Biff! Pow! Bonk? These are all terms have have been used to describe violence in fiction, but unless you’re writing an old-timey Batman comic, you’ll probably need a bit more. Fortunately, that’s our topic for this week! What’s the best way to describe violence? How much violence should you describe in the first place? Is there ever a good time to use metaphors in fight scenes? Listen and find out! 


Generously transcribed by Steven. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.

Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle.

[Intro Music]

Wes: Welcome to another episode of the Mythcreants podcast. I’m your host, Wes. And with me today is…

Oren: Oren

Wes: …and…

Chris: Chris.

Wes: Today we’re going to talk about how to describe violence in speculative fiction. We know that not every reader can stomach violence and not every writer wants to go all in on describing it. Fair enough.

I think, today I just wanted to talk about how to approach describing violence in fiction, some ways of doing it, and some things to keep in mind because people often portray things “realistically”. And so, if you want to depict violent encounters, there are tidbits and advice that we can throw your way. So, let’s just get into it.

Chris: You said realistically, Wes, so I think thinking about the level of realism is a good place to start here.

Wes: I think that’s a great idea because there’s kind of a lot of things that we will let pass with certain types of violence, depending on target audience or rating. Star Wars is a good example. Plenty of violence, but generally not graphic violence. So that when certain things are very graphic for Star Wars, and then somebody walks it off, that’s not realistic.

Oren: In Star Wars, we’re used to characters miraculously avoiding taking lethal damage or something that should kill them, at least by film standards. In real life, you know that getting shot in the shoulder is not something you just walk off a lot of the time, and hitting your head really hard and falling unconscious is not something you just walk off most of the time. But in movies, that is the trope, and Star Wars usually adheres to that until the recent trend of impaling people and then having them just walk it off. What is going on at Disney, guys?

Chris: Can we stop doing that, please? Can we stop? Please. Black Panther’s doing it too. You’re a bad influence, Star Wars.

Wes: Quick note on prose writing: If you are describing violence and you’re using the verb impale, that’s a pretty strong one. I’m just saying, that’s a strong word choice.

Oren: Your old buddy Vlad would be disappointed in you.

Chris: I think you have better ways of creating dramatic moments in prose than showing somebody get impaled. Again, it’s this one-upmanship over, you know, the audience is used to shoulder shots. So now we need to do something more dramatic to make them worry about the character, but we still want the character to live. And you just can only go so far before it becomes absolutely ridiculous. Someday soon, everybody’s going to be sewing their head back on.

Oren: Maybe they evolved the ability to remove their own head.

Chris: Oh, man! Lost girl reference!

Oren: Early Lost Girl reference for you.

Chris: That’s episode two, right? Something like that?

Oren: It’s very early. It’s before they had any budget, and so their bad guy was a guy whose head was hidden in his shirt.

Chris: Again, they’re supposed to be scary assassins, but their ability is that they have evolved the ability to remove their head.

Oren: They said the word evolve!

Chris: And again, these are like fey in this setting. So, evolving, removing your head is a little bit of a theme clash there. Anyway, it was absolutely hilarious. It’s like, oh, they’re so scary because their head isn’t with them. How is that supposed to help them fight? I don’t even know.

Oren: Apparently, they can see without it, so it’s like fighting a normal person, I guess. They’re not invulnerable as far as I can tell, or if they are, it has nothing to do with their head.

Chris: I think that that would be a disadvantage. It would be very interesting if they took their head and put it at a bird’s eye view.

Oren: Maybe their eyes can shoot lasers, so they put their head on a little cart as a turret and it flies around and shoots at you while you’re trying to fight them. Or you could just go the opposite direction and take comics as an inspiration and write Biff! Pow! You know, that sort of thing.

Maybe this is just me, I have to ask with you two here: Am I the only one who really doesn’t like onomatopoeia used in fight scenes in particular, but I guess anywhere in stories? Anytime a story writes boom when there’s an explosion, my eyes roll back into my head.

