Saturday, July 9, 2011

Violence in Writing

11:00 PM - It’s closing time.  I’m standing at the front of the Safeway store talking to the assistant manager when two men come in through the out door.  They wear bandannas over their faces and they move faster than I expect.  In a heartbeat, they raise nickel-plated automatic pistols and shout, “This is a robbery, get your ass on the floor!”  I have time to think, this has to be a joke, but then one of the men jams his gun against my head.

“Get your ass on the floor!”

Time slows down.  I’m not sure if I actually think all of the things I remember, but a certain number of things do flash through my head.  I clearly remember thinking that if this were a Steven Seagal movie, he’d grab the top of the automatic to prevent the slide from operating, then break the robber’s arm while shooting the other man.  I don’t do that.  My thought is that since both men have guns, I can’t fight back without endangering the other employees.

The guys are young, but they are already in the zone.  They have the advantage of surprise and having prepared to do violence if necessary.  There’s a brief moment where I’m frozen as I take in what’s happening, but then I get down on the floor because there’s really no other option.  This is not something I want to do.

I’m the guy who’s had ten death threats and didn’t worry about it.  I’m the guy who followed a shoplifter out of the store and when he jumped into a car with three of his buddies, I still reached in through the window, grabbed the guy by the throat and told him he had to pay for the merchandise.  (He paid and his friends did nothing, but it was not a smart thing to do on my part).  I’m the guy who faced a robber at the customer service booth who slid a note across the counter that said he had a gun and this was a robbery and to give him all the bills in the cash drawer.  My response since I didn’t see a gun and he seemed like a pushover was to lean forward, smile and say, “Sorry, pal, it doesn’t work that way.”  The guy had no idea what to do.  I think he realized that I wanted him to reach for me and that I was ready for him.  I was taking martial arts at the time and as his main stock in trade was fear and I wasn’t afraid, he was lost, so he ran away.

But these armed robbers mean business and I know it.  I can sense it.  I know that this whole situation can go south in a heartbeat, so while I’m lying on the floor, I’m looking around for things to use as  weapons.  I’m making sure most of my body is inside the checkstand when the guy moves past so that if he starts shooting, at least he’ll have to come over to me and I can have a chance to fight back.  I know that in such a situation, I’m not likely to survive, but even during an armed robbery I don’t like to think of myself as a victim.  It is not part of my identity.

Obviously, I survived the experience because I’m telling you about it.  I wrote a short story about it called “Since I Had a Gun to My Head” that appears in my upcoming short story collection Quick Shots (I always meant to sell that tale to an anthology, but nothing ever opened where I felt it would fit, so I never submitted it anywhere).

Most fiction writers have to write about violence at some point.  Most writers get it wrong because they rely on what they’ve seen in movies and TV shows.  Real fights don’t play out like a Jackie Chan movie.  As writers looking to entertain, we do take some liberties.  Our hero may have better reaction times so he can recover from the instant where people tend to freeze in a confrontation.  We figure, the hero has probably been through worse, so we write about him (or her) being confident and strong and decisive.  Most writers are clueless about how confrontations escalate into violence and even more clueless about what happens after the violence is over.

They are like virgins trying to write a sex scene.

When readers pick up a novel or a story, they enter into a contract with the writer where they are willing to suspend their disbelief about one thing - vampires exist or your hero is from outer space or that beautiful woman is actually going to date that geek.  Okay, maybe not the last one.  But as the writer, your end of the bargain is to get everything else right.  If you miss something, you strain that contract and if you miss something big you shatter that trust and not all the kings horses and all the kings men can restore it.  You’ve lost the reader.  They close the book and go find another author who cares enough to get the details right.

I hope you’ve never encountered real violence and I hope you never do.  My experience with it is limited, but it has informed my writing ever since.  I will tell you that the little time I spent in martial arts did not prepare me for real violence.  I suspect that my teachers had never faced real violence.  How do you react when someone walks up to you, asks you the time and when you look at your watch they punch you in the face?  That scenario is much more likely than somebody just telling you to hand over your money.  If they think you’re a good victim, they distract you to get close and they attack.  They have the element of surprise on their side and they are ready.

There are now some great books and websites that can help you to get it right without having to actually go through it.  Here are some great sources that can save you from looking like a fool when you write action and violence.

Violence: A Writer’s Guide by Rory Miller
Meditations on Violence by Sgt. Rory Miller
Facing Violence: Preparing for the Unexpected by Rory Miller (Miller is awesome)
The Little Black Book of Violence by Lawrence A. Kane & Kris Wilder
On Killing by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman
Great website:  Marc MacYoung’s No Nonsense Self-Defense

Take the time to get the details right.

Write on!