When it comes to movie violence, a perennial question for writers of sanguinary screenplays is, “Am I only writing violence for violence’s sake?”
If your answer to that question ends up being “Yes,” often your film will be defined by whether you embrace the consequences of that answer, or reject them (in which case, a rewrite may be in order). This video essay by The Nerd Writer, entitled “Movie Violence Done Right,” separates violence as beat-filling visual spectacle and violence in service of the development of your characters, narrative and themes into two camps. Watch below to learn the distinctions between these two approaches.
“Black uses sudden violence not as a way to shock the audience, but as a way to justify and animate his heroes and heroines. The point is that this is violence with narrative purpose,” Nerd Writer says in the video. “That purpose may be as simple as keeping the audience on their toes—or fingers. It may be a way to evolve a simple problem. Or, it might reveal what a character’s really like, or who he would like to be.” This “show, don’t tell” approach to characterization taps into the paradox of violence further explained in the video—that it is both “indiscriminate and deeply personal at the same time.”
By catching audiences off guard with abrupt moments of “awkward, transfixing” violence that feels neither stylized nor choreographed, moviemakers may stand a better chance of seizing audiences’ attention from moment to moment. This strategy—which, the video shows, is exemplified in the deer-through-the-windshield scene in The Long Kiss Goodnight, the accidental-slitting-of-the-wrist scene in The Nice Guys, or even the pencil-to-the-face scene in The Dark Knight—increases our investment in the characters to which movie violence is happening, and heightens our sense of presence when watching the events unfold.
Ultimately, the video reminds that what this all comes down to is the virtue of “awkward violence,” which, when deployed in service of story revelation, is “violence respected.” MM