Chris: I really think it’s about how it’s used. I think if you use cheesy comic book onomatopoeia, that is going to feel like a tone clash in many stories, especially when you want the fight scene to be very serious and tense.

But I do think that sometimes onomatopoeia is a lot more subtle, where you just have a little italicized drip, drip, drip that’s kind of representing a sound.

Wes, where do you see the border of onomatopoeia? What qualifies and what doesn’t qualify?

Wes: Technically, we’re just looking at is the word on the page representing the sound as closely as possible? Drip, drip, drip is an interesting one. I never really would have thought of that as onomatopoeia, but I see that there’s definitely an argument for that. I don’t know what the line is. I think medium matters. And so, if I see it in a graphic novel, I don’t mind it at all. It feels like that’s just kind of part of the deal.

But if I was reading a story and they’re somewhere there was an explosion and then single word, italicized: boom. I’m just like, ugh. Maybe that could be done well, but it wouldn’t be done that way.

Oren: Maybe I’m just biased right now because I’m nearly done with my Animorphs reread and Animorphs uses onomatopoeia constantly. And some of it just sounds a little silly.

Like when the Yeerks fire their Dracon beams, the book has tsew written out. And so, the narrator is constantly saying tsew. I don’t know what that is. And it’s also very similar to the onomatopoeia they use for the sound that the hawk in the group makes when it’s screeching.

But I also just think it might have to do with the fact that the audio narrators, when they were recording, were clearly given the direction to try to sound as freaked out as possible when reading the onomatopoeia descriptions to try to make the fight scenes more tense.

Wes: It’s kind of an interesting point, because if you were not listening to an audiobook version of that, but reading, my experience with that, when I see onomatopoeia written down, I think my internal reading brain doesn’t process that the same way as just normal prose. I just see it. I register it. Okay, cool. But I’m not in my head going tsew-tsew, or whatever.

Oren: It might not be a big deal. Except when the Yeerks shoot at them with guns or lasers and the narrator is reading: bang, bang, bang, as if they’re about to be murdered in real life. It’s like, guys, I know that no one is going to die in this fight, okay? It’s an Animorphs book. I know that no one’s allowed to die until the last book.

Chris: I think this is similar to when we’re talking about level of realism. What is the tone of the story? Is it campy? Because you could definitely get away with more onomatopoeia if the story already feels campy.

Oren: I mean, that is, I think, also just a general problem with Animorphs. As is, remember how of The Dragonet Prophecy, the first book had really gruesome fight scenes?

Chris: Yeah, it’s like this does not feel appropriate for middle grade.

Oren: Yeah, ease off on that.

Animorphs is the opposite. Animorphs starts with what feels like appropriate levels of description of the injuries and the damage that the characters give and receive. But as you get further in, it gets more and more graphic, and it just doesn’t match.

Because again, this is a story where we have to pretend that every time the Yeerks fire their lasers, that they have hands made of butter and the lasers are constantly slipping and sliding all over the place, so that we can explain why a bear doesn’t just get disintegrated by a laser beam. Then it’s like, now read this very graphic description of a tiger biting someone’s head off.

It’s like, I don’t think you’ve earned this, Applegate. I don’t think you’ve earned the right to make me read this.

Chris: Certainly, if you want your characters to do things in fighting that are unrealistic, like how high can they jump? How big is that weapon? Do we get an anime size weapon that’s the size of a person?

Oren: I want a sword that’s big enough I can use it as a shield.

Chris: How well can they shake off injuries? That kind of thing. It just should be consistent, and it should match the work. But it doesn’t always have to be highly realistic. High realism isn’t better; It’s just different and it suits a different tone of story.

Oren: A lot of this has to do not even with what is realistic, but what feels more realistic based on tropes. And one time back when I was in college, I approached a new group to play in a Firefly game and I was like, hey, I want to make a guy who uses a sword. And they were like, that’s cool. You can totally make a guy who uses a sword. And I’m like, all right, I have this really powerful character who uses a sword and I want his sword to be super big because I was playing a Final Fantasy game at the time. And they were like, no, you can’t do that. That’s not realistic. I’m like, okay, it’s not realistic for my sword to be huge, but it is realistic for my sword character to charge across a room before any of the bad guys with machine guns can shoot him and then stab them all with his normal sized sword? That’s realistic? I was a little salty.

