Finding Nemo still, of sharks looking violent at Nemo.

Stories are about change, and death is the ultimate change

Last year I was at an English teaching conference workshop in which a teacher lamented the extravagantly violent writing from some of her students (mostly boys).

This led to a discussion about 'what to do about it', but a lot of the conversation was about ways to stop it, like trying to eradicate a weed.

To me, that's the wrong approach because it ignores what violence often means to a student in terms of dramatic vocabulary.

Stories are about change, and death is the most obvious and dramatic change.

In the simplest possible story, someone is happily living their life—and then something kills them.

We see a lot of Frankenstories like that: characters are introduced in one round and then arbitrarily killed in the next round, whether by asteroid or Tony Stark or too many nuggies.

The issue is students have a limited palette of change.

There are all sorts of ways a character can change, both externally and internally. Their bodies can change, their resources, relationships, beliefs, and most importantly (in stories) their emotions.

But under pressure to write something interesting or entertaining, all those options can go out the window and kids reach for the most obvious choice: violence!

I think the solution is not to stop students from writing violent stories but to help them expand their palette of change.

The trick is that in order to do that, you need to go further back and develop skills in establishing the world of a story, so that students can create a context in which dramatic change will be meaningful and effective.

If you set up the story right, then violence and death can be powerful. If you don't, then it's static and boring.

And also if you set a story up right, then all sorts of other changes can be powerful, too.

House on fire

One solution: learning to write better fight scenes

If you have some kids who only ever write static, arbitrary violence and fight scenes, one way to start broadening their palette is to teach them to write better fight scenes:

  1. Talk about death in terms of dramatic change, then discuss other ways in which characters change in stories that the students like.
  2. Study some examples of how violence is introduced and expressed in stories. (In literary stories, violence is often a moment; in adventure stories, violence is often an extended sequence.)
  3. [I think it's easier to look at examples from film and TV. For young kids, you could try something like the barracuda or shark attacks in Finding Nemo. For older students, I'd suggest studying the classic tavern fight in Raiders of the Lost Ark, using Steven Soderbergh's black & white no-dialogue staging study (starting at 23:00 with Indy on the plane and ending at 34:00).]
  4. Talk about how violence and death are more meaningful when we know who the characters are. (If we like them, we don't want them to be hurt, plus their attitude towards violence is important—are they good at it, bad at it, aggressive, timid, apologetic etc.)
  5. Spend time practising the skills of establishing a story world: introducing and combining elements, expanding on details, and establishing routines and platforms.
  6. Try writing scenes or stories where you establish a world very quickly, then introduce violence in a way that uses all the interesting elements in the world. (You can revisit the models above to see how they use violence within the world they create.)
  7. If you make it that far, then you could brainstorm other types of non-violent conflict and change that could happen in the students' story worlds. 

Relevant Writelike lessons

The Narrative Skills section of Writelike has lessons that can help with this.

If you have any questions, comments, or criticism

Feel free to get in touch! We'd love to hear your thoughts.

Advice for educators Frankenstories