It is an easy cliché to criticize violence as a part of our collective storytelling—but that is a gross over-simplification.
Faceless, nameless men and women die in droves in film, television and yes, many novels.
Death often becomes grist to show the intelligence, cool and wizened squint of our hero. And the armored yet open heart. It’s always good to show a humane pause in the face of a grizzly scene, before flipping open a handy notebook.
It is an easy cliché to criticize violence as a part of our collective storytelling—but that is a gross over-simplification. I believe that there are two types of violence we encounter as readers, as audience members.
One exists for the purpose of moving the plot of the story along, whatever the chosen genre, to direct the audience to the next highlighted point. It can be told in flashes of brilliant red, midnight horror and slow graying death. It can be called gratuitous—I call it paint.
Is it a Jackson Pollock? Wild splashes bursting across the page or screen? Is it a Warhol? Is it Abstract Expressionism? Constructivism? Baroque? Folk art? Death becomes a color on a pallet. What hues does the storyteller choose? It can be riveting and fascinating. This is the type of violence, I believe, we are more comfortable with. This is what we know.
The second type of violence is a kind of documentation. It comes with the belief that some stories cannot be told without walking through a doorway, without witnessing the horror, without breathing in the pain.
The woman attacked on the street was someone we knew—not just the fact that she wore red biker shorts, but that she had won a girl’s softball tournament at twelve, and loved listening to the frogs at sunset near her hometown lake. We are not watching her—we are inside of her, and when she is killed, we feel the violence in our own bodies.
The Lovely Bones would not have impacted the reader so thoroughly had we not crawled down into the earthen grave with Susie Salmon. We didn’t see her draped in a sheet while men discussed the crime…we saw the crime . . . more, the crime was committed against us—from the inside out.
While one is not better than the other—it must be said (perhaps with personal bias) that the second asks more of my heart. I can say as a writer, that entering a room in a child’s brothel, sitting with a young girl as she waits for her first john . . . are all incredibly difficult, all impossible to bear.
But to truly tell a story that nearly two million children live through many times a day, we have to—enter the story. To not do so is like writing about the depths of the ocean, while standing on the shore.
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RIFers: what do you think of violence in books and film? Do you agree with Cynthia Bond that sometimes we have to portray violence in order to truly tell a story? Let’s talk in the comments.