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.


21 thoughts on “Violence and story, part 2

  1. Amazing post Micheal. 🙂 It shows how conflict is necessary in life in order to improve each character. Just like in Avatar the Last Airbender, each character, good or evil had a conflict with someone or something which made them much stronger at the end of the show.

  2. It’s always a pleasure to read your posts, Mike. Life is started with violence when a woman is giving birth to her child. It is necessary in storys of course, and as you said, the limit on violence on a story is a thing that only the writter can modify according to the story of his Hero.

    Nice work Mike. Keep on the good work.

  3. HI Mike!
    I thought the connection you mentioned between violence in stories and stories serving as escapist entertainment is interesting. I think the reason violence and conflict are present in these stories is because a world without them would seem unrealistic. Everyday, people see violent imagery on the news, online, history, sometimes even in their personal lives. It may seem counterintuitive that the stories readers use to escape from the stress and violence in their lives features these same problems. However, I feel what truly makes these stories escapist is being able to see a hero (with whom the reader develops a connection or sees as a reflection of herself) overcome these problems that seem insurmountable in real life. I agree, however, that any violence included a story should actually serve a purpose and not just be gratuitous. I think we can all recall a few movies that have featured seemingly never-ending action sequences just so the the star can show off a few cool tricks. I, enjoy, well-choreographed action sequences as much as the next person, but they can get old quick when you realize there really isn’t any real purpose to them. I think a great example of a story that did a good job of incorporating violence and interesting narrative is, “The Hunger Games.” There were some very graphic scenes in the story, but it would not have had the same impact and meaning without it. I think a good gauge of whether violence is necessary in a story is to imagine it without the violent scenes. If its absence doesn’t have any impact on the narrative, then you can probably do without it. Just because a story doesn’t have violence doesn’t it mean it can’t have conflict. Violence is one form of conflict that should be utilized after careful consideration and (like you said) a careful consideration of the intended audience.

  4. The comment about children adding violence to their stories struck a chord with me. On of me and my siblings favorite imaginary game to play was “runnaway kids.” And we grew up in a good home.
    I wonder if part of our seemingly imbedded drive to add violence to stories is rooted in our hunter and gatherer past. Particularly the hunter. Does the thrill of a chase and a kill still linger in our genetics? I’m sure its been studied somewhere.
    You mentioned the cave paintings in France. Imagine it back then… An seasoned hunter telling young boys about his greatest kill. They picture it in their heads and their adrenaline gets pumping and they want to go out and hunt and kill, which back then, was to survive. And it wasn’t just hunting animals. Being able to kill or drive off competing humans could be just as necessary for survival.
    So I think that our tendency towards violence could be a reflection of the kill or be killed nature of the primal world.

    1. Maybe, but I’m not so sure that primitive humans interacted much. Our numbers were a lot smaller, at one point only about 10,000 globally, so logistically, we couldn’t have been coming into contact & killing each other that much. War is probably a result of civilization, & increasing population, & therefore increasing need of resources.

      Primates that have a lot of habitat destruction, such as orangutans and chimpanzees, are more violent towards each other & in general than those who do not, such as bonobos.

  5. I totally agree with your emphasis on the ‘earning’ of the happy ending, and how hollow and artificial it feels for the reader/viewer when it doesn’t feel significantly earned by the individual going through said trial. Not knowing if things WILL turn out alright for them in the end, whether they will experience a tragic loss, be forced to make difficult decisions, or develop the humility to admit that their own failures and choose to STILL pursue their goals as best they can, despite their own human flaws, is what marks the difference between a good story and a truly compelling one, In my opinion.

    I happen to feel that many times, viewers don’t really know what truly garners the best story experience for themselves. Wishing for a quick solution to a problem or attempting to uncomplicated the plot-line of a story in order to develop a speedy resolution to the conflict will not make a story insightful or substantial. People who read and watch stories they love are aware, at least unto themselves, of the messy complications of life. And the stories that are willing to depict that messiness (within their characters and the social aspects of the world that they inhabit), are the ones the viewers end up feeling a deep connection and awe for. The ability to spin fictional worlds and characters that are believably human and complicated is no easy task. I wish you the best of luck as you continue to pursue your own voice as a writer Mike. Keep writing!

    1. There are 2 German words: Schadenfreude, or happiness at the misfortune of others. I don’t know the other one, because as a hilarious coincidental proof of Mike’s point, schadenfreude is much more commonly known & talked about. But, whatever it is, it means “discomfort at the suffering of others.” Let’s call it Pinky.

      I think they really explain differing responses to stories, because everyone has different thresholds of schadenfreude & Pinky.

      This is a great chance to pick on the love triangle. You might say that it added drama to Legend of Korra. Maybe. But I felt that drama to be uncomfortable to watch. The characters made mistakes that could be seen from space, & it just made me feel trapped in that awkward situation, & being unable to do anything but squint & hope it would end. Plus, you know, too much of the series was devoted to it.

