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Questions of violence.

As I mentioned yesterday, I’m not opposed to scenes of violence in young adult fiction if it serves the story, but I do think there are some issues a writer needs to think about. Here are five questions to consider.

1. How much detail needs to be rendered? Can violence be implied or does it need to be graphically drawn on the page? It’s my belief that writers need to give readers only as much as they need to know, nothing more. I might lean more toward off stage violence given the choice, but that’s my take. Ask yourself, will the violence be more powerful because of what I’ve included or because of what I’ve left out? A 2003 article in School Library Journal noted that teens liked to have a little space in narratives so that they can imagine details for themselves, but concrete details are the stuff of good writing. Hemingway once said that a diamond sharp detail can carry the emotional weight of any scene. The smell of the room or the heat of a gun shot may be all you need.

2. Who is the perpetrator of the violence and to whom is it directed? Does it follow the stereotypical roles of what the reader might expect? Can you give the reader something surprising? Violence in itself turns up the tension in a novel, but violence cloaked in the unexpected ratchets suspense up even more. Think about turning the classic nice guy into a serial killer, but don't tip your hand too soon in the narrative. Let your readers' imaginations run a little wild.

3. What emotional distance can you give the reader? Studies show that young adults readers may skip sentences or scenes that expose too much in terms of sex or violence. If a reader can’t “handle” the violence, does it make sense in the first place? Could you construct the point of view in the scene in such a way that it gives the reader an out? You might elect to have the protagonist tell only bits and pieces of the story so the reader can have time to process events. Or you might have a third person narrate the scene.

4. What is your goal in using violence in the first place? If it’s all about fear or anxiety or creating tension in the plot, is there some way to play the scene with a subtext of violence and not the actual violence itself? The potential for violence may offer as much tension as the actual act. Also, how are you constructing the scene itself? Is it in real time? Flashback? Psychological revelation? Nightmare? Whatever the structure, the scene has to fit the overall story. There has to be a logical connection to the plot, complete with cause and effect.

5. If you are using violence as an external conflict in your story, you must also consider the internal struggle of every character touched by the act of violence. The emotional aftermath should be believable for secondary characters as well as the victim. Violence can be an individual act, but its impact can include the whole community or the whole country. Think Columbine.

So, you’ve written a really good scene. It’s raw. It’s detailed. It makes a big impact on the story and powers up the tension of a novel. Now the big question: As a writer, am I giving my teen readers some understanding or perception of violence that is helpful, or hopeful, or in someway valid for them? It’s a philosophical question, of course, but one worth considering.

Tomorrow, we'll hear what educators say about violence in teen fiction. It might surprise you.


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 11th, 2008 08:57 pm (UTC)
Helen- Do you think psychological violence is different from physical violence in YA novels?

Many writers who would never write plots with blood and gore don't hesitate to let their characters be psychologically tormented. Emotional torture seems to be almost a requirement sometimes,maybe a part of not protecting your characters too much.

How about verbal bullying? Since that implies dialog should those scenes be played out "on screen" more often or more completely than a fight or murder scene?
Mar. 11th, 2008 09:34 pm (UTC)
Verbal Violence
I do think psychological violence is much more a part of YA fiction. Maybe some of that comes from perceptions of teen angst, but I also think it is linked to the acceptance of institutional violence, i.e. bullying and marginalization. As writers we all hear that protagonists must suffer...and its easier to play out scenes of verbal violence than physical. The media also portrays a great deal of emotional turmoil by teens, so I think writers pick up on what might be considered "common wisdom." It's funny but some of the educators who write about violence in YA literature don't think reality and fiction are in sync. More about that tomorrow. H.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )