As you have probably deduced by the title, there are more than one ways to use violence in a fictional story. With this post I’m trying to explain what’s the right way and the wrong way. And the truth is that there isn’t one right way, there are several.
The word violence alone makes you think of something dangerous, maybe even traumatic, so some writers decide to stay away from it, while some others try their best to fill the script with as many violent actions or scenes or torture as they can to make the audience gasp or turn away horrified. They think “isn’t that the point? I want the audience to feel some kind of emotion, disgust and shock are emotions.”
Well yes, but those are not the right kind… Showing a bloody corpse won’t make the audience love your story, no matter who they are.
Violence itself is something we are all used to see on screen: Luke gets his hand chopped off by his father, Logan stabs people with his adamantium claws, Walter shoots his drug business rivals in the head and so on. So just showing people a bloody corpse won’t do the trick.
Ultimately what makes violence special is the emotional impact it has on the audience, a corpse will make them scoff, Mufasa’s corpse will make them cry.
So here’s how some TV series and movies give violence the right emotional value, and also one that doesn’t give it any value:
Game of thrones (violence as a lesson)
Do you know this show? If you’re saying no you’re lying. It’s one of the most (if not the most) popular TV shows on the planet, despite it’s not-family-friendly nature. It’s famous not only for it’s story but for it’s graphic depiction of violence and abuse, yet its audience loves it.
Here the violence is not useless, it’s a lesson. When Theon gets tortured and mutilated by Ramsay Bolton, his suffering makes him understand the terrible consequences of his arrogance, and the audience has the chance to see what’s the philosophy of the terrible Bolton house.
Like this, almost every major act of violence ends up becoming a lesson that the character learns or fails to learn (when Rob learned that he shouldn’t have trusted the Frey he already had an arrow in his chest).
Pulp fiction (violence as fun)
My favourite scene in this classic Tarantino movie is the one where Vincent accidentally shoots Marvin in the car.
It has blood, swearing, a corpse, a gun and a couple of hitmen. It couldn’t get more violent than this, and yet it’s not dramatic, quite the opposite.
It’s played off as a joke, not a tragedy. The contrast between a man losing his life and Vincent casually saying “It was an accident, you probably went over a bump or something” is what makes us laugh.
Westworld (violence as self reflection)
After watching an entire season of Westworld, I can say that what made me gasp at episode 1, made me yawn at episode 10. The first time Teddy gets shot it’s a tragedy, the forth or fifth time its just daily routine.
You get used to the violence, to the hosts being treated like objects, to the people being shot to death. It might sound like a contraddiction of what I satated before, but it’s really not because this change of mind is something that the creators of the show calculated.
The premise of Westworld is “If we were able to create life with technology, would we respect that life? If not, what would the consequences be?”, so the aim of the show is not to make us laugh, or learn, but to make us think about ourselves and our behavior in a “what if” situation (similar to the “what if” situation of Black mirror).
Star wars (violence as a symbol)
When Luke loses his hand to his father during a battle, it’s not a coincidence. As many other people would say it’s a symbol of him losing, not just a limb, but a part of himself (his innocence, his idea of an heroic father).
The same way, there are other characters in the franchise who’s scars and mutilation hide a deep meaning: Anakin at the end of the fight with Obi-Wan doesn’t look like he was before, showing his loss of humanity; Kylo after the fight with Rey has a scar that “divides” his face in two halves, the definitive proof that he is “split” between light and dark.
13 reasons why (violence as shock value)
It’s a series that prides itself on having a strong message: starting a conversation about suicide and mental illness. I strongly believe in the importance on psychological treatment, and I’d love to watch a series that talks about this issue, but this is not it.
The problem is that the necessary drama to make the show compelling takes “reality” a little too far to be believable. In season 2 a character gets beaten up and raped in a very graphic scene, than he decides to get a bunch of guns and goes to school with the intention of shooting everyone, ALL THIS in the same episode. Not even Game of thrones goes this far, and that one has dragons…
In that same season we also have: the protagonist hallucinating about a schoolmate who killed herself, a character confessing to another to be mentally hill and heve sex with him, a character come out of a coma with a disability and many other things I don’t have the time to list. As I said before, “reality” turned up to 11.
I’m not saying that 13 reasons why shoud stay away from those topics and completely avoid violence, I’m saying that it should give this violence a more meaningful reason to exist. Pulling a rape scene out of nowhere in order to give a character a reason to start a school shooting (that doesn’t happen by the way) is not clever use of violence, it’s just a way to “shake things up”.
The problem with this way of thinking is that it gets old fast because it drains the violence of its power. As I said before for Westworld, the audience get used to violence, the more a character suffers and recovers (like Teddy) the less they care.
The difference is that Westworld plans on the audience not caring, so that when the stakes are actually high, they’re surprised. On the other hand 13 reasons why sprinkles violence here and there hoping that some of it will make the audience feel an emotion.
But this endless stream of violence in the show is slowly eroding the impact it has on the viewer, by season 5 of the show it won’t matter how many characters get raped, injured, or even killed the audience will see a bloody courpse and yawn at the screen.
In conclusion, violence is a powerful tool but it should always have a purpose other than “shock the audience”.