Is Your Violent Imagery Sublime… Or Sloppy?

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violent imagery

Whatever your subject matter, be mindful of how, where, and when you evoke violent imagery. Such language can be powerful, but used without care, it signals lazy — and potentially corrosive — writing.

I’m writing this post while the results of the November 2020 election drip in. As I check news sites, I’m reminded of coverage I saw in The New York Times months earlier, when the Democratic debate in Nevada was the biggest political buzz of the moment.

The Times’ roundtable commentary on the debate was troubling due to its use of gross, vivid, and brutal metaphors. One writer commented that “Warren sliced Bloomberg’s Achilles.” Another described a “bloody dogpile on Bloomberg.” A third commentator wrote that Warren “ground her heel into Bloomberg’s trachea.”

As anyone reading this blog knows, words matter, and the use of violent imagery and language felt over-the-top and reckless. When violent language flows in political reporting, it can normalize the crude, making it okay to associate peaceful democratic discussion with gory physical harm. It lowers the conceptual threshold between talking about politics in violent terms and actual acts of violence with politics as the trigger.

And, in the context of The New York Times coverage, it’s also just bad writing. Regularly, I find myself inspired by the quality, depth, and nuance of The Times’ editorial content — so seeing these commentators, highly renowned writers among them, default to such cheap language was disheartening. These folks are talented and experienced; they should know and do better.

Be mindful of violent imagery

Being mindful of violent imagery is important, not just for political reporting, but for any sort of writing you do. Whether you’re working on a memoir, poetry collection, novel, or even something as seemingly benign as a cookbook, paying close attention to where you spray linguistic bullets can have a significant impact on whether your writing draws readers in or repels them.

My big project in progress, introduced in “The Accidental Novelist – How Stolen Moments Can Make A Book,” periodically makes use of violent language and imagery, so this is a subject very much on my mind, both as a reader and a writer. Every time I see myself type something blunt and brutal, I ask myself:

  • Why did I choose to use violent imagery here?
  • Does the use of violent language advance the story or characters?
  • Is there another effective way to communicate the same meaning that does not invoke violent imagery?
  • Is my violent imagery in keeping with my characters, scene, and overall narrative scope?
  • Am I crafting text this way because it’s the best choice I can make as a writer or because I just can’t think of anything more interesting to say?

If my answers to any of these questions feel flimsy, I keep reworking until the text passes muster.

Is this the best way to say it?

I recommend asking yourself a series of similar questions the next time you find violent imagery appearing in your own writing and make sure such language truly belongs. If the characters in your novel inhabit an inherently brutal world — as mine do — the intentional and careful use of violent imagery can indeed be a powerful reflection of that reality and advance your storytelling, character development, and world-building. Similarly, if your characters are going through jarring and upsetting transitions, the mindful use of violent imagery may help you poignantly illustrate that evolution.

But if you’re using violent imagery just because you want to shock your readers, appear cool and edgy, or vent frustration, take a breath and try again. Chances are, such usage will turn off readers and detract from the overall magnetism of your writing. And if you’re particularly careless, you also run the risk — as The Times coverage did — of normalizing brutality through your language and associating physical harm with things that violence should never touch.

To be clear, being mindful of violent imagery in your writing does not mean declaring yourself a prude or puritan. Rather, it’s about avoiding laziness, cheap tactics, and language that can act corrosively beyond the borders of your page. Remember, there are countless ways to make your text vivid and engaging without resorting to the language of gladiatorial combat. And if that flavor of imagery truly is the best choice for your project, by all means use it as mindfully and powerfully as possible.

How do you approach the use of violent imagery and language in your own writing? Tell us in the comments below.

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11 COMMENTS

  1. Bravo! Much the way the public worries about numbing children to violent images, your reader can be numbed by hyperbolic use of violence for the sake of shock value. Like many extreme images, a little goes a long way.

  2. Sometimes the lack of violent imagery is a mistake. After seeing the movie, PSYCHO, I read the Robert Bloch piece from which the movie is derived. I was so disappointed when the Janet-Leigh-in-the-shower scene was reduced to, “…and he cut off her scream. And her head.” (punctuation may not be accurate. I’m relying on memory here.

  3. Honestly Michael, from what I’ve seen in horror and adventure and GOT franchises, unlimited violence and gore sell better now more than ever.
    Are we waiting for SAW 12?
    Many viewers would say yes.

