Sex and Violence, Mostly Violence

Sex and Violence, Mostly Violence

First of all, here’s this.

Second of all, I spoil the grossest thing in The Road.

Whether you like it or not, violence is a part of our daily media intake. It’s always been controversial, from Quentin Tarantino to Marilyn Manson, Doom and Grand Theft Auto, but now, I feel, we’ve reached a saturation point where portrayed violence inhibits every corner of our entertainment– how many award winning television series are there on Netflix that don’t shed a drop of blood? Okay, a couple, sure, but those have tits in spades, releasing our other primal reflexes.

I think it’s worth examining the language of violence in media, because violence itself, is a language. In narrative, it’s a cathartic language. Similar to humor and sex, portrayed violence carries out modern anxieties out to a sublimated pasture of fantasy where it can die peacefully: instead of the primal urge to kill getting on top of you and you wake up next to the head of your neighbor because he wouldn’t stop blasting J Beib’s latest single, you watch an episode of Fargo and go to bed understanding the complexities of murder without actually committing any.

In America, portrayals of violence are more common than portrayals of sex. Bruce Campbell has a legendary quote about Hollywood: “You can cut off a breast, you just can’t kiss it.”  A huge part of that is the sex-negative mentality of the USA, but it almost stands at odds with the hyper-sexualization of women in media. Sex sells, after all. Which is true, but when you look at how sex is generally portrayed in Television and Film it’s almost always associated with a point of conflict, trauma, or the highest goal of a sustained relationship instead of something that just happens naturally. Anyway you cut it, sex is the end of something in media. It’s a punctuation.

Whereas violence exists as a means to an end. It’s a driving force that threads the hero along. You think of Obi Wan slicing off that guys arm in the cantina and your inner cave-dweller goes “FUCK YEAH.” And the scene progresses because of it. Our action narratives thrive on the promise of fucking somebody up. No one really cares when John McClain reunites with his wife, that was a given from the start, but serves mostly as a happy bonus– the money shot of the movie is the cruel schadenfreude of watching Hans fall to his death.

But everyone knows that books are more fucked up than films when it comes to violence, or really, anything. We all know that American Psycho was a much more depraved novel than its silver screen counterpart, but why is that? Is dropping a chainsaw on a woman objectively less terrifying than turning a woman into a human rat-maze? Perhaps. Perhaps the written violence disturbs us deeper because of the more explicit sexual component the novel adds to its morbidity. But I think, at least in a large part, it’s something else entirely:

You’re forced to imagine it yourself. You become culpable for the detestable creation in your mind. You, as the reader, are now a co-conspirator in this depravity and are now, in some capacity, responsible.

But what about the writer’s responsibility in portraying violence? In the forward for A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess bemoans that the original US release (and Kubrick’s film adaptation) refused to see the main protagonist as anything other than a violent delinquent, both having excised the final chapter of suggested redemption via free will. Yet, Burgess admits the following:

It seems priggish or pollyanniaish to deny that my intention in writing the work was to titillate the nastier propensities of my readers. My own healthy inheritance of original sin comes out in the book and I enjoyed raping and ripping by proxy. It is the writer’s innate cowardice that makes him depute to imaginary personalities the sins that he is too cautious to commit for himself.

That second bit I’ll take issue with, as I don’t believe the people who write fucked up stuff are necessarily fucked up people (some, surely) so much as I believe that they are using a certain language to cathartically expunge a host of emotions in singular gestures. To Burgess’s point, I will say that there’s a lot of dark psychology that is also expunged from the writer’s mind when writing horrific flourishes– I’m of the school of thought that believes Horror and Dark Fantasy writers are probably the happiest people on earth– which happens to resonate, cathartically, with the reader who will inevitably share a similar shade of a dark mind. In that way, the creative yoke of violence is shared between author and reader such that everyone benefits.

The first part of that quote is about the glee one feels having written something truly disturbing. While drafting The Least of 99 Evils, I wrote perhaps the most gruesome scene in my entire writing career. I immediately went downstairs and told my roommate what I’d just done, laughter spilling out of my mouth. He was disgusted which only elevated my elation higher. You can’t deny that pushing the boundaries of discomfort is a satisfying experience. I call it the discomfort zone.