Chris: So, should we talk about narrating a fight scene itself?

Wes: Before we hop into that, generally, I think if you are going to get into a violent situation in a story, you have two options: You can narrate the fight scene, show it all blow by blow, or you report the violent encounter after the fact. Those are really the only two options. If there’s a third one, I’m not smart enough to think of it.

There’s pros and cons to each. And depending on the level of violence and how graphic the violence might be and how realistic you might want it to be, I feel like there are good decision points for whether you’re going to show it happen or report it after the fact.

Chris: I would say that usually if this is a situation where you don’t want to show it in a scene, in most cases, you probably just shouldn’t have that violence in your story.

I guess if you have a story that’s dealing with a really difficult issue… So, let’s say you have a story that’s about something like sexual assault, about something like torture; You have to have a character in that situation in order to make the necessary commentary that you want to make, but it’s also very sensitive. That would be a time to cut away until afterwards or something like that.

Wes: You’re right on all those points. And I think after the fact stuff, we see that on screen or we read about that in stories, whodunnits, mysteries, things like that. The anticipation, the next victim, and it happens, but we cut away. And then the investigators see it after the fact.

Chris: So, this is not a fight that the protagonist is actually engaging in, in that case?

Wes: Exactly. That’s a very common use for not showing it, but letting the audience get the anticipation of, oh no, kind of picking up the pieces later without showing something as graphic as the examples that you described.

Because whatever violence you’re including in a story at whatever level, I think that a lot of writers can feel a sense of concern that depicting violence is condoning violence. And that’s something that I think everybody needs to kind of understand. How you depict things in your stories and report on them. There are certain levels of authorial endorsement that come with that. And leaving certain things out is probably a good idea if it does not contribute to the story meaningfully.

Chris: I do think that the major mistake that people make when it comes to messaging is that they think that if they depict something and make it seem bad. Let’s say, oh, I don’t want to condone violence, so I’m going to show how horrific violence is. And then they do it in detail and it’s like really graphic. That doesn’t actually condemn violence. It normalizes it.

So, you can’t have your cake and eat it too. Right? If you want to show graphic violence, but also want to condemn it, you can’t do both of those things.

Oren: Showing violence as horrible can be part of condemning it, but it’s not that on its own. Right? The classic trap here is the stories about characters having cool fights and then the author feeling kind of bad that they’re glorifying violence. And so, making the fights unnecessarily brutal and gross. Also, Animorphs, let’s be perfectly honest, later Animorphs books do this too, where we’re clearly trying to do all the horrors of war, but also, we want to have super cool animals-fight-aliens fights.

That is, I think, the trap to avoid. If you are trying to avoid glorifying violence, the easiest thing to do is to not have violence in your story. But if you want to do something a little more in depth, it takes more work than just making the violence you have more unpleasant.

Wes: And just being consistent in the depictions, I think also matters.

Because, to piggyback off of what Orin just said, if you have a story and I’m looking at basically every superhero story where the goons just get violently destroyed and then the villain, somehow you aren’t going to kill. Because everything that led up to that moment, despite if you’re like, oh, I can’t kill, that would be against my code. It’s like, well, you probably killed and hospitalized 30 people just now.

But that is kind of condoning a certain type of violence, right? It’s like, well, we’re not going to point out that that was problematic, but that you might kill this person. This one moral dilemma right here is suddenly the focus of your attention? I don’t like that. It’s not consistent. It’s not realistic.

Oren: I don’t know how much of that is description, but that is a problem that the whole like, well, I don’t want to kill this guy because he’s the boss. And it’s like, if nothing else, that’s dissonant. You can argue whether or not it has any kind of problematic messaging, but it certainly creates a weird feeling of your character being really inconsistent.

