Violence in Fiction: How Does the Writer Know When Enough is Enough?

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Nearly all fiction writers are going to have violence of one form or another sooner or later in one of their short stories or books. Fiction is about conflict, and violence is one of the most common forms of human conflict there is. Even romance writers will sometimes have a sword-carrying hero rushing in to save the day, or a pistol-packing thug as the villain. In horror fiction, violence is almost a given. Violence is also common in much fantasy and science fiction. And what would a Western be without a revolver or two or a lever-action rifle?

But sometimes, for some readers, violence can be too much. It can be too powerful, even to the point of turning the reader off a certain author. Possibly such a reader won’t even finish the story they were reading.

What can a writer do about this? How can the writer know when their fictional violence has gone over the top?

It’s not easy. In fact, it’s mostly a subjective decision.

The writer has to take into account the genre in which they are writing and the potential reading audience. Violence obviously is a bit more acceptable in horror, for example. But even within the horror genre, there are many different levels of violence that could be portrayed. As examples, there is generally a huge difference in the violence as portrayed by an author like Dean Koontz than there is by someone like Joe R. Lansdale, a known “splatterpunk” writer. Koontz’s violence tends to be over fairly quickly and doesn’t focus on prolonged torture or gore. Lansdale, on the other hand, gets his hands dirty with the red stuff, then makes you do the same while smashing your face down in it.

Would you want your readers to have to deal with that level of violence? Maybe you do. There is such an audience for over-the-top violence, though it’s not a mainstream audience nor is it very large. Some writers enjoy delving into the darkest parts of humanity, as do some readers. Some writers intentionally set out to be offensive, even go out of their way to do so, but even this has a place within a free society with protected speech; if nothing else, such literature can get people to thinking and talking.

Most authors, however, will not want to go quite that deep into violence. Violence is often a necessity in fiction, but the truth is the majority of readers won’t want to dwell on it. And that’s fine, too.

Much of this depends upon the writer’s goals and what they wish to accomplish with their career and any given piece of their work. Someone striving for more mainstream success should generally shy away from writing graphic violence. Horror writers have a little more room to work with, as to some extent do men’s action writers, thriller writers and writers of Westerns. But even within those genres, there is much wiggle room. The best thing is to be familiar with your genre and its audience; this will help you know the boundaries of the levels of violence which you can approach in writing. And it can help you decided how far you want to stay within those boundaries, or if you want to leap over them.

And readers need to remind themselves what they are reading is only a story. It’s fiction. It’s not real. Yes, stories can have power, but only the power you allow them to have over you.

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