Shaun Levin

The Consequences of a (Violent) Scene

In Writing on August 23, 2013 at 12:24 pm

It’s a difficult scene. For a while now, you could tell that it was coming, and then it’s here. Three days you’ve been circling it, jotting down notes, working on what comes afterwards. But you’ve resisted going into the cold hard fire of it – the heart of it. That’s a quote from somewhere, or part of a quote, but you can’t remember who said it. It’s not Kafka’s “cold abyss” of the self, but maybe it is that, too. It’s a violent scene. People get hurt. Do horrible things to the characters who are your friends, characters who are close to the character who is closest to you.

Nabokov's DozenYou open a book of Nabokov’s short stories, the one you keep in your desk drawer, the one you use to kickstart a paragraph every now and then, something that’ll take you in an unexpected direction, wake you up. The line is “He had spent all his life in Berlin and its suburbs; had never travelled farther than Peacock Island on a neighbouring lake.” And you get your narrator to say: “I have spent all my life afraid of violence…” And for a while that keeps you going; it’s fuel enough for 5 or 6 lines. The energy of Nabokov’s writing never fails to power your own. But then you run out of steam, or you chicken out.

You wonder if your resistance is perhaps a sign that this scene doesn’t need to be written, that it’s not the right scene for the book and maybe you’re just adding high drama because someone said – whose rule was it? – that you should make something bad happen to your character just to see how they’ll deal with it. How they’ll deal with it?! How am I supposed to deal with this level of brutality?

It’s not the first time you’ve questioned where the drama should be in your novel.

Is it really necessary to the story? And if you have this unexpected scene in the book, this scene that has suddenly appeared in your third draft, like bad news, like a skiing accident, then what’s going to happen to the rest of the novel, those 30,000 words that come after the scene?

What you really wrote was: I’ve spent all my life fearing random violence and its consequences.” The consequences of a new and unexpected scene in a novel. The unexpected is not something I cherish. I mean relish. So what exactly are you scared of?

  • unnecessary drama
  • violence
  • the impact on the rest of the book
  • that it’ll sound fake
  • that I’m being dishonest
  • that a violent scene messes with my plan to make this an upbeat book

“So I sighed a little, and decided to go.” Another Nabokov line. A just do it line. And another: “He slept badly the night before the departure.” It’s true. I’ve been blaming it on the full moon. Yesterday I was so jetlagged with exhaustion that I couldn’t bring myself to write, not until almost midnight, but today I am back and sighing a little, dipping in and out of the scene, writing bits of it. threads, patches, things that will – have faith! – eventually get woven and sewn together and whatever the consequences turn out to be, you’ll just have to deal with them. Now, go! Write!

And what’s the worst that can happen? You’ll write it and it’ll be wrong and you’ll start all over again. But at least once you’ve written it, it will have been written.

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