For the record, I’m not super worried about stories glorifying violence by having characters get into cool fight scenes, if for no other reason than that ship has entirely sailed. But beyond that, I do think there are some things to consider, like you just mentioned, having your characters be willing to ruthlessly kill minions, but suddenly the bad guy, no, he can’t. We need him for the next book.

Chris: Personally, I’m not going to look at somebody who writes a cool fight scene and be like, you’re promoting violence because you wrote a fight scene. At the same time, if your point you want to make is an anti-violence point and your protagonist solves problems with violence, I feel like you’re going to be working uphill at that point and that you should consider a different way of solving problems.

Wes: No, you both raise good points. The presence of violence is not necessarily condoning, but how it works into your story. And Chris, I think you raised torture showing up. If somebody, this happens way too often, we’ve talked about this a lot, if there’s violent torture or any kind of torture in your story and that gets the protagonist what they need, you’ve condoned that violence.

Chris: Even if it’s the villain torturing the protagonist, but the protagonist still gives the villain information that’s useful. Oren’s written about this.

Oren: Well, because that feeds into, there’s a lot wrong with torture. Hot take. Hot take: Torture would be bad, even if it was a reliable means of getting information, but it’s not. And the fact that a lot of people think it is, distorts the debate around it.

That is something that I will never stop getting mad about whenever I see some story where the hero or the villain, either way, it doesn’t matter who it is, beats up some guy until they give them the information and it just works that way.

And it’s like, that guy could have just not known the information. You didn’t know he knew that. He could have just not known. And then he would have beaten him until he lied to you to make you stop. Or maybe he lied to you the first time. You often have no way of knowing. And they never show that because it would be narratively inconvenient. So, they instead just want a dramatic punch this button until you get information. And I think we need to do better as writers. I think we can and should do better.

Chris: Are we ready to move on to fight scenes?

Wes: Yeah. Let’s talk about some fight scenes.

Oren: I’m ready for fight scenes. That’s a lot more fun than torture.

Chris: Yeah. So, I have some tips. Wes, I think you probably have your own tips.

Wes: Yeah. Let’s talk about it.

Chris: So first, know what actions to cover and what level of detail is important. At the too detailed end, we have talking about either exact body parts. You can just say that somebody punched somebody else. You don’t have to say that somebody used their right hand to punch somebody else. That’s too much detail. And this is just a logistics issue, really. But you cannot recreate a film. Don’t paint a diagram. You have to keep it simple.

But then you do want to stay in the moment and focus on specific actions that are happening right now. Unless logistically for the story to be believable, you have to summarize sometimes. If you have a huge battle, you’re going to have to summarize battles realistically last a while. But otherwise keep the fight short and stay in the moment. Have less moves, but make those moves riveting instead of like, and then they punched each other 20 more times, or over and over again, or whatever you have to fast forward.

Oren: I would say that as a rule, if you have an option between summarizing the fight or just making the fight shorter, usually making the fight shorter is the right option.

Chris: It’s more realistic too, because bodies break pretty easily. A lot of times the long fights that we see choreographed in film are actually unrealistically long.

Wes: One fight scene that I really like on that note is in the first Daredevil that came out on Netflix, where his quest reward at the end of the season is getting the Daredevil suit. And up until that point, he’s just wearing a black leotard and a black headband.

But there’s a long shot in the hallway in, I think like episode three, where that poor stunt actor is having to fight all these people and the choreographing goes on for like two minutes. And you can just see the actor just completely exhausted by the end of it. I’m just like, yes, this fight scene’s amazing because they’re not shying away from the fact that every punch thrown is draining this person’s willpower.

Oren: That fight scene created its own little genre of hallway fights. That’s a thing now. It’s like, oh look, they’re doing the hallway fight and we all recognize it. Thanks Daredevil.

Right here, I have a quick question on the subject of summarizing. Is it summarizing to say something like he launched a flurry of blows?

Chris: Yes.

Oren: Is it bad?

