Delilah S. Dawson: 25 Blood-Spattered Tips For Writing Violence
Delilah is one of those people to whom I will toss the keys to this blog, no matter the purpose. I do worry that one day I’ll come home to find that every blog page is just ALL WORK AND NO PLAY MAKES DELILAH A BITEY WOMBAT but so far that hasn’t happened. So, once again, I hand over the keys. A round of roaring applause (which autocorrected to ‘applesauce’ for some reason, so I guess give her that, too) for Delilah S. Dawson, please and thank you.
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I’ve been in hundreds of fights, all of them in my head. From the old man on the elevator who insulted my dog’s manners to my 8th grade French teacher, I have imagined the crunch of knuckles in cheekmeat and the crisp smack of an elbow against some deservingly dickish teeth. But writing those fights so that they’re realistic, accurate, and exciting? Takes a lot of work. Almost as much work as writing sex scenes.
Now that I’ve got nearly a dozen traditionally published works under my belt, the latest one — HIT — with a rather high body count, I’d like to give you some tips on writing violence.
Mmm. Delicious violence.
1. You’re not writing a manual.
A great fight scene moves quickly, providing exactly enough detail to help the reader picture what’s occurring. The worst fight scenes read like college textbooks, listing action after action in hideously descriptive detail without any emotion, reaction, or, as they say, punch. The characters are not putting together an Ikea bookshelf; they’re dancing with blood.
2. You’re not writing a memoir.
The other side of that coin is that a fight can’t be all memories and feelings and grand similes for pain. When you get throatpunched, you don’t wax philosophical about that time as a child when you saw a sparrow fall from the sky. The reader needs to know the emotional and physical impact of the fight but not the minutiae of every loose tooth.
3. You’re not writing a sex scene.
There is no ever-spiraling tornado of tension. If you look an angry man (or bear!) in the eye too long, he’s going to hit you. Fights happen fast, and you don’t have time to close your eyes and savor every busted knuckle. It’s not wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am. It’s wham-bam-slam-ow-ow-ow. And the climax involves going to the hospital for stitches.
4. Except– WAIT. It’s almost like writing a sex scene.
Because we are talking about flesh pounding against flesh, growing hot and slippery. With blood. But there’s a dance to it, the partners taking turns, hunting for openings, and slamming into each other again and again. And, just like with sex scenes, you have to respect that a fight changes things, moves the plot and characters forward, and leaves everyone exhausted and panting. Gratuitous violence is as useless as gratuitous sex.
5. You can learn a lot from reading great violence.
Have you read HEROES DIE by Matthew Stover? If not, go get it. Read it. Love it. I’ll wait.
Point being, the best way to learn how to write great violence is to read great violence. Study the rhythm, the vocabulary, the timing. Study the greats. Watch that scene in the new Sherlock Holmes where Robert Downey Jr. describes the fight in slow-mo. But…
6. You can also learn from horribly done violence.
Reading a bad fight scene is just painful. You wince. You have no idea what’s going on. You just hope that a velociraptor will run in and kill everyone so it’ll be over. You want to punch the author in the giblets.
7. If you’ve never been in a fight before, GO GET IN A FIGHT.
Note: I am not suggesting that you go to the local dive bar, find a guy with prison tatts, and say something about his mother and army boots. Don’t do that. I don’t want to be responsible for your hepatitis. But there’s probably a local martial arts or boxing academy where you could take some classes. Because the thing is: You need to know what it feels like to be hit. There’s no substitute for the jarring surprise of getting clocked, for the animal success of landing a punch, for knowing exactly how long a black eye lasts and the various Crayola colors it will turn on the way back to normal.
If you can actually spar, all the better. I remember how mind-shattering it was the first time I got hit, because no one had ever tried to punch me before. And I was surprised at my own instinctual aggression, too. Your brain sometimes doesn’t know the difference between “I could die in this street fight” or “This instructor is going gently on me while I wear my cushy, sexy, pink headgear and mouthguard.” So give your brain a (safe, controlled) chance to feel that, if you can.
8. Unless you’re writing Superman, everyone has a weakness.
Sorry not sorry, but no one is invulnerable. Even if you’ve got The Rock battling Thor, someone is going to get destroyed, or at least have their armor crushed a little. I’ve read fight scenes where someone gets hit by a car, then takes six bullets and keeps fighting, and… well, it can fly in Justified, but not so much in real life. Go bang your funny bone on a table and try to do anything but caterwaul in a corner for ten minutes. Invulnerability is boring and unrealistic, and your reader will start to mutter under their breath if you stretch believability too far regarding how long a character can fight with both arms cut off.
