Sword fights are fun and all, but what if you wanted a story where problems are resolved… without violence? Is such a thing even possible? Can you have conflict and tension without people removing each other’s organs? Yes, you can, and that’s our topic this week! We discuss why storytellers might not want violence in their stories, what the benefits are, and where things can go wrong. Plus, a tip on why two sword fights aren’t necessarily better than one.
Generously transcribed by Dovah. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
You’re listening to the Mythcreants Podcast with your hosts: Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock and Chris Winkle.[Intro Music]
Wes: You’re listening to the Mythcreant Podcast. I’m your host Wes and with me today is Oren and Chris. And there’s really no use denying it. Violence is pretty standard for fantasy, science fiction, spec-fic stories in general. And it’s not really a bad thing. I mean, a lot of spec fic has high stakes and so the conflicts can tend to come down to life and death, team good and team bad and all the disposable goons that can just murdered along the way for reasons until you get to the Big Bad Guy, and then you have a moral quandary. [laughs]
Oren: They have a name and a face so it matters.
Wes: Right? Exactly. But anytime you’ve got those two opposing forces, there seems to be some kind of tendency toward force and violence. But for today, I’d like us to say to everyone out there who claims that, “Hey, violence is just how humans are, so having it in our stories is more real…” Well, you guys can cool it and know that we can make non-violent conflicts just as engaging as violent ones. There’s actually a lot of nonviolent conflict in stories so we’re going to have a look at those today for those of you who want to avoid violence on principle, or just need some inspiration. So let’s get at it.
Chris: Or just don’t like writing fight scenes. Let’s not underestimate that.
Wes: Fight scenes are hard to write.
Oren: I’ll literally fight you so I don’t have to write a fight scene. [All Laugh]
Chris: I rarely write fight scenes just because I find other conflicts more interesting. And, you know, I just don’t find writing kicks and punches to be that interesting or most of the time hearing kicks and punches to be that interesting. I think you have to do a lot of work to actually make fight scenes actually interesting. And yeah, I’d rather have a nice social conflict with people arguing.
Wes: We say it constantly, but when we say conflict, we do not necessarily mean physical violence and we don’t have a better word, which is terrible and it’s too bad.
Chris: At this point, whenever I define conflict, I sub in the word struggle.
Wes: That’s pretty good.
Chris: It’s a struggle to do this or that. I mean, a struggle still can be something like a fight. It still could be violence, but I think it has a lesser association.
Oren: Yeah. Well, I mean, I encounter people all the time who, thanks to writing discourse, have decided that “conflict” must mean “violence.” So either they put in fight scenes that they don’t want, or they are just like, “Well, I’m not going to be like one of those lowbrow, violent people,” and then they just don’t put any conflict in the story at all. Then it’s just boring. Really. It’s important to understand that these are not necessarily the same thing.
Chris: And I think it’s also worth noting that the average conflict in almost all stories is not actually violence. There’s a variety of things and range of tension that are all classified as conflicts, right? It’s not just conflict when things get really exciting and a fight breaks out. It’s also conflict when your protagonist wants to get into a building and somebody who’s like, “Hey, I don’t know if you belong here, let’s see your invitation.”
That’s also a conflict. And most conflicts in most stories tend to be things like that; they tend to be lower level of social conflicts, but that’s a conflict too.
Wes: Did they just get less attention? Because I mean, is the discourse mostly around, you know, your protagonist and antagonist and how we’re going to resolve the through line of the story?
Oren: Well, I mean, sometimes it’s just a genuine misunderstanding, but also there’s definitely a vein of people who don’t want to put conflict in their stories. And that’s easier to justify if they assume that all conflict is violent.
Chris: I also think there are some things about violence that if you want higher attention, make it some level easier to people. Now, it can be a trap because it’s not guaranteed, but it’s tension–what makes things exciting. And there are some things like, okay, the average fight scene for instance, has life or death. Often because somebody could get injured or die. Right? And that means that the outcome matters, which is important for tension. It has a high level of immediacy because anything could happen at any moment that could cause life or death.
And a lot of times, not always, it feels difficult, right? It’s that sense of struggle. And I think those are the things that, you know, make people think that action automatically equals high-tension when that’s not true, you know? Also people are increasingly just used to visual media and movies where we have these stunning effects and it’s more visually engrossing and it’s hard for people to realize that in prose your kicks and punches just aren’t necessarily that exciting to read about in the same way they are to watch in a movie with exciting music and all of those things happening.