But let’s talk about how violence gets telegraphed in written narratives, shall we? The overarching principle of writing violence is a gentle touch, followed by a perusal of the aftermath. Everything else is all style.

You have writers who use short, and blunt language to drive home the punches of the scene. James Ellroy excels at this. The most heartbreaking death scene in LA Confidential is a sentence that can’t be longer than half a tweet. You’re left with the sudden realization that this character is dead and you don’t have time to follow up on any details because the rest of the action is moving way too fast. It puts you in the perspective of the other characters and is retrospectively very realistic. Real-world events happen fast. You fill in the details while you color in your memory.

Using medical terminology distances the reader from the grisly details. At first. The realization of the cruelty bestowed becomes clear as the reader translates the terms in their mind and finds (or feels) that spot on their own body. It’s an outside-in strategy that works like a grenade: it takes a couple of seconds, but once it sinks in it’s a repulsion-explosion.

Likewise, you can use metaphor in a similar way. “He held his heart like a rotten apple,” is effective because it forces the reader to imagine holding an apple, bringing the violence (abhorrent behavior) closer to home by suggesting a common, shared experience. And then the wave crashes back when the reader realizes they know what it’s like to hold a human heart.

These two are examples of implicative violence. The reader has to fill in the blank to fully flesh out the scene. In comic writing, implicative violence is frowned upon because it lacks a dynamic image to carry the scene through. Panel one will have a character about to punch another. Panel two is a sunburst that says “POW.” Panel three is the other character with a dent in their forehead. It doesn’t work visually… but in written narrative you have the readership doing your dirt for you and a sequence that portrays a before and after moment can capitalize on the reader’s repulsion reflex in a powerful way. Take Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, for example. In the most grotesque chapter you have a scene that portrays some travelers progressing through the wasteland and one of them is a pregnant woman. The protagonists hole in for the night, wary of these people. In the morning they inspect the travelers’ fire pit and find [UGH]. All of the abhorrent behavior is out of sight, but the resounding image of the aftermath haunts you long after you put the book down.

Which I suppose brings us to explicative violence. I’ve already talked about American Psycho. I’ve already talked about the gleeful plunge into unthinkable acts. It’s fun. Who doesn’t love a zombie’s head exploding with the thunderous clap of a Desert Eagle? But explicative violence can get lost in its own purpose and circularly justifiable in its own narrative presence that I feel the stories that go whole-hog generally read a little flat. An exception is (because I’m on something of a kick) Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian which ups the ante further and further in it’s depravity with every chapter. There’s a lot to be said about that book, but the portrayal of violence never ceased to, quite frankly, amaze me with how low the characters go and how absent their conscience is throughout. McCarthy uses a conglomeration of techniques to get this across. He utilizes metaphor quite a bunch, but isn’t afraid to tell you exactly what’s occurring. He doesn’t use medical terminology so much as he does archaic phrases (in and of themselves in modernity, a metaphorical language). To wit: when a significant player in this madness finally meets his end, his death with an axe is described as “split […] to the thrapple.” It’s obscure, but you know exactly what it means.

Which lands us in a place where we have to merge the two. How can you be explicative and implicit at the same time? Noir authors know. Harkening back to the cold, surgical language above, a body that has sustained terrible damage until death (and usually some more afterwards) is a device that is used to at once remove and include the reader to the shock. And there are interesting ways the author can format this. James Ellroy (again) puts the body front and center in the beginning of the novel and includes details that nearly made me barf. Raymond Chandler uses a body, in shocking, ironic terms to the casual breeze of Marlowe’s verbiage, as a way of connecting the story to real-life stakes: grisly death.

But it’s Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 that capitalized on this technique to an effect that still haunts me. He wrote all of the implicative violence it in police reports which, by nature, tend to be cold and surgically accurate. Around 200 pages of police reports about the serial femicide are written in stoic fashion. Just one after the other. It centers around the fictional city of Santa Teresa, recalling a calamity of real, unfortunate events that actually happened in Ciudad Juárez. Knowing that only makes the book harder to digest.

For knowing all that I know about the world, and having read a pile of fucked up books, I’ll say this: we’re just animals who learned how to write…

Animals with a good appreciation for not actually killing each other. The reality of which stings in our nostrils.

And so we write fucked up shit sometimes.

