Last weekend, I went and saw “The Raid.” If you haven’t seen it, you should. Look at the video above. It’s like that, but, like, about an hour and a half of it. Good. So good. One of my students (Hey, John!) asked me about it and I complained slightly that it was plotless. He affirmed that the plot didn’t matter. That’s troubled me. I teach Creative writing. The plot matters. Why do action movies get away with having a week or even absent plot? Here’s a even heavier question: why isn’t contemporary fiction more violent? It’s interesting to think about how violence works in a narrative and why contemporary short fiction and novels tend not to deal with it.
I had an interesting discussion about this with my students. I think I can articulate it correctly. There are levels of understanding. At the bottom, we understand violence. But reasoning and persuasion takes time and effort, mental effort. Both use the same amount of energy, though. Here is an example. A child breaks a lamp. You can hit that child and the child will learn the lesson: Don’t break lamps or someone will hit you. The child doesn’t want to be hurt, so the child doesn’t break lamps. Later in the life, the child will understand that breaking lamps is just a bad thing to do because lamps are valuable. Now, let’s say that a child breaks a lamp and you sit down and talk to the child. You discuss why you are upset, why breaking lamps isn’t something you should do, why breaking lamps is bad. The child might have questions, might have a lengthy conversation about breaking lamps and the value of material processions. Hitting a child and screaming, “DON’T EVER DO THAT AGAIN!” takes about thirty seconds to a minute. Discussing the situation with a child so that they fully understand might take two hours. I don’t have children, so I won’t judge which is better. But the time it took to explain something clearly is the same energy as the child screaming in pain and hating his or her parents. The only difference is that different parties are exchanging the energy.
Back to Creative writing: The purpose of contemporary fiction is to understand the human condition (we can debate this, but we aren’t. At least, not here). Two men fighting is a very base level of understanding. Two men verbally discussing their points is more complex and takes more time. One could argue, and I will, that violence is more effective than talking. At least it is easier. But the negative consequences associated with violence takes up a level of energy equal to verbally arguing. I think discussion, talking, words, are harder to deal with. That’s why many writers, some, not all, shy away from violence in their writing. Violence is easy. Words are hard. Deal with what is harder and more complex because that’s more interesting. Two guys beating each other up is the easy way. Two guys discussing the nuances of being human is difficult and more rewarding when you achieve it.
I also think that writers, and the general public, seem to look at violence as a negative. We like people that are physically fit. Professional athletes, all that. And we enjoy working out and sculpting our bodies. But we don’t like people who settle their differences by punching people. We don’t like that. What if, instead of talking to a manager or leaving a light tip when you have a bad waiter, you just beat the waiter’s ass? How long could you go through life doing that? We do not approve of violence to resolve differences. And, in contemporary stories, the main character has to resolve some sort of difference, solve some sort of problem. I want to say that a character that has to use violence to resolve a conflict is a weak and uninteresting character. I’d be wrong if I said that. We do look at characters that use violence as a bit stilted, maybe immature and possibly stumped. The character isn’t smart enough to get out of the situation without hitting someone, so the character lowers him or herself to the base level and starts hitting someone. Also, we are said when it gets to that point.
Here’s the thing, though. Writing violence is stupid hard! Writing violences requires clarity, understanding and purpose. If you mess anything up, the reader will be confused about the physical confrontation. Ernest Hemingway’s short shorty “Undefeated” has a very good bullfight in it (Thanks, Keri!). But writing the fight took some effort. Reading it takes effort because you have to envision the violence. Having characters becoming emotionally distraught over seeing and ex-lover, that’s pretty easy to write. But try writing a ten minute kung-fu scene. I don’t even want to think about that.
Yes, there is plenty of fiction with plenty of violence. Plenty of them. It occurs to me, though, that in all my years in training to write and training to teach writing, I never once had a conversation about putting violence into a story. None of my professors said, “Hey, try putting in a fist fight!” We never even lauded how amazing violence could be. We spend a majority of our time trying to get the dialogue right, trying to create beautiful language to describe the scenery around us, try as hard as we can to encompass the emotional intensity that we experience in our lives. No one ever said to me, “Hey, Jarvis. I think this story needs more karate.” I find that a bit odd.