Saturday, July 21, 2018

How Do You Handle the Nasties?

This month our Round Robin blog topic is: How do you handle/use violence, or any type of danger, in your stories?

For me, being a non-violent person (read mile-wide yellow streak down my spine) I find it very difficult to write villains and villainy into my stories. Murder mysteries and thrillers with graphic content tend to make me squirm or give up reading or watching them. That’s not to say that I can’t appreciate good writing or great acting, just that I’d rather not have my sleep disturbed by bad dreams after experiencing it. Case in point – I had to stop watching Criminal Minds because of the nightmares it gave me. Yes, folks, that’s just how much it upset me.

However, conflict is a must-have to write a good story. Without conflict there really is no story. I think of the example I have given to writing classes in the past of a couple cleaning their teeth. They go into the bathroom. He takes the cap off the tube of toothpaste, squeezes the tube in the middle to get the required amount of paste on his brush, gives her the tube. She squeezes the tube in the same place and as soon as her toothbrush is loaded, she screws the cap back on. It's routine. It’s boring. Nothing happens. It does not move the story forward. Heck, it isn’t even a story.

BUT – what if they don’t go into the bathroom together? What if he goes in first, showers, shaves, cleans his teeth?
What if he squeezes the tube in the middle and she squeezed the tube from the bottom, rolling it up as each part of it becomes flattened? What if he always throws the tube on the side of the basin and leaves the cap off, allowing just a bit of toothpaste to escape and make a mess on the porcelain which causes her to yell at him? And he yells right back “it’s only frigging toothpaste!” What if this happens morning after morning until she could just shoot him? Oh, oh. Did I say, ‘shoot him’? This is not routine. It’s not boring. We have conflict. We have a story.  

When I write my own stories, I write the ‘nice’ bits first – the characters and things that come easily to me. Then I have to weave in the nefarious stuff. The nasty cousin, the thief in the night, or the blackmailer. But I work out their character lines as much as I do for my hero or heroine. I want to know what has made my characters the way they are, nice, naughty or just plain nasty. The results may never grace a page, but at least I know what makes them tick and can convey as much as is necessary through introspection or dialogue. I have to have some measure of empathy for my villains and hope my readers understand that. 

Two books that I have read a couple of times each for spine-tingling, edge-of-my-seat suspense and examples of how to build tension are Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot and Dean Koontz’s Innocence. Neither has the kind of graphic, visual hit that makes me want to peer through my fingers. Rather, it is a slow build-up of little details that draw me in. If it’s an out and out fight scene, I don’t think anyone sets that up as well as Lee Child does in his Jack Reacher books. I mostly write Regency romance, but the basics apply to any era. In my second Regency I needed to set up a sword-fight scene so went to my local sword fencing club and got so much more information than if I had just read about it or watched YouTube clips – although I have to admit I find YouTube an enormously useful tool.  

Writers are a resourceful lot and what works for one may not work for another. Let’s visit the authors listed her and see what works for them.


  1. This is an interesting response to the subject matter, Victoria. I like the sword fighting research - it is so much more interesting to engage actively or to interview people than to just read up on something or watch video clips. Intriguing how you write the nice bits first!

  2. I agree there are some things I won't watch or read - but for me it's twisted insanity - really, REALLY sick minds and the things they think up to do. I know it's all around me, but it's not entertainment even if it does move the story forward. Your observation about the toothpaste is equally true - hashing through every boring detail can have the reader slamming the book shut. Pick and chose the details that add to the tension and conflict and let the reader imagine the rest.

  3. I can't watch Criminal Minds either and often wonder who is learning what from the show and I hope I don't meet them. I also share that yellow streak but can imagine violence. The scene you set up sounds so much like so many marriages... hope they settle the matter peaceably, but conflict is what creates tension. Great post Victoria.

  4. I write my stories in a linear manner. I can't hope and skip around with scenes. I have to write them as they happen, to maintain continuity. But if it works for you, writing the nice scenes first, then adding in the conflict, more power to you!

    The only violence I enjoy is the cartoon-type, like in the comic book movies, where just like in the Road-Runner cartoons, you always know that even when the anvil lands directly on the coyote's head, he'll just get up and get back to chasing the road runner. Cartoons never get hurt by the violence. Anything else has to have real consequences, and in my mind, to be used sparingly...especially in romance novels!