Commentary: Traits of the Medium

Characters have to struggle with the consequences of violence, just as real people do. 

Writing violent action is difficult. Part of that is just a characteristic of writing: the dramatic and exciting action sequences that we love to see on the big screen don’t translate well to the written page. Fight scenes, driving scenes, and the like are visual and auditory in nature, and therefore don’t come across well to a reader as they would to a viewer.

So what am I to do? The story as I’m writing it has a fair amount of action in it. How can I write action in a way that can be exciting to the reader? Well, I can take cues from people that already do. How do my favorite writers compose their action scenes?

In many cases, they don’t write the action per se. Describing the blow by blow can get tedious, the opposite of what you want in an action scene. Instead, it seems that my favorite authors focus on what the medium is good at: details, internal reactions, and talking about something that goes beyond the concrete events. Take a look at a graphic novel and see how much writing goes into the average fight scene. Characters may have extended conversations while trading punches, or give mental monologues on the larger context. It’s rare that I come across drawn panels that are “silent;” Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons is a good counterexample.

Or take one of my favorite television writers, Bryan Fuller. His show Hannibal (one of my all-time favorites) features quite a lot of violence, much of it rather brutal. But unlike other shows about similar subjects, Fuller takes his time with the scenes. Unlike, say, The Walking Dead or Grimm, where battles may take up to two minutes of punch after punch, Hannibal fight scenes over in seconds, much like how a fight would go in real life. The difference is that Fuller lingers over the fight, focusing on characters’ faces as they grapple in both physical and mental realms. In this way, the battle becomes an effective opportunity for character development, and maybe even larger themes of violence and trauma. Characters have to struggle with the consequences of violence, just as real people do.

I’m no Bryan Fuller (yet), but I will take this lesson, that violence and action in a story should be deliberate, purposeful, and a character can’t get away with being violent and expect to be unaffected, even if they are physically unharmed.

Author: Ben Ginsburg

I'm a writer, a storyteller, and a dreamer. As a recent graduate of UC Davis with a shiny new B.A., I decided its finally time to start writing that novel. So join me as I write, rewrite, and talk about it.

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