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Depicting Violence in Fiction

My students are required to write short shorts. This demanding unit has proven to be helpful to students because they go through the process as a fiction writer. (For more on how to encourage students to write short fiction, read Fiction: The Germ That Spreads published here in April 2007.)

The secret to writing good short shorts is to begin the story as close as possible to the climax and to begin with action. Many students begin with scenes of violence, but they need guidance and examples in order to learn how to do this well. Here are some tips to share with your students.

There are three ways to depict violence in short stories.

1. Pack the narrative with details and draw out the action so that it seems that the event is taking place in slow motion. The objective is to draw the reader into the action. To do this well the writer must be selective about which details to include. Not every detail is necessary.

Example: Carlito heard the shot after he had fallen. The gutter was splattered with red drops and the smell of blood filled his nostrils. It all felt like a dream. He was sure that he must be sleeping, only the warm redness was spreading. A scarlet stream against the hard gray of the asphalt, and in the background the sirens wailed.

The writer should begin by trying to visualize the event in the mind. Some students find it helpful to close their eyes. They keep their writing journals open so they can jot down details. In the example given important details would include the red splatters, the scarlet stream, the hard gray asphalt, the smell of blood and the wailing sirens as in a dream.

Provide students with examples that employ this approach to violent scenes. (The British novelist, Ruth Rendell, does this very well.)

2. Hide or bracket the violence between what precedes and what follows. For example: describe a normal day for the character and then because of something violent that has happened, his life is changed. You must provide enough information that it is clear to the reader that something has happened although you haven't described the event. You are inviting the reader to fill in the blanks using the imagination.

Example: Jake drove down the dusty lane with his favorite country station blaring and eager for a slice or two of his Aunt Sally's raspberry pie, but when he saw the vultures circling, their huge wings tilting as they made their descent, he knew that he would have to investigate.

3. Underplay the horror of the event by avoiding graphic description. Use short and simple sentences. Example: She heard the bone crack. She fell, stunned by the blow. Her stomach soured. She lay on the ground and looked at the cloudless blue sky, wondering who would find her and when.

Another way to downplay the horror is to use long sentences connected by a string of connectors. Example: Freddy took the shot below his left eye and felt the cheek bone splinter before his legs buckled and he fell to the ground, barely conscious.

Students today are exposed to so much violence that they can depict very gruesome scenes. The key to depicting violence in good fiction is to help the reader identify with what the character is experiencing, not with the gore.

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