9. Blood is constrained by physics.
The human body contains about 1.5 gallons of blood. Lose 2-3 pints, and you’re going to pass out. Lose 4-5 pints, and you die. At least, that’s what Yahoo Answers says. Point being, whatever damage is done in your fight is going to affect the fighters. Even if you’re tough, having an open wound bleeding into your eye is going to make it troublesome. Broken ribs, sprains, kidney punches—they’re going to take their toll. Unless you’re Tarantino, you can only paint the room with so much blood before you have two empty, floppy meatsacks. Hyperviolence works better in movies, where we’re distracted by abs and sweat and painterly blood spatters. No, Tina Belcher, that’s not what actually happened in Sparta.
10. Adrenaline is great, but it will only get you so far.
They tell us that adrenaline can give you the strength to lift a car off your child, but… uh… are we talking a Yaris or a 1972 Oldsmobile? And what if you have five kids and you’re on the third car? Point being, even the most superhuman squirt of adrenaline is going to wear off, leaving your protagonist weak-kneed, dizzy, and drained. If you’re going to push her through an insane fight, you’re going to have to show her crawling into bed to sleep for seventeen hours. We in the SFF world are known for saying, “Magic has a price,” and the price of a berserker fight is exhaustion and hunger.
11. Healing takes time.
Back when I was on my husband’s work softball team, I slid into third and gave myself the most spectacular injury. It was a crusty, bleeding abrasion on top of an epic rug burn on top of a two-foot-long 3D bruise that took a month to stop swelling and changing color. I had to spend two days in bed slathering myself with arnica and trading out ice poultices, and then I couldn’t wear skirts for a season or people thought I was a zombie. Point being, I wasn’t fighting a den of vampires and werewolves with vibroswords—all I did was slide into third base wearing pants.
Cuts must be tended. Bruises will go through many stages from purple goose egg to yellow blob. Split lips will open and crust over. Black eyes take a while to open and de-puff. Unless your character has a superpower that heals him instantly, you’re going to have to honor his suffering and the weird looks people give him when he shows up to work at the daycare covered in scabs.
12. Like, a lot of time.
If you’ve ever opened a stitch when you thought a wound was sealed, you know this all too well. Healing takes longer than the character wants it to—and much longer than the author would like. That’s why so many authors build in methods to speed healing and move the story along—like ingesting vampire blood in the Sookie Stackhouse world or drawing a healing rune in The Mortal Instruments. If you have a Fantasy world and a character who gets in a lot of fights, build in a way to get them back into fighting shape, fast—an elvish salve, a magic spell. If you’re in our world, prepare to google things like, “How long does it take stitches to dissolve?” and “Can you fight with a dislocated, relocated shoulder?” When we, as writers, build a massive fight scene, there must be an equal and opposite healing span, or the reader loses faith.
This brought to you by the girl who broke open her c-section scar carrying a baby to the mailbox.
13. There is lasting emotional aftermath. Trauma is traumatic.
I learned this one the hard way when I broke my back and started having nightly panic attacks. Your mouth says, “That was no big deal,” and your brain says, “OMIGOD WHAT WAS THAT I ALMOST DIED THAT WAS TOTALLY A BIG DEAL,” and then they fight over it. Whether your character has PTSD or night sweats or a daily crisis of faith, you have to connect violence and its aftermath to their psyche. Healing takes time, but there may always be triggers that bring those memories to the forefront of a character’s mind. Not to mention that some wounds cause emotional damage and can make a character doubt themselves, become depressed, or work out harder to overcompensate. It can be all too easy for an author to ignore this aspect of a character’s development, but damage is damaging, trauma is traumatic, and violence sometimes leaves us with permanent disabilities and scars.
In my latest book, HIT, the main character is forced to become a bounty hunter, and she struggles with how to protect who she is while doing very bad things. As the story progresses and the bodies pile up, the effects on her psyche become harder to repress, and she starts having the symptoms of PTSD. Committing violence changes people irrevocably, as does being the victim of violence.
