In earning master’s and doctoral degrees in English, I was amazed at how often in classic literature scenes of violence occurred off stage. In Hamlet we have the line, “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead.” We know Hamlet has set them up, but we don’t witness their actual assassinations. We are just told the boys are goners. It’s rather anticlimactic after so much foreshadowing.
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Sometimes off-stage violence works better than an eye-witness account. For instance, I don’t want to watch Oedipus gouge out his eyes, I’d rather not watch Hannibal Lecter remove the facial skin of a police guard, and the shower scene in Psycho never shows a blade touch skin, yet it is more chilling than most of the blood and gore scenes in modern slasher movies.
Violence has a place in drama. To avoid it entirely is idealizing, and ridiculous.
Although violence is offensive to many, most readers understand that anyone can be provoked. And that’s the secret: if a violent scene makes the reader say, “I can see myself doing that under those circumstances,” then it is not only realistic, but it is also acceptable, honest, and justifiable.
At times avoiding violence in a scene doesn’t ring true. Jesus upset the tables of the moneychangers and gave a vitriolic tongue-lashing to those found in the “den of thieves.” In fiction your challenge is to craft scenes consistent with the nature of the person taking the action and believable within the context.
A brilliant example
In the movie Friendly Persuasion (1956), a Quaker farmer in southern Indiana (Gary Cooper as Jess Birdwell) tries to stay neutral during the Civil War. He keeps himself and his sons from engaging in violence of any kind. However, while out on his land, Birdwell is shot by a Confederate soldier and knocked down when the bullet grazes his forehead. He pretends to be dead, hoping the soldier will go away. Instead, the soldier advances to finish him off.
Birdwell jumps up, catching the soldier off guard. He grabs the soldier’s rifle and pins him against a tree with it.
We see the rage in Birdwell’s eyes. He has every right to kill the man in self-defense. However, Birdwell’s Quaker beliefs resurface and we see him narrow his eyes. He jerks the barrel of the weapon sideways, signaling the soldier to leave. The man is dumbfounded, but staggers away. In outrage, Birdwell takes the rifle by the barrel and swings it viciously against the trunk of the tree, over and over, until the weapon shatters.
This scene works. The fight is believable, even by a Quaker. The threat with the gun is believable, even by a Quaker. The release of pent-up anger and rage as evidenced by the savage smashing of the rifle against the tree is totally believable because—Quaker or not—Birdwell is a human with normal fight-or-flight preservation instincts.
Just remember not to go overboard with violence, else your editor, like Jesus, will have to put the ear back on the victim—and ask for a rewrite. Keep it in bounds.
Dr. Dennis E. Hensley is director of the department of professional writing at Taylor University in Upland, Ind., where he’s a full professor. His more than 50 books include, How to Write What You Love and Make a Living at It (Random House), Man to Man (Kregel), and Jack London’s Masterplots (Taylor University Press).