Violence and Story: How Much Violence Should I Put in My Story?

A question came up in a LinkedIn group not too long ago regarding ‘violence’ in one writer’s story. This writer presented a work based on his own life to a writing teacher, who responded by telling him it was “too violent.” Since the writer still felt strongly about his largely autobiographical story, he posed the question to our discussion group: “How Much Violence Should I Put Into My Story?” Today we propose to answer that question.

Here are three simple rules for using violence in your story (in order of importance):

  1. Violence Must Be Appropriate to STORY
  2. Violence Must Be Appropriate to GENRE
  3. Violence Must Be Appropriate to your INTENDED AUDIENCE

All three of these rules are interdependent and what affects one will affect others as well.

(NOTE: When we mention “amounts” of violence we are referring to both volume AND intensity.)

1. VIOLENCE AND STORY
vector illustration indicating various types of cartoon violence in storytellingAlthough violence is often considered an aesthetic value (that is, a matter of taste), it actually plays a distinctive role in your story. If the story is about gang violence among teens on the street and how terrible it is, you will have to include enough violence to communicate the ideas, meaning and thematic elements required in your story. But if you are making a fun action-adventure that is neither realistic nor gritty, then keep the violence down to a tolerable level because the only thing you gain by adding more is a higher MPAA rating.

2. VIOLENCE AND GENRE
Crime dramas, horror flicks and gritty action thrillers inherently require more violence to live up to the audience’s expectations than do other genres, like comedy or romance.

3. VIOLENCE AND YOUR INTENDED AUDIENCE
Obviously, splattering the walls with gore in an educational animated film about a group of hugging teddy bears is not appropriate to an intended audience of young children. Family-oriented films have the least violence because they are intended to be seen by a broad-spectrum audience which includes parents and children of all ages. On the other hand, if it’s a gory horror film, part of the viewer’s expectation is to see the screen painted with a certain volume of blood and guts, lest they be disappointed.

LEVELS OF VIOLENCE
The remarkable thing about violence in art is how we perceive it as consumers. The more explicit the storyteller makes the details of a violent act, the more violent it will be perceived by the audience. To decrease perceived violence, a storyteller may employ a strategy called “cutting away” in which the storyteller avoids providing explicit details by cutting (in film, or the equivalent in prose) to the reaction of an onlooker, avoiding vivid portrayal of the worst details but leaving most of it to the imagination of the audience.

Here is a basic guide to the main categories of violence employed by storytellers in books and film:

1. No Violence: No violence at all. Usually confined to children-oriented materials and programming targeted at females, such as chicklit (print) or dramas which focus on character and relationships. An excellent example of this violence level is Lost in Translation, a film by Sofia Coppola.

2. Comic Violence: The most common violence in animated and family-oriented stories. Usually bloodless and without lasting effects, violence is presented in a funny way to counteract its seriousness. Think Shrek.

3. Bloodless Violence: It’s surprising how much an absence of blood and gore can reduce the gravity of pain and death. Bloodless violence is prolific among big blockbuster films that want to appeal to a broad audience. Return of the Jedi (and all of the Star Wars films) uses virtually no blood at all.

4. Moderate Violence: The most common type of violence used in media, it has some blood but only light gore or detail, such as Lord of the Rings (movies) and The Hunger Games (book). Hunger Games keeps the perceived violence level fairly low for its intended audience (YA, “young adult”) by employing the written equivalent of “cutting away.” The 2012 film adaptation takes this a step further.

5. Realistic Violence: This can be gritty, gory, and even downright gruesome. Just about any specimen of the war genre falls into this category, such as Saving Private Ryan and We Were Soldiers.

6. Gory Violence: The most extreme violence level includes films like I Spit on Your Grave as well as a large bulk of the horror genre in both film and print. At its most extreme end there is a horror subgenre called torture porn.

IN CONCLUSION…
Use common sense in determining the appropriate level of violence for your creative work, and only that violence which serves the story, genre or intended audience. You need enough to get your point across but don’t overdo it.

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