14. When in doubt, do your research to avoid looking like a moron.
Nothing makes my husband more angry at a movie than a slow-mo gun shot that shows a bullet flying out of the barrel… with its casing intact. Except maybe a poorly done jiu-jitsu hold. If you’re going to write a specific sort of violence, chances are some of your audience is going to know more than you do about it, and if you botch it up, they’re going to let you (and all of Amazon and Goodreads) know. When in doubt, ask an expert, take a police procedural class, visit Wikipedia, crowdsource, read a book, or—my favorite—try out whatever it is you’re using. Because…
15. There is no substitute for (controlled!) experience.
You don’t know what recoil feels like until you’ve shot several guns. You don’t know how much pressure it takes to load a crossbow or shoot a compound bow until you’ve held one in your hands. If you’ve never used a knife outside of a steakhouse, you don’t know how to grip it. So go find out. After all, if you’re a writer, it’s tax deductible! And there are usually plenty of places, people, and classes to help you learn.
I say this when I’m speaking on writing sex scenes, too. Before writing a scene about scrumping in the hayloft, you need to go sit your bare butt on a hay bale and tell me how sexy it feels. Because your job as a writer is to keep the reader in the story and compelled to keep going, and once a reader begins to doubt you, they’re not in the book anymore. That’s why I took several trapeze classes before writing a sex scene set in a circus. The details will be more real if you’ve lived it.
16. Plant your Chekhov’s guns and tend the soil. With manure and blood.
If your character is going to do wing chun in chapter 7, you need to frontload his time in the dojo. If she’s going to make her own arrows in the last chapter, we need something early on about her uncle, the fletcher. Fighting prowess is not accidental, and if your character pulls an entire martial arts discipline out of their ass in the middle of a fight, we’re going to groan. Same goes for flawless aim or the ability to give neat stitches, survive in the forest, or do a chokehold on an assailant.
Don’t believe me? Tell me how you felt when Mal got stabbed in Serenity and then hopped up to fight, and he later mentioned destroying a nerve cluster in the war. You can watch all of Firefly and Serenity, and that injury was never mentioned, which makes it a cheap writer trick, in my book. My writer brain says, “Oh, you JUST SO HAPPENED to get stabbed in THAT EXACT ONE-SQUARE-INCH AREA, HUH? CHEAP.” And then I finish my eleventy-hundredth series rewatch as revenge.
17. Plenty of violence is accidental, and that’s okay.
Ah, the elegant beauty of a professionally choreographed fight scene with wires and eight hours of training a day by the world’s most renowned experts. Unforch, real life is not Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and none of us can dodge a bullet like Neo. Fights are most often dirty, rough, quick, and full of accidental elbows and broken chairs. Your character will stumble into walls or get her fingers snagged in the attacker’s hair. I can’t even walk through my own house without hitting my hip on a doorknob, so chances are that when a character’s life is on the line, they’re not going to do a perfectly executed armless cartwheel off a pristine dumpster. Let it get messy. Throw in accidents that hurt and accidents that damn. Let them stumble, let them fall. Blood is very slippery, after all.
18. 90% of fights are over in the first 30 seconds.
That’s what they told us at the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu academy where I studied muay thai and BJJ. Most fights go to the ground and are over crazy fast. And that means that if your fight goes on for an hour and gets very balletic, the characters remaining on their feet, thinking clearly, and shiny clean, we’re going to doubt you. If Chuck points a gun at Sam and talks for twenty minutes, Sam is either going to attack or a corgi is going to start barking or someone is going to stop and ask them why they have a gun out at the toy store. If Robin Hood has his arrow nocked, he most likely won’t be able to give a three-minute long speech on how he always knew it was Mean Old Mr. Mulligan in a monster mask—at least not without his arm trembling or the arrow accidentally flinging off into the sky. Yes, violence in books takes longer to describe and often goes on a bit, but… a ten-page fight is going to not only be realistic, but also boring. Do what you need to do and move on.
19. Most fights get dirty. Really dirty.
Look, I know we grew up with the Dread Pirate Roberts fighting Inigo Montoya, but that is not how real fights go, much less acts of violence. It’s not even River-in-Serenity-balletic or Crazy-88-beautiful. Hair is pulled, eyes are clawed, junk is kneed, telephones are used as bludgeons. The bad guy does not always pause meaningfully to explain his reasoning, giving the good guy time to go from on his knees in handcuffs to suddenly swinging a lacrosse stick around with startlingly good aim.
Let me put it this way: the first real fight I saw involved skinheads curb-stomping a guy outside of a club at college, and I’ve never forgotten that sound. They did not stop to explain anything, either– just stomped the dude and ran before I could pull out my briefcase-sized phone.
