retain the emotional reactions to something she can neither remember nor understand.

All violence has physical costs. It must cost the character something, even if it is only having to buy a new shirt or make a quick trip to the doctor. Physical effects may take hours or days to appear after a fight. This is especially true with a blow to the head. Injuries may not be painful at first. Vomiting and the shakes are common a few minutes after a fight, as is an intense desire to eat uncontrollably and/or to have sex.

The effects of violence linger. It may take days or weeks to recover emotionally from a violent act, even if the physical consequences were minimal. Nightmares after a fight are a common reaction.

Violence is cumulative. There is a huge body of research that shows physical trauma, even as something as innocent appearing as hitting a soccer ball with the head, leads to micro damage. If the action continues over time, it leads to macro damage. The same is true of emotional reactions.

Two Central America proverbs sum it up: Whether the pitcher strike the stone or the stone the pitcher, the pitcher suffers. Dip the pitcher into the water enough and it finally breaks.

Thursday, August 7th, we’re continuing with our Merit Badges for Writers. This week we have Series Maven, Book Tour Survivor, and Extreme Research.

Next Tuesday, August 12th, we finish up our critique series with BBS – Build a Better Segue: ways to glue those pesky story fragments together.