The Choreography Of Violence

By John Gilstrap

On Monday, Sue Coletta wrote a wonderful piece on how to write a dance scene. As I read it, I realized that a) I’ve never written a dance scene, and b) what a daunting challenge it would be to try. The page is an inanimate thing. There’s no music to hear, no rhythm to feel. All of that–and the romance that it triggers–must be borne solely by word on the page. The more I think about it, the less likely it becomes that I will ever write a dance scene.

I do, however, write my fair share of violence, and it shares at least one requirement with dance scenes: choreography. Whether it’s mano a mano fisticuffs or a major armed conflict with firearms and explosives, it’s our job as writers to bring readers into the middle of the action in a way that makes them feel involved.

It all boils down to point of view.

If you’ve ever endured the adrenaline dump that is our fight-or-flight instinct, you know that in the moments when your survival is threatened, the world becomes very small. If someone threatens to hurt you or to hurt a family member, there’s a special kind of clarity of purpose. The why of the situation that brought you to that moment could not be less relevant. Survival is all that matters. Sometimes, that means running away, and other times it means defeating the threat.

FULL DISCLOSURE: Experts in managing violent encounters–specifically active shooter situations–tout the strategy of Run-Hide-Fight, in that order. Run away if you can, otherwise hide. Only as a last resort should one attempt to fight back. As a non-expert in such things, however, history all too often has shown that to hide really means to await one’s turn to be be a victim. Something to think about.

When it comes to the fight scene in your story, ask yourself whose is the best point of view from which to present the action, and then stick with it. My 2019 Jonathan Grave thriller, Total Mayhem, opens with a mass shooting at a high school football game:

            Tom Darone had seen a lot of people die in his day, but not like this. The lady in the blue coat—the first to go down—made a barking sound and then folded in on herself.  Tom’s first thought was that she’d suffered a seizure, or maybe a stroke.  She sat two spaces down from him in the bleachers, and one row closer to the football field.  Her emergency happened at the same second when Number 19 of the Custer Cavalrymen intercepted a pass at the end zone, robbing the Hooker Hornets of a go-ahead touchdown.

In all the excitement, nobody saw her collapse.  Then her husband noticed.  “Anita?” he said as he stooped to help her.

Then the crowd erupted with a new kind of cheer.

People pointed, and Tom followed their fingers to see that a player had collapsed on the field.  Was that blood?

Then two more players fell.  A chunk of helmet erupted in a gruesome spray from a third.

The lights went out. In an instant, the field went from the artificial daylight bright that is unique to nighttime football to true darkness.

Anita’s husband shouted, “Oh, my God, she’s been shot!  Help me!”

A ripple of four spectators to Tom’s right fell side-by-side among yelps of pain.

The field was under attack.

Tom watched with a strange sense of detachment as the panic hit.  Home now only two months from his eighth deployment to the Sand Box, and six weeks into his new status as an unemployed vet, the reality of the moment crystalized in an instant. The first survival challenge would be to avoid being trampled in the stampede of humanity.

The panic around him didn’t blossom or bloom.  It erupted.  Those who’d been hit—and the people who loved them—hunkered down, while everyone else fled. In a single instant, hundreds of people decided that personal survival trumped everything. A few were so overwhelmed by the enormity of the swirling action that they simply shut down, but those were the minority.  Most people ran. They had no obvious destination, and they had no apparent plan. Most didn’t even know where the exits were, so they followed the people ahead of them on the assumption that strangers were smarter than they were.

The mayhem grew to critical proportions in mere seconds. Tom realized in a rush that he was in the epicenter of the kill zone.  As the sea of spectators pushed and tumbled past each other—and as bullets continued to find their marks—Tom dropped to his stomach into the foot-trough of the bleachers and rolled to his right.  As he dropped into the matrix of the metal support structure, his boot found a foothold, and then so did his hands.

If I had chosen to write that scene from the point of view of Anita’s husband–the spouse of the first victim–all of the action would have been secondary to his efforts to save Anita’s life and shelter her from further harm. If I’d written it from a football player’s point of view as his teammates are dying, the scene would be different still.

If I’d told this part of the story from the shooter’s point of view, it would have given away too much of the story, so that choice was never in play.

The point here is that while each POV character would observe the same swarm of panicked humanity, the reader’s journey through the scene would be entirely different depending on the author’s writerly choice. Even the narrative voice would be different. Because Tom Darone had recently been in battle, his voice is naturally more observant and less emotional than would be, say, a teenage football player.

Action scenes fail when the author tries to take too big a bite.

