A lonely inn on a hilltop

Cover illustration by John Anthony Di Giovanni (widened)

The Wandering Inn is a LitRPG web series about a young woman, Erin, who finds herself near an abandoned inn in another world. She spends most of her time figuring out how to meet her basic survival needs, restoring the inn, and trying to attract customers despite the inn’s less-than-ideal location – except for when the goblins attack. Then, The Wandering Inn becomes a grimdark story featuring major character death, attempted rape, and graphic violence.

Traditionally published works rarely have this level of tonal whiplash. This is almost certainly because publishers consider it a deal breaker, and they have a good reason for that. The audiences who are most interested in reading a story about running an inn will likely be turned off by the violent material.

However, we’ve found this is a fairly common problem with unpublished manuscripts. A writer who wants to focus on personal growth, relationships, or fun activities will write a story that’s light and probably too slow. That is, until characters are suddenly shooting or hacking at each other, often leading to graphic depictions of blood and gore. Sometimes violence appears only at the story’s climax, but it’s still incredibly out of place.

In many of these cases, the writer didn’t even want to write the bloody parts. They thought that was the only way to create an exciting story people would read. Let’s break down the difference between violence, action, gore, and what you actually need in your story. That way you can write the story you want to write, and your audience won’t feel like you’re pulling a bait and switch.

Why We Think We Need Violence

The pressure to include violence comes from a variety of sources, but one of the biggest is film. Today, writers get lots of inspiration from TV and movies, often more than they are getting from books. As I’ve mentioned before, this isn’t the worst model for storytelling, but it’s still a different medium.

Fights are better onscreen than they are in narration. Even without professional fight choreographers, visual mediums allow viewers to instantly observe the position of the characters and the status of the struggle. Those spatial logistics are incredibly challenging to narrate. If we go into too much detail, we’ll slow the fight down and overload readers with more information than they can sort through. We have to put fights in the simplest of terms, conveying exactly the right information. Otherwise, the fight will be confusing and boring.

Speculative stories have also been long associated with exciting action. The Wandering Inn is inspired by a milieu of roleplaying games, which are known for their hack-and-slash game play. Most of the speculative movies we see in the theater climax with a fight. In particular, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is a huge media franchise, has inspired many writers, and is incredibly action heavy. While speculative films without action certainly exist, their presence is small in comparison. A speculative writer who wants to focus on relationships may not have been exposed to popular stories that do that.

By itself, this is enough to make writers think that violence is just what you do at a story’s climax. But adding to this is a culture which perpetuates the notion that dark and violent stories are somehow superior. First, because violence has a masculine association, and anything associated with masculinity is glorified, some writers are afraid that without violence or dark and unpleasant material, their work will be dismissed as being “chick lit” or for young children.

Second, dark and unpleasant material is associated with realism, which is worshiped by literary genre writers. These writers often praise trends that are unpopular with audiences, because that makes them feel rebellious and innovative. At this point, so many writers are doing this that it’s not in the least bit special, but the attitude hasn’t faded yet.

As a result, writers may think that including graphic violence makes their work more real, serious, or honest. They may believe that chasing a story’s darkest implications and pulling no punches is inherently better, rather than a tone choice that may not fit the story they’re telling.

Violence Isn’t Always Tense

Let’s start by breaking down why a fight scene in a movie is exciting. Let’s say we have a Jedi and Sith dueling with lightsabers. Those lightsabers are ridiculously lethal. If one hits someone, that person will lose a limb or some vital organs. And if the story is told well, our Jedi hero will be the underdog, outmatched by their Sith opponent.

During the fight, the characters are constantly swinging those things around at each other. Viewers watch as a lightsaber heads toward a character, and that character has a fraction of a second to block or be killed. A good fight choreographer will also make it look like one character is winning through much of the fight. Someone could be victorious at any time.

This is exciting for viewers because it meets the requirements for tension:

  • The stakes are high. The Jedi hero could die. As long as viewers don’t dislike the hero, they should care about that.
  • The likelihood that the worst could happen is high. The Jedi is outmatched by an intimidating Sith villain.
  • The urgency is high. The Sith is swinging their lightsaber right now, and the Jedi has to respond before the viewer even has time to react.

The fight between the Jedi and Sith is violence, and it’s also very tense – that’s what makes it exciting. Next, let’s separate the tension from the violence. What happens if the Sith disembowels the Jedi?

The tension disappears. The scene may be devastating, but it’s no longer exciting.

Tension is about uncertainty and anticipation. If the worst happens, there’s nothing to anticipate. That’s why when writers try to add excitement by making bad things happen, it can backfire. In many cases, it puts readers through unpleasant material while actually reducing excitement.

That doesn’t mean unfortunate events can’t raise tension; they just need to be used constructively. In particular, they can increase the perceived likelihood that even worse things will happen. For instance, if the Jedi and Sith appear to be evenly matched, but then the Jedi is injured and starts limping, that raises the chance of a Sith victory.

