How to Handle Violence?

Recently I posted a review of the film The Wild Bunch. I stated that one of the aspects that I disliked about the film was the amount of violence and how I felt it was included for shock value. While watching this film I remembered two speakers I heard during the London Book Fair this past spring discuss violence and its role in fiction. I had the privilege to hear Anthony Horowitz and Patrick Ness speak.  Both write young adult fiction.  Before I continue, I should state that I have not read works by either of them.  I hope to fix this soon.

Patrick Ness mentioned that he likes to ask people to participate in a writing exercise.  He encourages people to write a brutal scene that involves a person they care about.  He believes that all violence in a novel should make the reader feel uncomfortable. Ness continued by declaring that every single person who has been tortured or worse in life more than likely was loved by at least one person.  His solution is to remember this and to stay true to the story.  If a writer stays true to the story, there will be the right amount of violence.  If an author decides to embellish the cruelty, the reader will sense this and will know that it doesn’t belong.

Patrick Ness

I found his comments interesting since later in the day I heard Anthony Horowitz state that he had no issues about having violence in his books.  He elaborated by stating that his fantasy works were already removed from reality and that he likes to handle the subject with a sense of humor.  He said, “Violence has to have a smile.”  Before you start shouting, he later went back to the subject and explained that he doesn’t take brutality lightly, but that his version is separated from reality.

Anthony Horowitz is on the right.

 What do all of you think? Is there a right way or wrong way to include violence in books, movies, or art?

About TBM

TB Markinson is an American who's recently returned to the US after a seven-year stint in the UK and Ireland. When she isn't writing, she's traveling the world, watching sports on the telly, visiting pubs in New England, or reading. Not necessarily in that order. Her novels have hit Amazon bestseller lists for lesbian fiction and lesbian romance. She cohosts the Lesbians Who Write Podcast ( with Clare Lydon. TB also runs I Heart Lesfic (, a place for authors and fans of lesfic to come together to celebrate lesbian fiction.
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29 Responses to How to Handle Violence?

  1. paulaacton says:

    I think it really depends on the type of book i did write a few scenes that I felt uncomfortable with and that was without actually getting to graphic but the problem was that i had a choice I could tone it down and lose the feel of the characters or stay true to what would have been the way of life of the time period I was writing in, i think sometimes you can get across the point without actually needing all the gory details though

    • TBM says:

      I believe in staying true to the story and characters. Violence, now and in history, is present. You can’t ignore this fact. The fact that it made you uncomfortable, I think is good. You were aware of the issue, but stayed true to your writing. And yes, I don’t believe in sharing all the gory details. The readers will be able to fill in the gaps.

  2. The simple answer is no right or wroing way that holds for everything. People objected to the violence in A Clockwork Orange (the movie) but I thought, hard as it was to watch, that it was so toned down from the neccesary level in the book that it reduce the impact and meaning. Halloween umpty ump on the other hand…

    • TBM says:

      I haven’t seen A Clockwork Orange yet, but it is on my top 100 list. I’m a little nervous about watching it, since I know some of the premise. I agree with you, toning it down just to make it easier for the audience isn’t good if it harms the story. When I watch the film, we can discuss it more. The novel is on my 1001 list. Do you suggest reading it first?

      • patricia says:

        I think you should read A Clockwork Orange first. I like the book and film. I am not sure how explicit the violent scenes were in the book The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo because I didn’t read it, but the film, in parts was almost unbearable for me.

      • That is an interesting question. When I was younger I would have said read the book first. I didn’t want it spoiled when I went to read it and I enjoyed the outrage at how badly “they” moved it to film. Now I find myself going the other way. I enjoy seeing the movie and then reading the book to see all the subtle and great stuff they left out and to have a “conversation” with the film makers about what on earth they were thinking.

      • TBM says:

        LOL…Patricia and Robert. Maybe I should flip a coin and decide if I should read the book first. Patricia, I read Dragon Tattoo and watched both films (American and Swedish) and all of them were difficult at times. The books do get graphic and I haven’t been able to read the third one since the violence in the second one was too much for me.

  3. I´m not a big fan of violence in films (have never managed to watch Pulp Fiction all the way through!) but seem to be able to deal with it more in books. I do understand though, that it plays a part in some stories but am not keen on it when it´s gratuitous (did I spell that correctly?!).

  4. Colline says:

    Violence is a part of our lives – more so for some people than for others. If the story is about domestic violence, for example, I think it would be appropriate to include such scenes in a book. In order for the description to be authentic, though, it needs to be realistic. If the details are overdone, or if nothing is left for the reader to intuit on his own, then I think it falls flat. Violence for the sake of violence does not encourage me, personally, to continue reading. However if violence was totally excluded from a novel on the second world war, for example, the story would not seem as realistic because war is known for violence. Having said that, though, there is no need to write graphic details that renders the writing unpalatable.

