Violence in storytelling

Brandenburger Tor

I was recently discussing the effects of violence in video games and I thought it might be interesting to tackle this from a different angle. The debate about the effects of violence in stories has been covered in-depth and appears to be ongoing. I see a lot less coverage about the storytelling aspect.

Why is there violence in storytelling at all?

Violence

Before going into this, let’s have a definition first. From Wikipedia:

“the intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community, which either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment, or deprivation”

To make that a bit shorter for storytelling, let’s boil that down to “the threat of or actual use of physical force by characters in a story.”

The question then becomes: what good is this for storytelling?

Conflicts

Stories are about conflicts in which we are emotionally invested. Those trigger emotional responses in us readers, which is one of the reasons we like stories. Violence is one way to create such conflicts, resolve them, or escalate them.

A violent act can create a conflict for the protagonist, by having the antagonist commit violence against them. The simplest example is the revenge plot. The protagonist, their family, or something else they love is victimised and the protagonist sets out for revenge. Death Wish is a famous movie/book about just this, as is the more historically oriented Gladiator. And the movie Memento gives it a nice twist.

The revenge plot leads to the second role of violence in conflict: resolving it, often by violently ending the antagonist. Gladiator has a different take on it than Death Wish, and some stories focus on the fact that violence should not be the anwer.

In fact, in some cases the antagonist of a story is somebody who feels they are the hero of their own revenge plot. For instance, Commodus in Gladiator wants to take revenge on Maximus for trying to take his empire from him. The difference between the two is often just how negatively the character is portrayed.

Escalation of a conflict can occur by violence as well. A conflict brewing between two people can flare into open violence, pushing the story forward. In the movie Sexy Beast, the protagonist is visited by a villain who wants to pull him back into a life of  crime and he can only stave the villain off until things turn violent. The same goes for Inglorious Bastards, where the plot of the bastards to assassinate Hitler is made problematic by a violent shootout in a tavern in France.

As I hope I’ve shown, violence can play a role in pushing the plot a certain way. Can this be achieved another way? Yes, it can, but violence is an attractive way for a writer because of something else.

Emotions

Human beings are hard-wired to have strong emotional reactions to violence. We all have an in-built love and hate for it. We feel the pain when the hero is beaten up. We also feel the thrill when the hero in turn beats up the antagonist.

This emotional response makes violence an important tool in a writer’s toolbox. As described above, it creates, escalates or resolves conflict, but it also increases the emotional investment by tapping in to the reader’s (or viewer’s) basic human urges. This sounds more vulgar than it is.

Pushing emotional buttons in the audience is the same as the high-speed turns in a roller coaster. A roller coaster isn’t interesting if it’s just a slow flat ride, and a story is not interesting if it doesn’t have emotional highs and lows.

Limits

Great stories will sometimes require violence to make them great. However, violence can also be used as a setting. Director Quentin Tarantino uses extreme violence almost as window dressing. Emphasis on the ‘almost’, because Tarantino usually knows how to also create good dialog and an interesting plot.

Using violence in this way is a double-edged sword. If over-used it doesn’t invoke emotions any more, it just turns boring. Trying to escalate a plot with violence, or building a climax around it, will fall flat if the reader is already ‘saturated’ by the violence in the rest of the story.

Different people have different appreciation for violence, but excessive use has made me put down books and turn off television shows. Violence shouldn’t be a goal in and of itself.

Some of our greatest stories are very violent, but some others are almost violence free. Violence is not evil or good for storytelling in itself, it’s a tool.

Martin Stellinga Written by:

I'm a science fiction and fantasy author/blogger from the Netherlands