Monday, December 19, 2016

Writing Violence in Fiction

By: Will Burcher

Write them. As realistic as possible. Make it gritty, make it stink, make it hurt. (It will dissuade the real thing.)

I was fresh. It was during my second or third month of training as a cop on the street just west of Denver. I was on a traffic rotation focusing, supposedly, on that stereotypical kind of cop-thing, but it had been an exceptionally busy week. We'd rarely had the time to scratch a ticket. We ended up supplementing Patrol almost without let-up on a repeated, specific and particularly time-consuming call. For whatever reason, it was a week stacked, packed, jammed full of them. Suicides. A few a day. A planetary alignment, a phase of the moon, the weather, the upcoming holidays, who knows? People were offing themselves like it was in style.

"Traffic 9, copy a party not breathing," came the emotionless voice over the radio. The call was north, at the far end of the city, and we were the only unit available. 

"Traffic 9 copy. From 52/Sheridan. We'll be code 3," I replied. Emergent, lights and sirens, fast.

This was all well and good. Fun even. But I knew what "party not breathing" meant. The guy, the girl, the man, the woman, the kid, the baby, whatever—would be dead. Despite the conditioning provided by many a TV medical drama, people were rarely brought back. CPR never worked. It cracked ribs, made other noises and maybe gave a witnessing family member the sense that something was being done; but the Reaper, though he be grim, was rarely persuaded to change his mind.

Thirty seconds before my arrival another cop called out on scene. She must have already been close and dropped what she'd been on (another suicide) to respond. Slam on the brakes, transmission in park, leave the engine running, overhead lights on so Medical can find you. I ran to the unit in the back of the condo complex, its front door ringed by a faded wooden fence. I opened the gate and a hurried, haggard female voice bellowed up at me from the ground.

"Take the gun. Take the gun!"

The cop, a power-lifter and proud carnivore named Lopez, thrust a large silver revolver toward me, muzzle down, with one of her hands. The other held a rag—the kind of dirty thing one leaves on a patio to repeatedly wipe down a barbecue grill—pressed tightly on the top of the head of a middle-aged white-man clothed partially in a green bathrobe, faded brown slippers and whitey-tightey underwear. My eyes focused on his face—eyes open, gray, staring into the browning grass as his body convulsed rhythmically, mouth gaping like a fish. There was something else dripping down the side of his face, a kind of pink-gray stuff. I realized the trail of it led upward toward the dirty bunched rag Lopez held on his scalp.

"I'm holding his brain in," she said as I took the gun from her carefully. " … pouring out." She may have meant the obvious blood, or she may have meant his actual brain, or some combination of both. I didn't know. I remember having the distinct thought that the situation was absolutely absurd. Absurd. And there was nothing for me to do. I crouched beside both of them in the grass, watching as blood and drool beaded together and fell from the man's mouth irregularly, its own autonomic gasping/gaping coming at wider and wider intervals. For a moment it was quiet, save the strange clicking/smacking sound the man's mouth made. Lopez and I remained motionless. A slight breeze rustled some dead leaves in a tree above us. We each chanced a glance at the other's eyes. Shared knowing—though of what I'm unsure. The moment was short as the cacophony of approaching sirens soon overwhelmed all else.

If people knew this, here. If people could see this, now. If they could hear this dying man's clicking/smacking noises, they might not so easily seek to repeat the moment's absurdity. I thought this as I was crouched in the grass. And as I later walked back to my patrol car, this was an echo in the darkened tunnel of my mind, along with the word "absurd," in strange iterations, variations of pitch and tone…

Violence is pervasive. It is pervasive in literature. As writers we need the finality and drama of violence to move a plot forward and to reflect, of course, the reality of an oft-times violent society. Violence is also (lamentably) exciting. It quickens the heart. Parts of us are innately drawn to it. The inner Cro-Magnon secretly longs for the thrill of the hunt, the bellow of a beast speared through the lungs, the sound of a rock breaking bone. Sports are ritualized combat, low-level war is near-constant, and politics, economics, legal systems are by nature adversarial. This is in our genes. This is old news. 

What's new here is the shear amount of media we and our readers are exposed to depicting violence in a sanitized, unreal, packaged, "sample-sized" way. When the death of someone in some entertainment medium is repeatedly portrayed as a casual, superficial thing without the inevitable natural consequences (if even only sensory for the witness), then the life lost is valued less.

One might argue that people are immune to real depictions of violence. I would say that they're not. Not the real stuff. Not the stuff with consequences. Not the stuff that disgusts. Real violence disgusts.

I've seen it. Kids that have grown up playing Grand Theft Auto, watching Schwarzenegger films, maybe even in the midst of criminal gangs—when they're presented with the real thing, the blood, sweat and shit of it, there's this sudden cognitive dissonance. "This just got real." The sudden realization that finger bones (even when formed into a fist) break horribly when thrust against another face or head in a violent act; the real iron-sweet smell of blood, or the utterly horrible scene of a body going through autonomic, "agonal gasps" just before expiring—these things wake people up. I've seen looks on the faces of people who have just committed violence and were witnessing the aftermath of their own acts, looks that said, "This wasn't supposed to happen this way. It's not supposed to be like this…" And sometimes there was something else in those looks, something maybe like, "My conditioning by so much fanciful, sanitized modern consumptive media just, in this instant, failed me."

Writers of any genre can write real violence. Our imaginations, regardless of life experience, are universally capable of this. And despite my own gravitational leanings toward the graphic, the "real" in violence can be portrayed in many ways. Real violence will never mean anything. It will be absurd. It will invariably be consequential and will turn back upon itself. Most importantly, real violence will always, always affect the character, the reader, the writer of it deeply, to the core—to that unlighted place in all of us where awareness of mortality and true empathy merge into one.

Editor's Note: While Writing from the Peak respects Mr. Burcher's well-written and persuasive position, we remind authors to understand and research your prospective genre, as well as a publisher's stipulations. 

About the Author: Will Burcher is a former police officer, photographer, videographer and author of "The GAIAD," a speculative science fiction novel published earlier this year. He lives and works in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Learn more at


  1. Thank you for this post. I've heard before that if violence was portrayed in fiction as it really is, it would be much less appealing. When we shy from its reality, we glamorize it and cheapen human life. There are movies I avoid watching because I realize the point of them is because I'm supposed to root for someone to kill people. Can't do it. In some ways, we almost need MORE violence in fiction, but violence in all its messy reality, to hammer (so to speak) it home as to its horrors.

    1. Hey Susan. Well said. You summarize my point pretty well. My contention, really, is that it's out there, it's an obvious reality and by making it into something "less" than it really is, it conditions people to accept it casually. Violence, in my experience, is rarely casual.

  2. Thought-provoking article, Will. Thank you. And I agree with the Editor's Note concerning genre requirements and publishers' stipulations.

    1. Thanks Darby. To be clear, I'm not advocating the depiction of graphic violence to kids. Violence is, however, already universally used in literature of all kinds as a plot device, and as such, should be realistically depicted. This can be accomplished, I believe, without blood and gore. Violence will always have consequences. "John punched Jimmy," doesn't happen in a vacuum. John probably ends up breaking his hand. Jimmy's parents then sue John's. John might be expelled, placing him on an certain destructive social path for the rest of his life. John is alienated and alone as a result of his violent act.


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