20. If your character isn’t accustomed to fighting, they’re going to freak out.
Most of us have two responses to unexpected violence: flail or freeze. It’s kind of like fight or flight but not nearly as useful. Sometimes it also involves the ol’ piss and shit or puke and shake. Really, your body has a very good chance of falling apart on you if you’ve never faced real violence before. Unless you’ve pre-loaded a character with superpowers or Joss Whedon brain-whammying, your mild-mannered librarian isn’t going to go into ninja mode and do a triple flip over a werewolf before breaking its skull with her first punch. Even people who have extensive training in martial arts or on the shooting range might freak out the first time they must apply their knowledge to a real-life situation.
Thing is, your brain doesn’t want you to stick around and get hurt. Your heart doesn’t want to pull the trigger, whether you’re staring down a doe in a field or a burglar in your kitchen. So it’s perfectly natural for a wide variety of characters to do the opposite of what is helpful in any given violent situation. Let them. Their reaction should be unique to them, their situation, their backstory, their physical state, and every feature you’ve loaded them with, and that makes them real and relatable.
21. Mistakes will be made.
Once you take into account the previous 20 points, you can see that… people mess up. Whether they don’t pull the trigger when they should, they let the bad guy on the elevator, or they punch the wrong person, you have to let your characters mess up. No fight is perfect, and no character is perfect. Let them storm off or apologize or break into tears. Let them watch someone die because they screwed up. Mistakes show us who characters truly are, and how they learn and fix their mistakes shows us who they will become.
22. No matter how ugly the fight is, your language should be beautiful.
Myke hit Django, and then Jason hit Myke. Jason’s hand hurt, so he fell to the ground. Django roared and jumped on Myke’s back, and they knocked Ty into a giraffe. Chuck screamed at Diana, and she kicked him in the nads. UGH, NO. A fight needs the same mix of names, pronouns, nouns, verbs, prepositional phrases, and linguistic tingles as any other scene. It’s not a laundry list of actions, nor a roll-call. We need actions, feelings, dialog, descriptions, and the occasional well-placed simile. Short sentences have more oomph, so it’s probably not the best time to go all Faulkner. The rhythm of your sentences should suit and mirror the fight and give the reader occasional breathing room. Your voice should be there, even during a fight.
23. Readers crave revenge and justice.
There’s a reason I name all the bad guys in my books David, Chad, and Jimbo: those are the names of the guys who bullied and abused me when I was a teen. I didn’t get justice then, so this is my revenge—those names, again and again, getting shot and neutered and destroyed in my books. That’s because normal people want to read about the revenge they can’t have in real life—like the printer assassination in Office Space. If you start off with an injustice against your main character, your reader is waiting to see that character face the villain and take them down. And that means that if you set us up to hate a character, to want to see a character punished, it’s your job to make sure that justice is served, often in the form of a knuckle sandwich and grisly death. Don’t let bad guys off the hook or end their showdowns anticlimactically. Let us feel the heartpunch of beautiful, delicious revenge.
24. If you’ve written it well, the reader might not notice.
The thing about great violence—and great writing in general—is that the reader doesn’t notice it. The story pulls them through, and they forget to eat, and they skip bedtime, and they can’t think of anything else as they gallop toward the conclusion. That’s what you’re going for—an effortless experience. You never want the reader to surface, to pause, to put the book down. And that means that your violence should fit in with the plot, with the character arcs, with the reality of your worldbuilding. The fight should make sense, be easy to follow, have tension, and be satisfying, or at least set the characters up for another important moment down the line. Every scene and every word should serve a purpose. The highest praise I can give a fight scene is a fist pump or tears. Or both.
25. For the love of all that’s holy, do not kill the dog.
Or, in Chuck’s case, THE GRACKLE, YOU MONSTER. [ahem, I don’t know what she’s talking about — c.] There’s just something about the human heart that will allow us to watch eighty-eight people in tuxedos die horrifically without a single thought about the broken-hearted parents and lonely lovers and orphaned children they leave behind, but if someone flicks a kitten in the face, we rise up like Poseidon to drown the world with hot, foaming saltwater tears of piss and rage. Do not kill the pets. Ever. Trust me on this one. Or at least trust my agent, who has softened my heart over the course of five years so that I no longer put puppies in peril. Much. Except for that dog I shoot in HIT. Maybe.
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My hardcover YA, HIT, is about what would happen if banks took over America, made debt a crime, and forced teens into becoming bounty hunters. As you can imagine, there’s lots of violence. Up until a suit from Valor Savings Bank shows up at her front door with a 9mm, the most rebellion Patsy has ever attempted was yarn bombing, but suddenly, she’s got no choice. Kill or be killed. You can read the first chapter and order it at www.hitbookseries.com.