Too Many Authors “Get It Wrong” With Their Violence

Unless you’re writing a “slasher” book, too many authors fail to find the balance between what is artfully “violent” and what is gore.  I think the first really “violent” movie I remember seeing caused me to walk out of the theater.  Not because it was too gory, but because gore was the only thing the movie had to offer.  Gore has its place, but it seldom adds to the impact of the story in the same way “understated” violence can.

I keep harping on Hollywood’s often inaccurate portrayal of violence to make a point. Literature is a movie of the mind.  A writer needs to be able to capture the appropriate language to make the scene come alive in the imaginative mind.  But, if we are writing for imaginative minds, we only have to plant the right seeds to let the scene produce the fruit we’re looking for.  We don’t need to describe the head exploding if we can find the words to help the reader understand that the victim’s physical features have been dramatically altered and let them formulate a picture of it.  It’s easy to write gore.  It’s more difficult to be artistic about it. Writing is difficult or everyone would be doing it.

Sometimes vivid violence has to be recreated, particularly if one is describing the aftermath of violence in “clinical” detail, for example in an autopsy.  In all the autopsies I’ve participated in, I cannot come up with an “understated” way of describing one. They have to be seen to be believed.  One can write that: “The victim suffered a slash from ear to ear that sliced so deeply the blade made a razor-fine cut on one of the vertebrae of the cervical spine.”  For some, this might evoke enough gore to satisfy them.  But it doesn’t even come close to helping the reader envision the damage to tissue, vessels, tendons and cartilage; the blood (both fresh and coagulated) that seems to reawaken and run freely again on the stainless steel table…or – of course – the smell.

Is any of that necessary?  Perhaps not for the average story.  For a serial killer novel, there may be case breaking clues that only an autopsy will reveal.  Strike a balance, but know what it is you want the reader to see in their “mind’s eye.”

Ninety-nine percent of your “literary” homicide victims will die relatively quickly.  That’s fine, but keep in mind art does not always imitate life.  The moment of unresponsiveness is seldom the moment of death and many physiological events occur after the eyes go glazed and the chest stops heaving.  This is where the knowledgable writer can help the reader more accurately understand the processes of death if they haven’t personally observed them.

Only in Hollywood and in the minds of 99% of our novelists, does a dying person keep talking right up the the moment they utter their last profundity and slip away.  I suppose that’s because so few have ever witnessed agonal breathing.  Then too, one almost never finds reference to the sometimes violent spasms that begin to occur 30 to 40 seconds after agonal breathing ceases, or the sudden and often frightening last gasp that may occur a minute or two after everyone else in the room have themselves finally returned to breathing normally. Depending on the scene, this can be a funny thing or a source of great emotional anguish.  But you should know it happens.

I’ve touched on bullet strikes in previous posts.  Know that most shooting victims will actually fall only in the direction the body naturally falls when strength is suddenly taken away. That direction will be determined by the direction the body is facing, and not the direction of the bullet’s travel.

Bullets actually strike with less resistance than is felt by the hand holding the firearm that launches them.  The unusual movements of the body after the bullet strike are caused by the body’s response to the neuromuscular damage – and the neuromuscular system’s response to that damage.  Generally, there is a “stiffening” of muscles rather than a contraction of them.  In cases where the the spinal chord or head is traumatized, there may be a complete absence of instantaneous muscular reaction – in effect a complete and immediate “relaxing” of all muscle tone, followed in several seconds to a minute or two of violent spasming below the point of trauma.  Even with a severed spinal column, the muscles below the trauma will often spasm, because they are being neurologically fed by different nerve centers – to use lay language.

Not every homicide scene needs to include this stuff of course.  But it helps greatly if the author knows what’s what, in the event they want to graphically depict death, rather than “artfully” depict it.  Know your target audience.

More to follow



About danielchamberlain

Former Chief of Police. Former Special Agent, AFOSI (Retired). Former Director of Security of multi-national corporation. Currently, Registered Nurse. Father Husband Outdoorsman
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7 Responses to Too Many Authors “Get It Wrong” With Their Violence

  1. This totally makes sense, Dan. I guess most Hollywood films have to make it more dramatic. However, I like what you said about to graphically depict death, rather than “artfully” depict it. It gives you that proper perspective. I learned something new today. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Dan I really found your post interesting and filled with subtle and brilliant insights that could really make a difference in believability in many situations portrayed in novels. I am currently working on an erotic novel involving a serial killer a detective and an unfortunate incident involving a firearm. I understand if that is not the kind of stuff you enjoy reading but i would love your take on the scene some time.

  3. Wow. I’m kind of shuddery after reading all that. Fantastic (gory) stuff, and you make the point well that the devil is in the details. Knowledgeable readers are far more likely to pick up on the ones we get wrong. I wrote a drowning scene in a recent short that I completely rewrote because I had the Hollywood concept of drowning in my head, rather than the reality. I don’t remember what made me look it up, but I’m glad I did.

    Thanks for the great post, Dan. I’m bookmarking you for future reference. 🙂

    • Geraldine, Antonia and Cara
      First, thanks so much for visiting my site and leaving comments. I appreciate the interest in this topic. I probably won’t dwell on it as there are zillions of other things of interest to thriller/mystery writers. For you “Romance” writers, I’ll have to defer to your judgement and look to you for help in making my “love” scenes more believable.

      Best wishes


  4. Your post hit me on two fronts–one, I’ve been to an autopsy, and while the smells were…well, what they were, for me it was the sounds. I simply couldn’t deal and ended up with my hands over my ears. And secondly, on the dying…yes. I’ve been there, and that last gasp happened, and I’ll never, ever forget all the thoughts that jammed through my mind at that moment.

    And when you need that help from a romance writer, I’ve done a few. 😉

  5. Autopsies have a special hell about them. First, you want to remain clinical and not let your imagination run wild, but at the same time, as a human being, you can’t divorce yourself from what you are witnessing.

    Second, it’s hard – in some compartmental way – not to wish you could skip the whole sordid affair and be elsewhere.

    Thanks for visiting and commenting. I value your opinion.


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