Oren: Another thing that is worth keeping in mind is that in a lot of cases, if your stakes get sufficiently high, you *are* going to have to look at, “Would someone actually, you know, be willing to fight for this?”
And if so, why are they not doing that? Like, if your stakes revolve around the political future of a country, people might assume: ”sure there are nonviolent ways to resolve that, but are the people who don’t get their way really going to stay non-violent?” Theoretically, the answer can be yes, but you know, you have to be willing to show that there is some kind of system in place that makes violence either not necessary or in practice.
Chris: In some cases, the protagonists clearly would not win. And that situation is another one.
Especially, if you want a high tension story and you don’t want violence it’s a fair bet that it’s just: “look the protagonists aren’t fighters. If they try to get in a fight, they’re just going to get squished. So that’s not an option for them.” And so now they have to find ways of solving problems that don’t involve use of force because they can not win.
Wes: Those are good points. And so in a story like, we could use A Memory Called Empire, which we covered when that was nominated for the Hugo. There’s violence happening all around this city and Mahit and Three Seagrass and Rip Pedal basically write a poem and stop the conflict. Which, you know, whatever. The point is that violence is happening, but the main characters aren’t really featuring in it. Because they’re not, really. It’s background noise is effectively what I’m getting at. Is that still appropriate for what we’re talking about here? In a world at war these three diplomats stay out of it and save the day.
Oren: To a certain extent. I feel like if somebody doesn’t want violence in their story, that probably isn’t going to be what they mean by that. But it might be, I mean, maybe they, again, they just don’t want to write fight scenes.
There are very few fight scenes in A Memory Called Empire and the ones that exist are pretty slim, but I mean, that is an example of characters solving problems non-violently. It’s also a contrived example because the main bad guy has this giant army and it’s just very hard to believe that he would pack it up and go home because they wrote a really good poem and had a good PR campaign. It’s just, you know, he was already willing to completely disregard all of the institutions and traditions of the empire. I don’t really think that their big speech is going to make any difference, but in theory it can work. Right?
Chris: There’s a lot of questions when it comes to, Okay, you’re avoiding violence… Why are you doing that and what does it mean? For instance: maybe you just don’t want to have even the threat of violence in your story because you just want a break from that. It could in some situations mean that you actually want a story that has lower tension, which is a different thing than wanting a story that is high tension but without violence. Maybe you don’t want to feel like you’re endorsing violence. You don’t want the protagonist to be violent, you know? Or maybe you just don’t want to write fight scenes.
All of those things might come with a slightly different solution. I think that it’s easy to avoid violence if you don’t mind your stakes being lower and you want lower tension. I think that when people run into more trouble is when they do want a story that’s really exciting. That’s when they really think that they have to pull up violence or have fight scenes when they don’t need to.
Oren: All right, so categorization question: is like an exciting chase or escape scene from like a natural disaster. Does that count as violence?
Chris: I would say no by definition. [laughs] I actually looked up the definition of violence in preparation for this podcast.
And I mean, granted, they’re also going to be some people who don’t want to see injury. And I personally am not a fan of graphic injury. So I don’t really want to hear about how somebody’s body falls apart regardless of the source of that–whether it’s a person with a sword or a hurricane or what have you. For some people that might be different, but generally if you have high stakes, that means people are going to die at some level if you go for the highest stakes. It comes down to that in some shape or form.
Wes: The violence component, I think how we’re thinking about it in conflict. I mean, how popularized it is that it’s person versus person.
Oren: Generally thinking of it in terms of like a pretty narrow definition, like one person trying to hurt another person or I guess maybe a living creature, trying to hurt another living creature. Like I would consider animals hurting each other to be pretty violent, even if none of them were Sapient, but you know, there are differing definitions. You can get into some pretty interesting political definitions of what violence is. For storytelling purposes, typically you want to go with the more narrow one.
Wes: To your natural disaster kind of example: Survival is a good struggle that you can include in your story, getting from point A to point B. There’s plenty of conflict, probably along the way, you know? And that struggle is impressive and has stakes and it’s important.
Chris: There are ways to create compelling stakes without the threat of somebody dying, like losing your home or your heritage. Habitat destruction is something that a lot of people would care about. You could call that violence because there’s animals there, if you want to. It’s definitely having lives on the line which makes it a little simpler, but like, it’s not that you couldn’t come up with something that doesn’t even have the threat of injury and have it matter.
