I am a non-violent person. While I served in the U S Navy, I didn’t see combat, but I was involved in the Cuban Missile Crisis. The only time I have actually been in a fight was when I was about ten. At summer camp, I got into a fight with an older, bigger boy who didn’t like me. (Come to think of it, I didn’t like him much, either.) For the first couple of minutes, I was giving at good as I got, but then his superior size and strength took over, and I was beaten up.
Violence happens. We all know that, and sometimes a writer finds himself in a position where he has to write about it. When writing about violence, I try to keep several things in mind. First of all, violence is fast moving, so the description has to move rapidly. So rapidly that sometimes the reader has to fill in the details with her imagination. Details just slow the action down, and the violence loses its horror. To keep the action moving, I try to use short sentences, so that the action seems staccato. When describing violence, I want to minimise the number of adjectives and adverbs, sticking as close as I can to nouns and verbs. This also keeps the action moving rapidly. Finally, I think it’s best to use hard clear (punchy) words.
Here’s an example from Fishing in Foreign Seas. Jamie and Caterina are on their honeymoon in Mombasa, Kenya. They are walking back to their hotel after dinner at a nearby restaurant.
The road was nearly deserted, it was hot, and Jamie had taken off his jacket, which was folded over one arm.
“Good evening to you!” It was a male voice with a Kenyan accent. Jamie turned slightly and saw the man, dressed in a brown T-shirt and jeans, overtaking them.
Jamie said, “Good evening.”
Then the man swerved toward them and said: “Give me your money!” He was inches away from Jamie, who reacted without thinking. He punched the man in his mid-section and then delivered a kick which sent the man to the ground.
“Give us your money, man!” This from another man who had emerged from the shadows in front of them. He advanced rapidly toward Jamie, who suddenly saw the gleam of a blade in the man’s hand. Jamie stepped back and flung his jacket at the man. The jacket covered the man’s face, and as he came on, Jamie kicked out at him, connecting solidly with a leg. The man sprawled headlong forward, dropping the knife. Jamie seized the knife and stood looking down at the man. The man rolled away, and got to his feet. He glared at Jamie for a moment; then he said: “Come on, Joe.” The first man struggled to his feet, and the two of them disappeared.
Then, there’s this example of bullying from Sin & Contrition. It takes place in the boys’ restroom at school. Gary and Gene have been demanding candy from Xing, a smaller, Chinese classmate.
“Oh hi, Chinkie,” Gary intoned with an insincere smile, “Where’s our extra candy?”
“I can’t get it,” Xing said softly, hurriedly rinsing his hands.
Gary moved close to Xing: “’I can’t get it, Sir Aramis’ is what you meant to say – right, Chinkie?”
Xing moved away and drew a paper towel from the dispenser. “I can’t get it,” he repeated.
Threateningly, Gary said: “No, Chinkie, that won’t do. We deserve to be treated respectfully.” And he took a hold of the smaller boy’s shirt.
Wordlessly, Xing pushed Gary away.
“Now, just a minute, Chinkie. We haven’t finished our conversation,” Gary said through clenched teeth, and he balled his right fist.
This time, Xing anticipated the blow, and turned so that it struck him in the ribs rather than the belly. “Leave me alone!” he shouted, and he hit Gary in the throat with a chopping blow.
Gary recoiled, then rushed forward in a frenzy at having been thwarted. He aimed a roundhouse punch at Xing. Instantaneously, Xing blocked the blow with his arm, and landed another chopping blow, this time on Gary’s neck.
“You little bastard,” Gary shouted, realising for the first time that Xing knew how to fight. “I’m going to fix you good!” And he hurled himself at Xing, who was able to partially sidestep the rush, striking Gary in the belly.
Gary doubled over in pain, and Xing turned to go, but Gary attacked again – this time landing a solid blow on Xing’s shoulder. Xing responded with a kick to Gary’s shin.
Gene, who had been watching, began to realise that his friend would not beat Xing in a stand-up fight. “He’s too quick and he’s using Karate, or something,” he thought. The two combatants jockeyed for position in front of Gene, with Gary taking the worst of it. The thought sprang into Gene’s head: “I can’t let Gary down! It’s ‘all for one’!”
Suddenly, Xing had his back to Gene, and Gene reacted immediately: he kicked out at Xing’s legs, landing a blow behind one of Xing’s knees.
Xing crumpled to the floor, and Gary flung himself onto the smaller boy. In a fury, Gary began to pummel Xing, hitting him on either side of his head and in the face with his clenched fists.
Xing began to scream, and cry out for mercy, but Gary refused to stop until Gene grabbed Gary’s shoulders and shouted at him: “That’s enough, Gary! You’re going to really hurt him!”
In painful triumph, Gary stood and looked down at Xing, whose face was bruised, battered and bleeding. “That’ll teach you, you little shit!” he spat out venomously.
And, finally, this passage from Sin & Contrition. LaMarr and his buddy Mason are on guard duty at a Marine base near Hue during the Vietnam War.