    • TBM says:

      Yes, realistic violence is key. Readers and viewers are smart enough to know what is actually going on, without going into graphic details. And I agree with you, books about WWII have to include violence if they are describing the war front, or it would come across as flat and untrue. If writers stick to the story and stay true to the story, readers will appreciate what they have done. I recently read a review about a historical fiction novel about vikings. The reviewer said that it was violent, but that it worked. I don’t think you can write about vikings and depict them as peaceful warriors. This isn’t to say that all vikings were mean, but I think you get the point. War is hell for all involved.

  5. aFrankAngle says:

    I know that violence is part of life, but in entertainment, to what extent is it necessary? At the movies, I don’t like a lot of violence, thus tend to avoid those. On the other hand, would Girl with the Dragon Tatoo been as good without it … or less of it?

    • TBM says:

      I don’t like seeing extremely graphic violence in movies. I prefer when a filmmaker lets the viewer use their imagination. I think that’s one of the reasons why I love watching Hitchcock films. He’s quite subtle with some of his suspense. But the movie Dragon Tattoo was about violence. Not sure, like you said, you can tell this story without it. It’s a difficult question and all artists have their own approach. As the buyer, we can determine for ourselves what he can handle.

  6. buddhafulkat says:

    I don’t think there is a clear right or wrong way. Life is way to complicated for it to be that simple. As a reader (and writer), I would agree with Ness over Horowitz, but I won’t judge anyone who feels or writes differently. I also enjoy comedy and satire and can see situations where when removed from reality, violence can be light.

    • TBM says:

      I sided with Ness more myself. However, Horowitz does have a point. If his villains die in extremely funny ways, then that’s less traumatizing. I think it comes down to what’s best for the story.

  7. nrlymrtl says:

    I tend to avoid movies and books that leave out violence because that is not true to human nature. Even in fantasy, scifi, any fiction, nearly all of it is based on humanity; hence, if a writer does not acknowledge the violent part of humanity how can they truly capture the good aspects to being human?

    • TBM says:

      That’s an interesting question. In the “real” world we don’t see enough good in people. All the news stories and such focus on the negative to get ratings. However, I think this isn’t working since I know a lot of people who ignore news now since it bums them out.

  8. Novroz says:

    A very interesting post, TBM!!
    For me, violence has to have reason. I don’t like slasher movies because it is so often that the movie only emphasize on the gore without even caring to make a good story and to what reason the antagonist kills/tortures people.

    let’s just say, violence accompanied with good story is the right way to include violence.

    • TBM says:

      I am not a fan of slasher films, but occasionally I will watch them. One of my friends loves them. He says that they are so unbelievable that they’re funny and that’s why he likes them. All of us are different, which makes having one way to handle any subject difficult.

      And yes, a good story will solve all the problems.

  9. zelmare says:

    Difficult topic… I hate violence, like most people, probably. I don’t easily watch movies with violence, and I don’t read ‘violent’ books. I know the reality is that there is a lot of violence in the world, and one can’t get away from that, so if it supports a story, I suppose it is acceptable.

  10. Fergiemoto says:

    Interesting post. I think it depends on the individual and/or their personal experiences with violence.

  11. Caroline says:

    That’s what I was writing about when I wrote my post of Jeanette Winterson’s The Daylight Gate and was asking how gruesome a realistic account of torture and, in that case, witch trials, has to be. The commenst were quite interesting. I still think it can be overdone. We don’t need to throw up just to understand something was horrible. But I’m still not entirely sure if people really understand how horrible something can be, war, torture etc, if it’s not made very clear.
    Novels not based on facts however should refrain from being too graphic.

    • TBM says:

      I have read some novels and have seen some movies that have made me so uncomfortable and squeamish from overdoing the violence. I’m not big into graphic violence. I have to agree with Ness, if you stick with the story, there will be the right balance. It will still be uncomfortable, but it should be. And I don’t know how you can make war more understandable for those who haven’t been there. I cringe over the thought of trench warfare and such. For me, I don’t think I’ll ever understand or comprehend just how horrible it all was: the violence, the emotions, the sounds, the smells–all of it.

  12. A very timely post. Violence nowadays seems to be a mainstream of books, movies , the media, even the so called children games. I think violence should not be included and only be shown to those who are mature enough to handle it. In general, it does not really create any positive values but it’s there because they make tons of money out of it.

    • TBM says:

      Violence does seem to be a money maker. I don’t play any games, but from the commercials I’ve seen on TV they just get more and more violent. For me, they don’t appeal. But I know many people love to play them. My hope is that those who do play, realize that it’s just a game and that violence doesn’t have a place in real life. I can hope.

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