I think that for getting that like really high immediacy and highest stakes, that would probably be a little difficult. But other things, for instance: chases like if you’re running from a monster, there is a threat of injury there, but if you can get away and without hurting the monster then I would call that a non-violent conflict.
Oren: Yeah, I would, too.
Chris: And sometimes what you would do like, “Oh, it’s just an animal that’s hungry. We don’t want to hurt it.” So I also think it’s better if you’re a protagonist or squishable. Not only do we not want to hurt it, but if we tried it would eat us. So we really should run.
Wes: Chris has an article you all should read on options for high stakes conflicts without violence. I liked that you included hiding on there, because for me personally, nothing ratchets up the tension like a really well plotted-out hide scene where you’re skulking in the shadows or just staying out of view and they’re always inching closer. And you don’t really know, maybe, what’ll happen if they find you, but it just doesn’t matter. It just raises the tension through the roof for me. The threat of being found out is, I think, a good one.
Chris: I think the key with hiding is making things happen. Right? A lot of people would be like, “Okay, well they’re in the closet now. Now what?” [all laugh]
Wes: They win. It’s a great hiding spot. No more story.
Chris: It’s like, okay. Either they have to be required to move around maybe because they can find no perfect hiding spot. So they can only circle and try to stay out of sight. Or there can be things in the hiding spot that makes it a less-than-perfect hiding spot. Right? That requires them to either not flinch at all the bugs that are coming out of the walls in the area. Or there could be something else dangerous in there with him or something.
Oren: Someone’s playing Another Life in the hiding place and you have to not yell at the screen. It’s a battle of wills right there.
Chris: But Oren, we gotta fly around that cloud of dark matter.
Oren: [lamenting] No, that’s not how dark matter works! Oops, I said that now I’m going to get caught. Oops. Uh, oh dear. I failed the battle of will.
Chris: Oh, one I like is using the setting, the magic or technology of the setting. You can do experiments on rituals that are dangerous. Or I love conflicts and shows where they come up with an excuse for a character to go into another character’s head.
Oren: Yeah, get in there. [Wes Laughs]
Chris: [sarcastically] Oh no, they’re having inner turmoil. Well, I guess you have to go inside their mind to help them sort it out.
It’s a little contrived, but it always creates a very fun environment that can have creepy things in it. And then usually they’re wandering around hostile terrain as there’s some other creepy thing that represents whatever is afflicting the character after them. And then they have to find the person. Then they have a social conflict because before they can leave, they have to talk to the person and convince them to come out of their shell or, you know, do the pep talk or whatever they need to do; meanwhile, there’s some kind of monster in there with them.
I’ve always found those to be very fun.
Oren: Hey, you can just literalize the character’s internal struggle. Makes it makes it much easier to demonstrate in story.
Chris: Another good one is traps in like a labyrinth. You can do some really creative things with that.
Wes: Have a bunch of singing goblins. It’s perfect. [all chuckle at reference]
Oren: One thing to keep in mind when we’re talking about a lot of high stakes but nonviolent conflicts are high tension but nonviolent conflicts. These are going to have the same effect as a gunfight would in terms of building tension that you then have to continue increasing. Just because they’re not violent doesn’t mean that you can have the beginning of your story be about this really exciting escape sequence, where the protagonists and her husband have to get away from the impact from a meteor impact area that’s super dangerous. [all chuckle] They’re constantly on the verge of death but the rest of the story is like a slow burn political drama. That will cause some problems if you do that.
And if your book is The Calculating Stars, which I dearly love, but it will cause some problems when you have that kind of switch. Even though the first one wasn’t actually violent, it was still extremely high tension with like really immediate stakes. People could die as opposed to the rest of the book, which is, “will I get to get on the ship that goes to the moon?”
Chris: Yeah, this is why it’s important to understand the relationship between conflict and tension, right? Conflict is basically a tool for bringing tension out, for increasing the immediacy of the problem and creating kind of a riveting situation where every moment matters as to whether or not the problem is going to be solved.The actual problem itself and the, whether it matters, that’s going to be solved with immediacy is a question of tension. And again, people have a tendency to sub in action and think that action is what’s exciting and that’s not going to work.
