Miles Watson is the author of the critically-acclaimed crime novel Cage Life and its sequel, Knuckle Down, as well as numerous short stories which will be published in the upcoming anthology Devils You Know.
After graduating from York College of Pennsylvania with degrees in Criminal Justice and History, Miles went on to earn both an MA and a Masters in Fine Arts in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University, where he was awarded that institution’s first-ever Endowed Scholarship.
Miles served in law enforcement for ten years before moving to Hollywood to work as a screenwriter, actor, and make-up effects technician. He has also worked on television shows such as TRUE BLOOD, HEROES and CSI: NEW YORK.Miles Watson
When I was in graduate school I was known for using violence in my fiction, so much so that I eventually ended up teaching a class on the subject. Do not think this endeared me much to the audience. Many of the writers in the writing program in which I was enrolled worked in genres where no blood was shed, no battles fought, no murders committed. Even a good old fashioned slap to the kisser was a rare commodity.
So, when asked why those who wrote in “nonviolent” genres should give a damn about their ability to write violent sequences effectively, I had no immediate answer. After all, if you’re a pastry chef it hardly matters if you know how to butcher a fish, and if you keep Kosher the process of curing a ham is not exactly useful knowledge. I felt in my bones this attitude was wrong, but I couldn’t immediately explain why. It turned out that the answer to their question — and mine — lay in the definition of the word itself.
Turning the pages of various dictionaries, I discovered no less than 19 definitions for the word “violence.” This came as quite a surprise, since it seemed to me no concept could be simpler or easier to define; and yet the various sources I examined yielded an almost unending series of descriptions, from “rough unwarranted force” to “injurious treatment, profanation, rape, infringement, (and) unjust assault.” Words like “fury,” “injury,” “wrong,” and “compulsion” were also tossed around, all of which seemed to me to muddle rather clarify the issue at hand — just what in the hell is violence, anyway? At last, however, I stumbled upon the definition which herded all the others into line and made sense of the whole confusing mess. It was (drum roll):
“Highly excited action, whether or physical or moral.”
If one defines violence by these words, it becomes immediately obvious that violence exists in every genre and subgenre of writing. A state of highly excited action is precisely what writers should aspire to produce, regardless of genre. Whether you’re writing a battle scene, fistfight, or temper tantrum, the methods you employ and the tone you set are crucial to the success or failure of the scene you are writing — and ultimately, to your book itself.
Why is this? Because “highly excited action” is the thing which will most likely get the reader’s attention, no matter what they are reading. In young adult fiction, it might be an argument between a mother and her bulimic daughter. In erotica, a sexual encounter. In adventure, the escape of an explorer from a pack of ravenous wolves. The actual form of the action doesn’t matter any more than the setting. The point is that without this action — this violence — the reader is not properly engaged.
We all like good description and clever dialogue, we all enjoy well-written internal monologues and scenes in which point of view is cleverly or imaginatively handled, but if we’re truly honest with ourselves, we have to say that in many novels — especially novels that are basically nonviolent — the action sequences are what we’re most likely to remember.
It is said that all tigers are cats, but not all cats are tigers. So to is it with violence. All battles, fights, murders, torture sequences, suicides, rapes, etc. that have ever been described in prose are violent, but not every violent scene contains any bloodshed or even any physical action. As our definition states, the action can be “moral” as well as physical. It may occur in a memory, a flashback, a dream, a hallucination, an argument, a voting booth, a car, an ordinary conversation, or even within a glance between two characters. The forms “moral” violence can take place are infinite.
To exemplify, I’ll use two seemingly disparate sequences from Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar.” The first is Caesar’s murder in the Senate by the conspirators. The second is Anthony’s speech to the mob. Of these, only the first involves what we would normally consider violence or even action. Yet Anthony’s “friends, Romans, countrymen” speech is, even moreso than the assassination sequence, considered the most memorable scene in the play. This is because Shakespeare’s skill as a writer allowed him to create a state of highly excited action in the audience simply by virtue of Anthony’ choice of words, and by the crowd’s verbal reaction to those words. Under our definition, the speech is every bit as “violent” as the murder. It is therefore every bit as memorable.
The stark fact is that violence, whether or not it is “violent” in the sense we generally use the term, sets the plot in motion and keeps it moving. It keeps, by its presence or the threat of its presence, the audience interested. And in most cases it brings the story to its conclusion.
So in the end it’s quite simple. Achieving a state of highly excited action, “whether physical or moral” is the key element in storytelling. It doesn’t matter what genre ring in which you throw your hat, violence is your friend.
In my next blog I’ll examine the most common types of violence encountered in fiction, the difference between badly and properly written violence, and the importance of point of view. I’ll also relay the six techniques I use to create states of “highly excited action” in my own work.