LaMarr was nervous. He looked at his watch; the luminous dial said three fifty-three. Still another two hours to go, he thought. Quietly, he walked to the other end of his sentry position, brushing aside the invisible foliage. Deeper in the jungle, a bird called out an alarm, and monkeys in the treetops took it up. Something’s going on in there! He stood still, listening. Nothing but the monkeys, and now several birds. Dawn was still an hour away, and he tried to peer through the pre-dawn glimmer. Was that something moving over there – behind those trees – maybe thirty yards? Yes! It was something bigger than a monkey. Now, two dark shapes. No! Three or four moving between those trees. LaMarr shouted out the challenge: “September five!” (to which the correct response would have been ‘eleven whiskey’) but there was no response. Even the birds and monkeys seemed to be listening.
LaMarr raised his rifle and fired a single shot above, but in the direction of the shapes. Out of the jungle came a cacophony of yells and high pitched battle cries. LaMarr could see a line of muzzle flashes ahead. He shouted “hit the deck!” to Mason, whose position was thirty-five yards to his right. From the ground, he realized he could see nothing. He crawled rapidly to a large tree, and cautiously rose behind it, his M16 now on full automatic. Peeking around the tree, he spotted the muzzle flashes again. They were clustered right there! He fired a burst from the M16, and paused. There were several loud cries. Were they orders or have I hit someone? He heard Mason fire three bursts in quick succession, and from his muzzle flashes, he could just make him out – also standing behind a tree. It was absolutely silent for a long moment. Then there was a shout from the jungle. That was definitely an order! The battle cries and the firing from the forest resumed. LaMarr heard bullets strike his tree; one tore off a chunk of bark just above his head. He dropped down to one knee, but still able to see the enemy’s position, and partially shielded by the tree. He fired until his clip was empty. Pulling a fresh clip from his jacket, he saw Mason firing again. “Take cover, Mason!” he shouted.
We’re bound to get some backup from camp soon! Then he heard the shouting from the barracks behind him. There was another period of silence from the jungle. Suddenly, ahead and to his right a heavy machine gun opened up. It was firing toward Mason’s position. LaMarr fired a burst at it. There was shouting from that direction, and then it resumed its loud, staccato chatter. Bullets sprayed through the forest, tearing large splinters from his tree.
Mason shouted: “LaMarr, I’m hit!”
“Hang on, buddy! I’ll be with you in a minute!” Gotta get that machine gun first! Rifle’s no good in this situation!
LaMarr crawled on his belly for perhaps twenty yards, hearing the clatter of the gun and its bullets flitting through the jungle growth above him. He pulled a grenade from his jacket, and waited for the firing to cease. Cautiously, he raised his head just it time to see the muzzle flashes as the gun directed its fire at the camp. LaMarr pulled the pin and lobbed the grenade. There was a loud concussion and a bright flash. Then silence. LaMarr could hear reinforcements pouring out of the camp, and he heard Mason moan. Rising so that he could run bent double, LaMarr dropped down next to Mason. “Where are you hit, buddy?”
“Here!” Mason was covering his lower belly with his hands, and pleading. “LaMarr, help me! I don’t want to die!”
LaMarr said: “You’ll be OK, Mason! Just hang in there!” Then he shouted: “Medic! . . . There’s a man down! We need a medic over here!”
Gently but firmly, LaMarr pulled Mason’s hands away from his wound. In the semi-darkness, he could make out the dark stain which was spreading over Mason’s trousers. “Let me get a dressing on you!” He fumbled in his pack for the medical supply kit, and tore it open. He wrestled with Mason’s belt and trousers until he exposed the wound: an ugly tear just below Mason’s navel, which was overflowing dark blood. LaMarr tore the wrapping off the field dressing and pressed it on the wound.
Weakly, Mason said: “I can’t feel my legs, LaMarr!”
“You’ll be OK, Mason. There’s a medic on the way. I’ve got to get another dressing on you.” LaMarr had seen that the first dressing was already soaked with blood, and he thought, Oh my God! This is really bad!”
A Marine (actually a U S Navy Corpsman) dropped down beside them. “Let me tend to him,” he said.
LaMarr removed his friend’s helmet, and softly stroked his head, which was cool and sweaty. Mason’s eyes would focus on LaMarr’s face for a few moments, and then he would seem to be looking at the sky. “I’m not going to make it,” he whispered.
“Yes, you will, Mason!” LaMarr was pleading, now: “Help is here! There’s a corpsman tending to you.”
Mason seemed to relax, and his eyes looked only at the sky.
The corpsman reached up to feel Mason’s pulse at his throat. He withdrew his hand, and sat back. “There’s noting we can do,” he said, “I’m afraid he’s gone.”
LaMarr collapsed on his friend’s chest. “No, no, Mason. You can’t go, buddy! Please don’t go!” He pressed his cheek to Mason’s and wept.
(For more information about my novels, see www.williampeace.net.)