Chris: I mean, I’d have to think more about the specific circumstance, but I feel like we’re making the individual blows feel unimportant at that point. What we want is to focus on specific actions that could make a difference. And a flurry of blows, it’s also just very abstract. If it’s some kind of combo action that involves more than one movement, I might state that at once, but normally I think that’s going to get a little bit too distant from what’s happening.

Individual steps that your character takes are usually not important enough to narrate individually. There might be some times when you want to say a character specifically stepped forward and punched or something, but normally footwork is just not important enough.

A specific punch or kick or block are all things that, you know, if you fail that block, you can get sliced up, that individually make a difference. So, you’re looking for actions that do that. I would have to look at what the flurry of blows does in the fight, but I would be concerned about that.

Wes: Launched a flurry of blows, when I heard you pitch that example, Oren, I almost felt like that introduces then the fight scene. It’s like they crossed swords and engaged, and then we describe the fight scene. It’s like the pre-fight summary. That’s how I understood that. And I don’t know if that’s good practice or not?

Oren: I would say that something like the example you just gave, crossed swords and engaged, is a little different than a flurry of blows because that is one action and then a statement of intent.

Wes: Well, does it though? Cause you could say Oren launched a flurry of blows and then you could describe those blows. I’m keying off of launched because that doesn’t convey finished action.

Oren: I guess my question would be: if you’re going to describe them all anyway, why did you start by summarizing them as a flurry of blows?

Wes: To prime the reader.

Oren: All right. Well, consider me officially primed.

All right. I have another question about metaphors in fight scenes. So, if you had two characters who are about to start fighting and then the narration describes about how they were playing the most dangerous game of all. Presumably, maybe it’s not as bad as that. Let’s assume it was a good metaphor. I just don’t know of any.

Chris: Admittedly, when you said, I have a question about metaphors in fight scenes, my instant internal reaction was don’t.

Wes: —Don’t.

Chris: Here’s the thing: We have to keep up the pace. And because actions in this case are very quick and happen very fast. We also want the pros to be tight, to reflect how fast the action is. Metaphors, they tend to be a little bit more confusing. They definitely slow things down.

If you have a pause in the action where let’s say both people are exhausted and they kind of take a step back and stumble for a moment and you have an opportunity, then to add in a little bit more narration that maybe you could fit in a metaphor.

But otherwise I think in most cases, if somebody added a metaphor to a fight, they would be again, summarizing and stepping back and being like, oh, this person maneuvered like a fish swimming upstream, I don’t know. And at that point, the question is, are we being specific and immediate? Are we focusing on what’s happening now? And how exciting that is? Or are we kind of taking a step back? I’m not going to say metaphors during fights are impossible. I’m sure there’s something that could work out, but I think that would be dangerous.

Wes: I think more importantly in describing a fight scene, and if you are doing a grittier, perhaps more realistic, more violent story, using plain, simple language can often convey stronger violence more effectively.

If I just said, he raised the hammer and struck the opponent in the skull and felt the hammer go in. It’s very simple, non-flowery language, but it’s gross. Those little zoom-in details, without saying he slashed his opponent and blood rained down like dark tears from the heavens.

Chris: I mean, I will say though, that if you have just finished off your opponent, you do have time, usually…

Wes: …to bring in the metaphors.

Oren: It’s hard for me to separate best practice from taste here, because I know that personally, I have a very narrow band of describing what happens when you hit someone. Between It feels like I’m reading a Marvel fight where every hit is just on a cartoon character and Ugh, I’m grossed out, there’s too many organs. It needs to be in that very narrow band, or I won’t enjoy it. And I don’t know if that’s the right way to write a fight scene or if that’s just what I prefer to read in fight scenes.

I don’t need to know it. I’m a content editor.

Chris: That’s a good point. Strong, direct, active statements really punctuate those important moments. And you need some sentence variety, even during a fight, but look at which clauses have kind of lower emphasis.

And if you have anything that they’re doing simultaneously, first of all, make sure it’s actually simultaneous, but also that’s going to be lower emphasis. And so, make sure that the content in there is naturally lower emphasis. And if they’re punching and kicking, that’s, you usually want a very direct statement for that.

