Skip to main content


A little while back, I wrote about action scenes and how I often can't tell if I'm writing them effectively.  Today I thought I'd take a look at a bigger topic: whether I should have any violence in the story at all.

Y'see, sometimes it makes total sense.  If I'm writing a story about a murderer, then they can't very well not kill people, can they?  That's kinda their whole point.  But what if I'm writing a story about, say, a reluctant former soldier who's thrown into a difficult situation?

This isn't as easy a question to answer as you might think.  On the one hand, there's a pragmatic, visceral motive to have that soldier go apeshit and kill - or at least injure - some folks.  For one, it'll be fun to read.  You hardly ever hear anybody talk about how much they loved that story where the bad-ass character with a cool gun sat down to dinner and then went to bed, right?  No, of course not.  You want to hear the gory details.

On top of that, it's easy.  You have a sinister villain and a heroic dude who is capable of killing sinister folks efficiently?  That's a no-brainer.  Good Guy kills Bad Guy, and then everyone celebrates.

But easy and fun aren't necessarily the same thing as "interesting."  Nor are they always the right choice.  Just like in real life, violence is something that your basest instincts default to, but the rest of you should be trying to avoid.  Do I really want to put something out there in the world that has a lot of neat ideas, but then just ends with everybody getting into a fight and killing each other?

So I often end up with this overwrought internal dialogue about how to resolve conflicts in my stories.  Part of me wants to do something fun, part of me wants to do something clever, and rarely do I end in a place where I feel like I'm doing both.

Here's a good example.  The post-apocalyptic comedy book I'm drafting right now has a clear villain and a clear heavy.  Both characters are cruel and are undeniably evil, even though there is (hopefully) some context to rationalize their actions.  The two protagonists of the book will eventually come face to face with them.

If the story was a more straightforward adventure, then the final act would be a non-issue.  They'd kill the villains and life would be fine.  But here's the problem: I've already inserted stuff into the book that directly puts violence in the forefront as an ethical question.  It's one of the key differences between the two main characters and one of the primary driving factors in their conflict with each other.  One is a collectivist pacifist, and the other is an individualist who believes in capital punishment.

The question, "Should I kill this dude?" is brought up frequently.  I'm not trying to answer it with a simple yes or no - there's too many circumstances that can make that question ambiguous.  My goal is to touch on as many of them as possible in the most outrageous circumstances I can think of.

So let's get back to that ending.  Should they kill those evil dudes?  I don't know.  There's good reasons to and good reasons not to.  Going one way might make the story seem contrived, superficial, and maybe even preachy.  Going the other way might make the story a contradiction.

What is clear is that the violent ending is super, super easy and makes a lot of sense.  I just worry that if I go that route, the book will feel like a waste of time.  If I was a reader, I'd ask, "Why'd you bother having all that talk about pacifism if the dude was just going to shoot up a bunch of people?"

Let me put it another way.  Writing a well-structured story that's fun and ends in a logical place is good.  But writing a well-structured story that ends in a surprising place while still being fun is great.  I'll settle for good if I have to, but I've always wanted to be great.  Sometimes, that means you can't strangle a guy with his lower intestine.