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Violence and story, part 2


Photography of Lascaux animal painting {| cell...

In writing my last blog post and reading all of your thoughtful comments, I feel that there is a lot more to explore about this topic.

For me, the question isn’t whether or not there should be violence in stories. It has been a part of story since the beginning. Looking at ancient cave paintings like those at Lascaux, I could imagine that some of the first stories ever told probably involved hunting animals and killing them.

Even children, left to their own devices, add a lot of violence to their imagined tales. In The Storytelling Animal, Jonathan Gottschall cites a scholar who studied children’s play patterns. He found that “the typical actions in orally told stories by young children include being lost, being stolen, being bitten, dying, being stepped on, being angry, calling the police, running away or falling down.  In their stories they portray a world of great flux, anarchy, and disaster.”

So if violence is somehow a part of our human nature, and inherent in our stories, the question for me is “why?”

“Fiction is usually seen as escapist entertainment,” writes Mr. Gottschall. But as he goes on to point out, if that were the case, “we’d expect stories to be mainly about pleasurable wish fulfillment” where nothing would go wrong.  That, of course, is not the case, as most of the popular “escapist entertainment” is full of violent acts. And if there were a story without any difficulty or struggle for the hero, it would not interest the reader (or viewer) because nothing would have happened.  “If there is no knotty problem, there is no story,” says Gottschall.

Stories are about trouble — trouble that happens to a character. And we vicariously live through that character and root for him or her to overcome those troubles and find success. This is the “happily ever after” part of the story. But if that happy ending isn’t earned, if the hero hasn’t suffered “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” as Hamlet said, then the audience won’t enjoy the story.

There are a lot of books about how to write screenplays and novels. I’ve read my fair share. Some have been helpful, some not so much. But the one thing they all seem to agree on is that conflict is necessary in a story. If there’s no conflict, the hero has no way to be tested. No test, and the hero hasn’t earned their success or happiness.

As Lisa Cron writes in Wired for Story, “Story is about change, which results only from unavoidable conflict.” In our everyday life, we usually go out of our way to avoid change and conflict. They’re uncomfortable and difficult, and “In real life we want conflict to resolve right now, this very minute; in a story we want conflict to drag out, ratcheting ever upward, for as deliciously long as humanly possible.”

And what’s the one, sure-fire way to show conflict? Something violent happening to someone. Certainly this isn’t the only way. There are plenty of books and movies where characters don’t go to the extreme of shooting guns, or stabbing, or killing. But I would argue that even in the most innocent of stories, there are allusions to violence or death. Even in Elf, the absurd Will Ferrell Christmas flick, there is a scene where Buddy stands on a bridge, contemplating suicide.

So perhaps the violence issue can be reframed. I don’t think it’s possible or necessary to rid violence from stories. And what’s acceptable or not will always be debatable, depending on the venue in which the story is presented. But I do think storytellers have a responsibility to keep their intended audience in mind when they add violence to stories and know when to say enough is enough. Or to make sure the violence and conflict serves the purpose of the story and isn’t just there for amusement.

But no matter who the audience is, we all want the heros of our stories to show us what it means to suffer and persevere, so that we can be inspired to overcome conflict in our own lives.

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