Violence Can Kill a Story

Image courtesy Maggie Smith: freedigitalphotos.net

A couple of weeks ago, I sat down with my Nook, eager to spend the afternoon reading the novel I’d just downloaded. About halfway through the afternoon, I found myself thinking this book is really violent. I don’t necessarily have a problem with fictional violence, and I don’t think of myself as squeamish either. So what prompted that thought?

For me, the amount of violence I consider “acceptable” depends a lot on the context. Is it a natural, logical part of the story? Is there a point to it? It also depends on how the violence is portrayed—the attitude of the characters and the overall statement the author is trying to make.

I went on to finish the book and decided that it passed my criteria. The violence was a logical part of the story. There was a point to it. The main character was horrified by what was happening around him and disturbed by the actions he was forced to take at times. The author definitely portrayed violence as an undesirable, last resort kind of thing. I finally realized that it was more of an issue with writing style and editing, not necessarily the content.

Violence creates a strong emotional response, and it can be a very effective tool in fiction, but if it’s used over and over in every single chapter it loses its effectiveness. I think that’s what made the difference for me. Not every scene needed intense physical confrontation to work, and some might have been better off without it. There was a point in the book when the violence went from effective to excessive. It took over, becoming the focus, and the story was unfortunately lost somewhere in the excess.

Plenty of story elements can be overused and abused—everything from setting and description to dialogue and action. Sometimes even a single word will appear so often that it becomes a distraction. The challenge for writers is to find the perfect balance. We need to incorporate enough information to make the story vivid but do it without overstimulating or annoying readers. Much easier said than done.

What story elements have you seen overused? Did it kill the story for you?

©2012 Kim Vandel

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