      But anyway, to compare it to a similar problem, when Zuko is exploding on Mai repeatedly in The Beach. It was awkward, but I didn’t mind it as much because it was different. It wasn’t just Zuko being a jerk because he is a jerk, or because he is awkward. It was delving into his complicated feelings of guilt. Furthermore, the characters didn’t make absurd mistakes that I’ve seen over & over, like Zuko trying to get Mai back right away. It was new. It was interesting. It was still a similar type of conflict.

      So, to recap, I agree that people often come up with “fixes” for stories that are actually incredibly boring, but it also comes down to differing expectations.

  6. I have a bit of a problem with some of those writers’ inferences. For one thing, the implication that children develop violent stories in a vacuum is not really the case. They learn it. There was an experiment done where an adult would be tasked to interact with certain toys while children watched. Then the adult would leave, & the children would be allowed to play with whatever was in there. Children who watched the adult play violent games would also play violent games, but those who did not, would not. They did create new violent games, but the important point is that they had a basis in what they learned.

    Now, I don’t say that to be all “TV makes people violent!” The point is that it’s a cultural thing, not a natural thing. Most cultures simply have a lot of violence in their pasts. THAT is a natural thing.

    Also, “escapism is about peacefulness” is a faulty premise. Escapism is about removing yourself from normality. As we are all talking on the internet, it stands to reason that we are all in first world countries with a good amount of amenities. We might have problems, even big ones, but we aren’t at constant risk of death. In other words, we are Average Joes & Janes. So wouldn’t it be nice to be not so average? To be extremely intelligent, a leader, or heroic? Yeah, that’s how escapism works.

    And that, I would say, is the draw of Avatar. It involves things that are not possible in the real world, but is just enough like the real world in other ways that it’s like asking, “What if?” What if people could control the elements, how would that change history? How would it change society?

    That is not mutually exclusive with the main point, of course. To be exceptional, you must be challenged, & succeed–or shall I say, exceed those expectations.

  7. I’m going to quote out the entire conclusion because I think it’s essentially a perfect summation of this entire issue:

    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.

    I would like to add, though, that audiences sometimes are willing to deal with a short story with no conflict if they really like the characters — there’s a particular type of fanfic called “fluff” that revolves around that exact thing. The limited scope and pre-existing feelings towards the characters (gained through seeing them deal with conflict in other contexts) definitely seem to be requirements for that sort of thing to work, though!

  8. I just read both posts, and I will say that again you seem to have a pretty clear and understanding view about this violence issue. Personally, the connection between violent video games and movies and the shootings that occur are far less obvious than a connection between the shootings and the gunlaws that are in place in the USA. During my studies of Psychology, everytime the word correlation came up, they gave this exact example. Isn’t it the duty of parents to know what their children are watching and shouldn’t they decide whether it is appropriate? These warnings before the show have been created for this purpose I would say.

    I also would like to comment briefly on the idea of cancelling shows and stuff. I am against censorship and I am also in favor of considering the intended audience, but I don’t feel the need to tell other audiences what not to watch. Friends of mine like the Saw series and I don’t care for that much violence. If they wanted to watch that after a mass shooting, I would not dream of stopping them. I just would not join. That is where freedom starts, not by doing everything, but allowing others to do freely as long as that does not harm others or does not involve breaking the law.

    Then on a more on-topic note: I think the notion that conflict is nessecary for a good story is completely true and violence is in some way an ‘easy’ conflict. That does not make it less worthy, for that is dependent on how it was done. Like you said for A:TLA, where there is little blood for instance. It shows that violence (although occuring in A:TLA) can be shown in different ways and that is, I think a good thing.

    Then some more agreeing with you. Like you said, a hero needs to deserve it. I think any heroic act is by definition an act of sacrifice. If you don’t sacrifice or at least do something that could lead to a sacrifice, it is not heroic.This is part of a good story.

    Again brilliant insights from you and I always enjoy reading what you write.

  9. violence is in stories because it’s in real life. it doesn’t have to be blood and gore–it can also be the general struggle in life. even though fiction can be classified as escapist, people like reading or watching something they can relate to. i think it’s also about affirmation, a kind of positive reinforcement: we want to know that people can overcome these struggles so we can feel better about battling out our issues as well, because in the end, the hero wins (more often than not). and i totally agree that the writer should keep the audience in mind too.