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Zelda as a Writing Tool

Zelda as a Writing Tool

My last post was about tapping into a mental state to encourage an improvisational approach to writing fiction. I don’t want to give the impression that writing fiction doesn’t take a whole helluva lotta consideration of organization and presentation or forethought.

What I am proposing is that there’s some mental shorthand you can use to make story telling fundamentals a little more intuitive. I learned this through the necessity of being a borderline criminally disorganized person.

What I mean by mental shorthand is a concept you can feel and visualize in your mind in place of a quantifiable, rigid set of rules. Think of it as a nemonic device for the fundamentals.

Let’s start with narrative structure. Fiction demands you pay attention to this. It’s one of the hardest things to grok (especially after you’ve written a complete work) and it takes reading piles of books and scrutinizing their organization with the intensity of a serial killer. If you don’t know where to start, I highly recommend revisiting Shakespeare (5 Act structure) because all of his work is separated neatly into acts and because you won’t be able to understand 70% of what’s being said, you’re more likely to feel how a scene plays out instead of relying on what information is being shared.

There are far better pieces on the basic elements of a story (if you aren’t familiar with The Hero’s Journey, or The Rules of Fairy Tales, or the Act Structure give those links a read. Sorry that the fairy tale link is so crappy. Best I could do.)

So, what serves as good mental forehand for story structure? What about, say, the game design of a dungeon from The Legend of Zelda? (Nerd alert: I’ll be in the cafeteria trading rock collections if anyone wants to give me a justified ass-kicking.) There’s no denying that by any reasonable standard, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is nearly a perfect video game. I like to use it as an example, because I’ve played through it so many times, I can mentally pass through almost every dungeon to the point that I can give somebody a pretty thorough walk through over the phone while I’m cooking dinner. Maybe your mental shorthand, or fundamental allegory, is a movie, or a painting, or a concept album. Maybe it’s a sick skate video. Maybe you’ve got it in your blood. Me? Zelda.

Let’s break down a Zelda dungeon.

  1. You enter and familiarize yourself with the atmosphere, and are given the task to complete the dungeon.
  2. You encounter enemies and puzzles of increasing difficulty
  3. You get to a point where you cannot continue without a specific tool
  4. You fight a mini-boss and receive the special item
  5. You utilize this special item to defeat and complete harder enemies and puzzles.
  6. You face and defeat the boss in an epic battle of Man v Monster
  7. The Dungeon resolves, you get a heart container and a piece of the plot is revealed

What the game designers knew is that they are driving a story through the format of game. They knew that that having the puzzles that you can’t solve without the item don’t have a place in the beginning. There needs to be build. They knew that you can’t have the mini-boss in the beginning or after the final boss battle. They knew that situations need to be developed such that the player gets better at the game before offering new challenges. they know that they have to offer rewards and they know where and when to place them. That’s what creates the story of a hero overcoming gradual conflicts.

Now let’s write a quick and dirty mystery plot with a few switcharoos.

  1. A detective is tasked with solving a murder of a senator.
  2. There are interests, I don’t know, The White House, that don’t want the case solved
  3. The detective loses a fist fight with another gumshoe
  4. Suspecting his rival for the murder, our hero follows him and learns that while he’s innocent in the murder, he’d been hired by The White House to jam up his investigation.
  5. Our hero throws this information in the President’s face, threatening to contact the newspapers and the President backs off
  6. Free from misdirection, the detective solves the murder. The Senator’s cat did it or something.
  7. The Detective leaves and contemplates the events of the story, inquiring for meaning in a bleak and cynical world.

It’s not a great story, but you can see how the beats match up to the break down of the dungeon. You can also apply this to the micro level in individual scenes to make sure that the scene stays active. I confess I’m not always on point with this, largely in part because I think it’s funny to let a scene sit awkwardly for an extra beat and have characters argue with each other before proceeding (which is still conflict, so hey).

I bring this up because making charts and lists and spreadsheets is tedious work and if you, like me, are something of an improvisationalist, then it’s a lot easier to feel out your written world in terms of something familiar and fun instead of clinical and boring.

There’s a good chance you’ll have to make a chart or timeline anyway. But that shouldn’t mean you should rob yourself of fun methods in your toolbox. Enjoying writing and producing working fiction needn’t be mutually exclusive.

Hi there! Are you here to see my wicked rock collection?