Wes: I think something that you could do, even if you have a story that does include violence if you’re not shying away from it though, is at critical moments or even at the climax, choosing nonviolence is a good way to twist or put a spin on an otherwise violent story. In order for that to work, there needs to be a good reason why, f your protagonists had been violent prior, they decided to not be violent in the climax. A good example of this to my mind is the confrontation with Prince Humperdinck at the end, when Westley is in his bedroom and drops in, gets to say the “drop your sword line,” basically just shattering what willpower he had that was remaining and preying on his cowardice. [The Princess Bride] He’s just actually a coward and confronting him with that was done very well and very believably. Even given the opportunity to just quickly kill him when Inigo makes that offer hesays, “no, this will be worse for him because this is everything that he knows to be true about himself” is a good example of how you could deal with like that big, bad. As much as the kid that the grandpa’s reading to in the story–and a lot of us, you know–maybe wanted him to get run through… like it fits. It’s a fitting resolution to that story with him.
Chris: So knowing that Wesley is ill, has been poisoned or whatever was done to him, his life was sucked out and that he can’t actually fight and he’s bluffing also gives that scene a lot of tension.
Wes: Yes, a lot.
Chris: Right, because he’s making it a social conflict, but we know that at any point the prince could just decide to fight him and that’s going to result in him dying because he’s not actually strong enough to fight. So that’s also like a good example of, yeah, it could have been as a fight scene but there’s a reason why it can be high tension without fighting. It works really well.
Oren: Also, just from a dramatic standpoint in that movie, we’ve already had a big climactic sword fight between Inigo Montoya and the Six-fingered Man. What? Are we going to have another climactic sword fight between Wesley and Humperdinck? We already had one of those. Let’s have something else.
Chris: Yeah. We’re getting kind of exhausted watching all these people sword fighting.
Wes: That’s right. Have two good antagonists and then you can have your cake and eat it too. It’s just a fight.
When I was thinking of some examples of this podcast, I thought of Back to the Future as super high stakes, nonviolent conflict. They know that the lightning bolt strikes the clock tower at precisely this time. They have to drive the car to meet it. I mean, I was riveted as a kid where the car doesn’t start and Marty has to like bang it with his forehead until it jumps up and the tree blows down and Doc Brown has to climb up there to reconnect the cables. There’s plenty of fun tension in that scene and the stakes are pretty high, I guess. I mean, he could have just lived his life out in the fifties, sixties and seventies.
Oren: Although he maybe would have disappeared? I’m a little unclear how time travel works there.
Chris: Isn’t it Back to the Future: 3 where they have a train?
Wes: Yes, they do like the same thing, but it’s a train. [laughs]
Chris: You have the train, but the train is actually heading and the track ends. Right? And so they have to, you know, go back to the future before they get to the end of the track. So that was a way to up the stakes without having to do that experiment/ritual conflict right there.
Oren: A nonviolent or low violent story is also a great way to make a more light story and to give you an opportunity to have some humor, because it’s not like you can’t have humor in a story that’s violent. Uh, you can, but you have to work pretty hard to make sure that the moods don’t clash and that the humor doesn’t undercut the seriousness of the violence or vice versa. But if you don’t have a lot of violence, your story can more easily lend itself to just being kind of a funny story.
Star Trek 4 is probably the main movie example of that. Unlike the other Star Trek movies, that doesn’t actually have an antagonist. It’s just the characters wandering around modern day San Francisco getting into hi-jinks. I guess there’s a chase scene in that so that’s a little violent, but most of it is just unfortunate circumstances and they’re trying to figure out what to do.
Chris: One of the ways that I like to do big conflicts is having wagers. In some ways it’s a little tricky, but it’s also very flexible because if two characters have a wager, they could pretty much put anything in the wager. Then you can have some really creative conflicts and ways to make something that would otherwise be a game, which has no stakes, into something that’s higher stakes. And we’ve talked about games before and how hard it is to make them work because they don’t have stakes inherently. I mean, the tricky thing about a wager is that you have to have it believable that people would make this agreement and then potentially hold their word.
For instance, Coraline is an example where, you know, she makes a wager with Other Mother about finding the eyes and then uses that to find the ghosts of these previous children in order to set them free and what have you. She basically does a treasure hunt at the climax of the movie, which is fun. And of course we still have a scene, usually in many of these wagers where after the protagonist wins the wager, the antagonist talking to them like, “Yeah, actually I’m not going to adhere to that after all.”
