Thursday, March 10, 2011
Impale them All
(God knows his own)
While it's a reasonable bet that Vlad Dracula never actually used that particular phrase, it's a pretty good description of what could be called "pointer" fantasy violence. It's the rather more pointed version of the kick the puppy moment which less skilled writers use to show that the villain must be bad, because see? He kicked that poor, helpless puppy.
And yes, Vlad did impale a lot of people, and more than a few of them were alive when the stake treatment started. He also added a fair few refinements to the basic stake up the khyber routine to make his... ahem... point. (To be fair, it's more than feasible the added extras like rounding the end off and a heavy coating of grease were things he learned in the Ottoman Empire - they were rather enthusiastic proponents of impalement as a way of dealing with problems, themselves.) He also lined the roads with stakes as a way of informing people that they'd better behave themselves - something that seems to have been quite effective.
The thing is, it doesn't matter how much violence there actually is in a book, if it's not properly directed. If you're lopping off heads left, right and center, when you need to raise the stakes (so to speak), you don't actually have many places to go. Gushing arteries and painting the town in someone's blood tend to have that effect.
When I was writing Impaler, I aimed to keep all the on-screen violence (and most of the off-screen, for that matter) tightly focused. If it didn't matter, it didn't rate a mention. I don't think there's a single random act of violence, although there are a number of impalements (kind of hard to avoid them in a book about Vlad), several battles, and assorted instances of torture, bad temper, and - again, somewhat inevitable - impaling and generally despoiling enemy corpses (Yes, the equally inevitable graveyard humor surfaces. It wouldn't be true to the time or the people if it didn't).
How did I keep it from overloading the book and dripping off the pages, you ask (well, actually, no you don't, and yes, I know you're trying to sneak out the back door. Go on then, I'm not stopping you)? I used several techniques - none of them as blatant as the kick the puppy or pet the kitten cues that make me want to smack the author. Hard.
First there was context. You know, Vlad gets pissed, and he directs his - quite filthy - temper at an appropriate target. Appropriate in this case meaning someone he'd have had executed with just cause sooner or later, because even though in that place and time it was normal to beat several kinds of hell out of the servants when you had a hissy-fit, today's readers wouldn't accept it. Or he's got a recalcitrant spy to deal with (trust me, you don't want to know what's going through my mind when I'm writing torture scenes. Let's just say the writer-voodoo is strong in those times. Curiously enough, the target of that particular bit of writer-voodoo is no longer a co-worker). Or it's the middle of a battle and he's fighting as much to stop the other guys killing him as he is for any other reason.
Then there's one of my favorite tools, balancing and offsetting something that would normally be utterly horrific by describing it in a way that's got more dry humor than anything else. If you've ever sat with nurses or cops talking shop, you know the tone. I've naturally got a sarcastic streak wider than I am (which takes quite a bit of effort, what with the beached whale look), so this is a very easy technique for me to use - so easy I need to be careful not to overdo it. In Impaler, that wasn't helped by Vlad's voice being even more strongly sardonic than I am.
Yeah. I finally met someone who could out-snark me, and he's one of my characters. Only a writer.
Anyway, that kind of technique, along with focusing on a specific goal or impact, shifting up Vlad's perspective so he's not always in the middle of the violence (even though he'd much rather be in the thick of it than waiting to find out whether he won or not), and shifting to the next goal instead of the loving writer-closeup of the horror all served to keep the impact of the violence at the level I need it to be - which allowed me to ratchet up the tension a good ways for the climactic sequence.
You'll have to read the book to find out what I did - but I'm pleased with the end result. It still drags me in and doesn't let go until the final sentence. And if I can do that to myself, I have a slight hope of being able to do it to other people.