  10. I’m new, and I found your blog through Freshly Pressed and I an very glad I did. As a writer, I often wonder ‘how much is too much’ and why the best stores are so full of conflict. So it was very nice to see that I’m not the only one who entertains such thoughts. I do agree with what you’ve written, especially the last paragraph, but I also believe that people like to see how characters grow and change. I personally like books, movies, and TV shows where the characters are flawed and human, where we can understand their motivations even if we don’t necessarily agree with them, and where we can watch them go from a whiney, irresponsible kid to someone worthy of inspiring others. I don’t think people enjoy violence as much as they enjoy how those characters involved react to the violence. It’s fun and all to watch violence when we know it’s not real, only choreographed, but the fun ceases when we realize that the character isn’t having any internal conflict or guilt about beating his or her opponent to a pulp. Regardless of happy endings and success, we like characters who seen real, who we could see walking down the street, no matter what genre they’re from. We are a people ruled by our emotions and that is what we want to see from our entertainment. Even the Droids in StarWars had human characteristics. Anyways, that’s what I think. But I greatly enjoyed reading what you thought. It was very interesting and made me think. I’m still thinking, in fact.

    1. I don’t think people enjoy violence as much as they enjoy how those characters involved react to the violence. It’s fun and all to watch violence when we know it’s not real, only choreographed, but the fun ceases when we realize that the character isn’t having any internal conflict or guilt about beating his or her opponent to a pulp.

      I think there are several different reasons why people like violence in fiction, one of which is the sort you mentioned (which I like to refer to as “thematic violence”).

      As for the other reasons, there are at least three:

      “Performative violence” is what you get when you focus on the “art” half of “martial art.” Characterization and theme can be largely irrelevant to enjoyment here, because the appeal is an aesthetic one — a perfection of movement and form displayed through combat that serves the same basic desire for beauty as dance. It’s inherently unrealistic and tends not to be graphic (and when it is, it relies on stylistic splashes of blood rather than overt gore). This is a big reason why bending is so cool. 😉

      “Edgy violence” is the sort of violence that’s specifically sought out as a means of proving oneself — liking it is treated as a sign of maturity and group membership in large part because it isn’t enjoyable in and of itself. Basically, it’s a bizarre sort of elitism where not liking violence means admitting to being a wimp, so you’d better seek out the most violent stuff possible.

      And, finally, there’s what I call “sadistic violence,” in which schadenfreude is basically the point.

      These motives can coexist, of course — the most stunningly effective uses of violence often serve both thematic and performative purposes (like the utterly gorgeous fight between Azula and Zuko in the Avatar finale) and it tends to be really difficult to figure out where the line between edgy and sadistic lies — but I do think they exist as separate motives.

  11. I wouldn’t say it’s really necessary or impossible to do a story without violence as long there is conflict and struggles, I guess we can’t escape much of the violence element but also depends what kind of violence is being applied, such psychological, verbal and physical, it also must hit the right tunes in the story, it’s like composing or listening music.

    1. Defining violence is such a tough task…I see the different levels of violence you are referring to and I think I understand what you mean by us not being able to escape from them, in one level or another. We definitely live in a violent world, we have been violated since when born, some in a more subtle way, some in a more direct, physical constraint way. Not judging which one is worst – violence is not good. At all.

      That been said, one can think on some interesting parallels that could be established by stories being told: what violence is taking from us (and how/why that happens) vs. what is being done to bring it back, how we do feel when experiencing positive feelings. For instance, consider the parallel oppression and fear versus freedom and joy.

      As a story teller, one could ask him(her)self: what am I doing with my story: adding more violence or more happiness to this world? The key, I think, is the feeling, what we deeply experience with the story: does it bring more fear to our lives? Does it bring more joy?

      It is a matter of choice, we have free will.

      I personally admire the way both stories, ATLA and TLOK, have being told (still is, in case of Korra). They don’t pretend there is a world without violence, in fact, in ATLA we have some strong stuff going on, such as genocide of a whole nation. But I can’t imagine myself feeling better emotions than those I felt when watching them. In summary, they brought to me the most positive feelings, specially ATLA. TLOK, I think, is a work in progress, but I also enjoyed it. In Korra the characters are under development, but the main line seems to be the same: it brings more joy and perception of hope than fear, or opression. Nevertheless, specially when considering its show time and main target audience (kids?) there is no doubt that really strong (violent) stuff is going on there….

  12. Hi Mike. My name is Wyatt and I really admire the work you do with Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra. However, I am not approaching you as a fan (as much of a fan as I am)… I am approaching you in hopes that you could answer some questions for me pertaining to my career ideas. I’m about to be a senior in high school next school-year and I have to develop some solid career ideas so that I know what to look for when I am researching colleges. I am interested in getting involved in television/film as a writer or director(or maybe even both… I don’t know enough yet). So my reason for contacting you is to get your professional opinions as a writer/director yourself. If there’s any way you can answer my questions, it would be much appreciated and it would help me tremendously. If you do decide to respond, can you please email me at I’m only asking for a little of your time, as I understand you’re probably busy with Korra, your blog (great job by the way with that), etc.

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