The Writing Show Recap: Killing Your Darlings: How to Handle Violence in Your Stories

JRW’s March Writing Show presented a panel of authors discussing violence in writing, a topic influenced by the recent school shootings. The panelists included Bill Blume, Howard Owen, Hermine Pinson, and Mary Burton. Moderator Douglas Jones guided an exploration of subjects ranging from audience, accuracy, and what it’s like to kill your characters. During the last part of the show, audience members seized the opportunity to ask their own questions.

The authors shared varied thoughts about audience. Bill responded that in his genre of young adult fiction, he avoids graphic details to ensure appropriateness for his son and daughter. Howard said his stories climax with an inevitable violent collision, although he avoids sensationalizing it, and not all of his characters are brutal. Hermine shared her approach: a commitment to being a witness and not thinking of her audience until she tells the story she needs to tell. Mary spoke about her switch from non-violent historical novels to suspense thrillers, in which the audience is comfortable with and expects violence. She shared that she experiments with different levels of violence, often finding the impact just as effective when she leaves as much as possible up to the reader’s imagination.

Doug then explored the topic of research and realism. The panelists underscored the importance of not losing a reader because of inaccuracies. Bill referred to his years as a 911 dispatcher as excellent fodder, although the work is necessarily desensitizing. “You pick up much more doing than reading,” Mary said, describing her participation in the Police Academy for Writers in Greensboro, the Henrico County Citizen Academy, and the FBI Citizen’s Academy. Howard said, “The writer is like a referee; you don’t know he or she is there. You want the reader to forget you.” He once asked a Richmond Times-Dispatch journalist who had witnessed many executions what it looked like, smelled like, and felt like. For Richmond Noir, Hermine visited Jackson Ward and chanced upon the old slave burial grounds that were at the time covered in a parking lot. The location became a turning point in her story.

The panelists discussed ways violence can be felt without describing the violent act, and the difference between “terror, horror, and the gross out.” They explored definitions of conflict and violence, and pondered why we are so fascinated by sociopaths. The panelists highlighted the importance of tension and establishing what the characters fear most, whether rats or dirt or blood. The reader must care about the victim. They suggested avoiding “torture porn,” when a writer adds to the body count without reason, because the reader becomes numb to it.

Audience members asked questions ranging from the role of comedy in violence to whether the panelists were worried about sociopaths mirroring their characters’ horrendous acts. One participant sought advice on how to improve her writing, and the panelists’ suggestions included writing numerous drafts, paying attention to how other authors choreograph violence, and walking slowly in the character’s shoes.

Last words: Different levels of violence work for different genres, audiences, and stories, and good writing requires research, revision, and purpose.

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