The choreography of violence is inherently confusing, so it’s easy to lose the reader. Take the cliched barroom melee from every cowboy movie of the 1960s. On film, a viewer can easily keep track of the different punches thrown by John Wayne and Dean Martin because our brains process imagery at the speed of light. On the page, though, there’s that extra filter in play that translates spots on the paper into words and then those words into images that can be far more vivid than any movie adaptation, but that translation is as fragile as a single misplaced word. Throw in a bunch of different POV characters and the risk of losing your readers grows astronomically.

If you pick a single character from whose point of view to show the scene, you can give the reader a literal blow by blow description of that character’s corner of the fight, while observing flashes of the rest of the activity through peripheral observation. We feel his knuckles hurt when he throws a punch, and we feel the pain in his gut when he takes a body blow.

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About John Gilstrap

John Gilstrap is the New York Times bestselling author of Lethal Game, Blue Fire, Stealth Attack, Crimson Phoenix, Hellfire, Total Mayhem, Scorpion Strike, Final Target, Friendly Fire, Nick of Time, Against All Enemies, End Game, Soft Targets, High Treason, Damage Control, Threat Warning, Hostage Zero, No Mercy, Nathan’s Run, At All Costs, Even Steven, Scott Free and Six Minutes to Freedom. Four of his books have been purchased or optioned for the Big Screen. In addition, John has written four screenplays for Hollywood, adapting the works of Nelson DeMille, Norman McLean and Thomas Harris. A frequent speaker at literary events, John also teaches seminars on suspense writing techniques at a wide variety of venues, from local libraries to The Smithsonian Institution. Outside of his writing life, John is a renowned safety expert with extensive knowledge of explosives, weapons systems, hazardous materials, and fire behavior. John lives in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia.

9 thoughts on “The Choreography Of Violence

  1. Yes, fight scenes or scenes of violence can be tricky to write. As you mention, it all seems so ‘easy’ when you watch a fight on TV. But getting it right on paper is a whole other thing. I’m still learning.

  2. I rely on my martial arts trained daughter to do the actual choreography of my fight scenes, but then it’s up to me to turn the moves into prose. I write from a single POV in my mysteries, so I don’t have a choice. My romantic suspense books alternate POVs, so I have a choice of two characters.I’ve always gone with the character in the fight, but this post has made me think about showing it from a different POV.
    I’m not a fighter. In my first book for Five Star, I’d skirted the fight scene with a cop-out “an eternity later, which Dalton’s watch proved had been seven minutes..” and my editor said, “I want to see those seven minutes on the page.” You have to give the readers something in action or emotionally packed scenes.

  3. Great example. And it made me open my Kindle and reread the opening chapters of Total Mayhem. Excellent writing and I’ve probably lost the plans I’d made for the morning.

  4. Really helpful, John. Esp. the explanation of how each different POV would react to the same event–Anita’s husband vs. a teen football player vs. Tom, the hardened veteran.

    It helps to “act out” the movements in a fight scene to see specifics. After a character is knocked to the ground, where is their elbow or knee? Are joints twisted in an unnatural angle that makes it hard to get up? Can they lean against a wall or piece of furniture to help them to their feet? Or does the wall block them from rising? Which way do they roll to avoid the attacker’s kick? Or do they curl in a ball?

    Terry’s suggestion of running violent scenes past an expert is excellent cuz I don’t plan to get into a fight just for authenticity’s sake.

    “…that translation is as fragile as a single misplaced word.” Thanks for the reminder that every word is critical.

    • I nit-pick where and how bodies move. I couldn’t tell you how many scenes lose it for me when someone’s right hand goes two different places at the same time.

  5. Run, hide, fight.
    My oldest would tell you about the difference between concealment and cover. Cover will stop bullets. Plasterboard walls and wooden tables are not cover.

    Sadly this was a part of the class, “Active Shooter Response for Educational and Religious Institutions.” One of the things I never thought my children would need. About eight months after that class, my children took control when an active shooter was in the area of the summer camp program where they work

  6. Two very handy pieces of advice on choreographing action scenes. POV is crucial, as you say, in determining what is shown, and keeping things focused on the POV character can help keep the reader from feeling overwhelmed.

    My own action scenes, in both my urban fantasies and in my mysteries, tend toward short and sharp. I’m very wary of taking too big of bite and in having action for action sake. Years ago I read a science fiction thriller where the hand-to-hand combat scenes went on for pages and pages (I think one fight it was close to ten). The author had a martial arts background, which was all to the good, but it was way too big a bite for me, even with the first-person POV

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