So, before we go, because I know we’re getting low on time, I’d also like to just go over what is graphic because I do run into manuscripts where writers don’t realize how graphic they’re being. So, I think just talking about the difference between what I would consider graphic or not graphic.

And I will say, I am a person who does not like graphic bodily injury, and so the line is going to be different for different people. So, this is partly what I would consider, igh, and what I don’t.

For instance, in a non-graphic fight scene showing an injury, you would have a simple statement about the injury, and then oftentimes describe the reaction by the injured person to that injury to kind of represent its impact. So, somebody is stabbed in the stomach. They cry out and collapse onto their knees. For instance, we just say they stabbed in the stomach. We’re not describing that stomach wound in detail.

Oren: And then they just get up and walk away.

Chris: So, we use their reaction to it to make it feel impactful without describing the actual injury in that much detail.

You can have really abstract descriptions of pain if this is a viewpoint character getting injured, piercing, throbbing, that kind of thing. Some people might have issues with blood, but usually blood is fine.

If you want to say a body part is at an odd angle to show the bone has been broken, I would just not be exact about it. Do not get specific. Their leg is at an odd angle. It’s all you need to say. You don’t need to say exactly where on the leg or what angle it’s at. But I would say that if you make your injuries particularly gruesome, it’s still going to be too much.

Like for instance, Wings of Fire, we have a description of how acid falls on somebody’s face and starts eating through it. That’s just inherently really gross.

Wes: I think if you want to add a slightly more appropriate description to emphasize the injury, if that’s the type of story you’re telling, then there’s a difference between what Chris has described, where he brought the hammer down on his opponent’s hand and his opponent recoiled in pain, or something like that.

If you give an extra line in there to say he heard the bones break, a little extra declarative line can provide just a little heightened sense of graphic violence. I do think it’s best to keep it short and simple, though, and not go down this level of overly describing it because readers are going to fill it in well enough on their own based on the details that are already in the story.

Chris: Personally, if I read description where bones are heard snapping, I consider that graphic.

Again, this is about what type of story you’re telling. So, I’m not here to tell you to not make your violence graphic, but generally you need a reason because it is going to be off-putting to some people. So, if you’re telling a really gritty story or something that’s just revels and dark gory stuff, it’s not a good way to spice up your climax or make your climax more exciting because it isn’t excitement. Doesn’t make anything more exciting. It’s really just about the level of realism and how dark you want it to feel, how gritty you want it to feel. As I said, bone snapping, any bones sticking out.

Again, this is going to be gross. You can exit the podcast now if you don’t want to hear this.

Anything popping out: Eyeballs popping out, any other parts. I would say any description of organs. That’s pretty graphic. Skin being sliced, not a big deal. But if the skin is being stretched or is missing, somebody’s been skinned. That is going to feel pretty graphic. It varies with body parts being gone, which body parts we’re talking about. A missing finger, not that big of a deal.

Some writers will write, here’s the viewpoint of somebody as they get torn apart. That’s not a thing that is a light reading. When it comes to describing pain, if you have really graphic metaphors or analogies about like, oh, this thing felt as though an arrowhead was being driven up my spine, it’s possible to make descriptions of pain graphic enough to be unpleasant for some readers.

Oren: Well, that is a good thing, I think, to end the podcast on.

Chris: Yes!

Oren: I think we all died of being squicked.

Chris: All right. If you found this podcast, I’ll say useful, possibly not enjoyable, please support us. You can go to

Oren: Before we go, I want to thank a few of our patrons. First, we have the popular writing software Plotter, which you can learn about at Then there’s Callie Macleod. Next, we have Ayman Jaber, he’s an urban fantasy writer and a connoisseur of Marvel. And finally, we have Kathy Ferguson, who’s a professor of political theory in Star Trek. We’ll talk to you next week.

[Outro Music]

This has been the Mythcreants Podcast. Opening and closing theme: The Princess Who Saved Herself, by Jonathan Colton.

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