Wes: Of course, yep. [laughs]
Chris: What you want to do, of course, is make it so that the wager still matters. You know, if you’re going to do that. So that in this case, Coraline finding these eyes meant that she could free these ghost children. Right? It was a productive exercise. Even though in the end, Other Mother tried to keep her and she had to run away.
Oren: Yeah. I mean, you can either have the character find things that they need for another conflict as a result of the game as the Coraline method. Or you can have a situation where it makes sense that the villain would choose to honor the arrangement, even if it means losing whatever they wanted. And like, you can always go with a magical explanation like: “I am the ancient Fey and I cannot lie or go back on my word.” Right? That sort of thing. Or…
Chris: “We’re going to swear on an ancient artifact that forces us to keep our word.” Or something.
Oren: Although, be careful with those. Ancient artifacts that can force you to keep your word have a lot of usability, but you can also go with a smaller conflict. For example, if your protagonists go and talk to a crime boss and they’re like, “I challenge you to a game that you really like and are known for and if I win, you have to give me an extension on the debt that I owe.” And the other crime people are all there and they hear the guy agree to it and then like, okay. It’s reasonable that he would agree. Even if he loses, he would keep that even if he’s normally a kind of dishonest person, because he wouldn’t want to lose face in front of all the other crime people.
Chris: Or in some situations, again, openly not following your agreements means that nobody else wants to trust you to do business with you. So there were some situations in that would, would work, but you’d have to have good motivation from both the protagonist and the antagonist for a the wager to operate.
Wes: Tthe wager component is fascinating. I love all of that stuff too. And then the second Oren said, crime boss I was like, oh right. Like, you could have a decent conflict where of course, in order to get something that the protagonist needs to move forward in the story, the crime boss could offer it but the protagonist has to offer up some collateral. And of course, you know, that could come with like the thread if they don’t make good on what they needed to get for the crime boss as well. Especially if it’s, I don’t know, something you really need or something that’s dear and precious to you. And then suddenly it’s like a wager, but it’s already the thing that is yours that you’ve offered up for collateral is already under threat and the not knowing of whether or not that crime boss would stay true or not is going to be providing a low burn on tension from the start that the agreement is made.
Chris: You could potentially have another turning point after they win the wager to make the antagonist stay to their agreement.
Oren: You can also use that as a great way to get rid of an overpowered NPC that you accidentally put in the story. It’s like, ah, darn it. This NPC is way too strong and solves all the problems…Uh, the crime boss says that you need to leave them here as collateral. It’s like, all right, good. Good save crime boss. Thanks. Good job. [all laugh]
Wes: The story has been saved. Perfect.
Oren: And it was all due to crime.
The go-to nonviolent social conflict story that I thought of a lot nowadays, of course, is Fruits Basket, which is a great anime. I like it quite a bit. It shows beyond the non-violence. It definitely shows there’s a bit of a problem where you create stakes that are more interesting than the ones you actually want to explore.
Spoilers for the later seasons. But like towards the end, Tohru, the main character knows that the Sohma family is under a curse. She even at one point dedicates herself to trying to break it, which is really cool and I’m way into that, but the author just didn’t seem interested in that storyline. And so the curse kind of ends up breaking itself and that’s not really a violence issue. Like. I didn’t need Torhu to start Kung Fu fighting cursed demons or whatever. Those stakes were really high and I wanted her to be more involved with that.
Wes: By way of kind of bringing this podcast to a close, there’s lots of options that we discussed for nonviolent conflicts, you know: investigations, competitions, romances, wagers, collateral, and all these kinds of things that we do experience in our daily life. Like our sources of struggle and conflict. Uh, so take that realists. [all laugh]
The tricky thing is to keep things compelling because we know that if there’s violence, the stakes are obvious. So you just might need to strap on your “I’m a great word crafter” pants and go forth and make that political dialogue really emphasize what’s at stake there. And also if your protagonists wagers that they can make a better cake and they don’t…what happens? So it has to matter. Don’t forget that.
Oren: All right. Well, I think that’s a good place to end the podcast. Those of you at home, if anything we said piqued your interest you can leave a comment on the website at mythcreants.com.
Before we go. I want to take a minute to thank a few of our patrons. First we have Kathy Ferguson who was a professor of political theory in Star Trek. Next we have Ayman Jaber. He is an urban fantasy writer and a connoisseur of Marvel. And finally, we have Danita Rambo. She lives therambogeeks.com. We’ll talk to you next week.
Mythcreants relies on the support of readers like you. Help us create quality content by becoming a patron today.