  4. Good to know that someone else is disturbed by the oddly violent tenor of recent political reporting. I heartily agree that such language is out of place in our political discourse, and, if used too often, normalizes such behavior. I also worry that using language where it is not warranted runs the risk of diluting the meaning of the words. If we become so hyperbolic that the meaning of the words used become irrelevant, we have damaged the language. I like your suggestion to ask yourself, “Is this the best way to say it?” I think the best way to avoid using strong language is to develop a good ear for appropriate writing. The more one reads and writes, the more attuned to good writing one will become.

  5. Sorry Michael, I disagree! In a sound bite reality that is journalism today, and more and more evident in fiction, verbal brutality should pepper the prose. Attention spans are dwindling to the point that deficit is almost standard. Keeping folks engaged by keeping them off balance is key. Yes, there can be excess but keeping the writing on a hard boil keeps readers engaged.

  6. Thank you for calling attention to the imagery employed by the Times writers. I’m betting that most, if not all of them would be feeling pangs of regret after reading you piece. Well done.

    On the other hand: I do think that it is sometimes more effective to not use violent language in setting up a violent act, as in the example below. It has only one “violent” verb (well, maybe two, if you count “pulled,” Please note that in this scene Adam and Evie are the same asexual person:

    She come to see me once after she been away at TU for a couple of years. She come back for Becky’s funeral and after she start saying that we gotta be real careful nobody know that she’s really Eve, not Adam. She says, “We gotta take precautions, right, ma?” And I say, “You betcha, Sweetie.” Then she says we gonna take care of that right now and she takes out a needle and says it’s medicine that’s gonna help me and her keep our secret. I didn’t understand what she meant, but that medicine sure felt good when she shot me up.

    Now I’m feeling real good, real dreamy and drifting on a sea of calm. I’m thinking, that Evie, she just gimme a jolt of the balm of Gilead, only then I see that Adam is taking out a knife. It ain’t no ordinary knife neither. It’s a fish filleting knife, real sharp and he’s putting on some rubber gloves. Then, that Adam, he went and reached into my mouth and I’m too doped up to stop him. He pulled out my tongue and he took that knife and sliced it right outten my mouth.

    I tell you, Mister, or I would if I could, but that goddamn Adam he seen to it I can’t tell nobody nothing, not ever again.

  7. Michael I agree. We have become so desensitized by the movies that we think violence makes a story great when in fact even fewer readers will find it memorable. A well balanced story with a few intensely violent or dramatic scenes have more impact than a blood bath. Readers want to escape to the eutopia we desire in our own lives. It is surprising that its often the less violent world we live in today.

  8. Michael, Some of this makes sense. Of course, the remarks about ‘violent imagery’ being ‘lazy writing’ does, but then anything in excess to the needs of storytelling ie. sex, dialogue, descriptions of puppies is ‘sloppy’. Okay, of course there’s such a thing as gratuituos silliness but this piece reeks of ‘stand back and leave it to the experts, kids’. You also make a number of assertions about violent imagery being ‘corrosive beyond the page’ without any reference to supporting evidence to show who or what is being corroded or even how this has been measured. In the context that we’re living in grand and unsubstantiated generalisations are far more corrosive than any imaginary explosion, gun fire or blood. I offer only unsupported Republican claims of voter fraud an evidence. This kind of commentary is itself pretty lazy, if not misleading. Much of it strikes me as being up there with the panics which gave rise to parental advisory lyrics labels and the bizarre unsubstantiated claims of those who believe that playing computer games turns kids into psychopathic killers. Note that these kinds of moral panics started appearing when the novel itself did, a pity we’ve come… well, no where. Fair comment on the writing points but really very silly knee-jerk pop psychology.

    • I agree with you and I also fear that we are heading down a path of extreme censorship. If I want to use “violent imagery” so be it. People don’t have to read it. This is supposed to be a free country. If we lose thefreedom to express ourselves as we want, then we are in trouble.

  9. Violent imagery is meant to inflame and engage, and it is certainly very effective with some – and makes other people turn away. I sometimes hesitate to share writing that has violent imagery in it (poems), because so many are already so angry and antagonistic, and I know that violent words can lend support to violent action. In my own life I have seen them taken as reason to attack people and burn houses, though on a much smaller scale than is happening in some parts of the world now. Violence, spoken, and in these days distilled in sound bites and memes and spread around on social media, does encourage violent action.
    Violent imagery in service of a story, in the pages of a book or on an e-reader, is different, I think. It needs to be used effectively and must feel to the reader like a natural part of the story; and it needs to walk that fine line between being explicit and leaving enough to the reader’s imagination. Because the reader will always fill in any blanks according to their own character and experience.

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