In some stories, characters are killed off to make it feel like other characters could die. But a character’s death is often alienating to viewers, so this tactic is mostly used in dark stories that attract an audience who likes those kinds of experiences. We have many ways of raising tension, so killing a character is unnecessary in most stories.

If we want our Jedi hero to start limping, do we need to describe the injury in graphic detail, with a breaking sound and description of the wound? No. That doesn’t increase the tension; it’s just unpleasant. Some audiences will appreciate the description, but they are most likely in the minority. That’s a decision you’ll make if you are catering to those audiences.

Once translated to narration, even the swinging of lightsabers may lose tension.

  • Do readers know what’s happening? If the fight has complicated logistics, they could easily get confused or just have a very vague idea of unfolding events. They may not even know the hero’s life is threatened.
  • How fast is the pace? Unlike the instantly swinging lightsaber onscreen, narration takes time. The more narration you have between swings, the longer each swing takes in the reader’s head, even if it happens quickly in the story. This means the urgency is lower.
  • Can readers assess what the protagonist’s chances of success or failure are? With a visual fight, viewers can see who’s creaming who. With narration, the writer has to convey how likely it is that the hero will become mincemeat at any point.

Violent threats are a simple way of adding significant stakes and high urgency. But it isn’t the only way to get those things, and they don’t automatically appear with every threat of violence.

Exciting Scenes Aren’t Enough

Writers who insert violent scenes where they don’t fit usually misunderstand how pacing works. They know that good pacing includes periodic exciting scenes, and that most scenes don’t need to be life or death. But they’re not thinking about structure.

Each time an action scene arrives, it may be exciting while it lasts, but only for the duration of the scene. Before and after the scene, there is no tension holding the story up. Let’s look at the difference.

Out of Place Violence

The rabbits spent all day gathering the ingredients for the perfect feast. They decorated the warren and brought in fireflies for light. They had a splendid time.

Because of the celebrations, they forgot to shut the briar gate. Early the next morning, a weasel went through the gate and raided the warren. The rabbits fought the weasel, but failed, and it carried off one of their number to be devoured.

The rabbits mourned their lost loved one. Then they started planting a new crop of carrots to make tasty meals in the coming year.

Above, there’s a sequence without significant tension, then a sudden violent sequence, followed by another sequence without tension. The violence feels anomalous rather than integrated into the story. While this example is a little exaggerated, storytellers really do write things of this nature.

Good Structure & Pace

The rabbits got back to the warren to discover the humans had broken their briar fence. Without it, weasels could raid the warren. They spent all day arming for the attack they knew would come soon.

Early the next morning, a weasel made its attack. The rabbits fought the weasel and managed to drive it off, but their best warriors were injured.

The rabbits knew that without a thick briar and skilled warriors, the next weasel would have an easy victory. The rabbit elders declared it was time for the rabbits to make a perilous journey to a safer home.

Above, the violence fits into a bigger picture. The rabbits anticipate the danger that is coming their way beforehand, and their activities involve mitigating that danger. There’s still a battle with the weasel that has consequences, but character death is left out. After the battle, the rabbits anticipate even more danger than before. To move the story forward, they come up with a new plan to address it.

Of course, the writer of the first example may not want a story like this. Maybe they wanted to focus on happy scenes of rabbits living in their warren.

Creating Tension in a Way That Works for Your Story

Your characters need to spend the bulk of their time solving problems. But the problems they solve don’t have to be a matter of life or death, and they don’t need to solve problems with violence. Any activity you want your characters to engage in could be their way of solving a problem.

When it isn’t including grimdark material, The Wandering Inn is actually very strong in this aspect. To start, Erin has to learn the hard way where to get food, water, and shelter. Once she crashes in the abandoned inn and unintentionally becomes an innkeeper, she needs customers to give her money so she can buy important necessities in town. That means figuring out how to cook, making the inn less shabby, and creating attractions to give people a reason to visit. This gives readers the wish fulfillment of running a fantasy inn while employing enough tension to keep it from getting boring.

Let’s revisit the rabbits, but without a weasel attack this time. Instead of using the threat of weasels to add structure, I’ve created problems that allow the rabbits to hold parties and plant carrots.

Light Structure & Pace

Every day, the rabbits got into quarrels over a wild carrot patch with their new neighbors, the groundhogs. So the rabbits decided to invite the groundhogs over for a feast, hoping they could build bridges. The rabbits spent all day gathering the ingredients for the perfect feast. They decorated the warren and brought in fireflies for light.

Everyone stood nervously as the groundhogs arrived with bottles of dandelion nectar to share. They all sat down and engaged in polite small talk until rabbit and groundhog tried to grab the same carrot off a plate. Then everyone was up in arms over the carrot patch. Both the rabbits and the groundhogs had growing families. They worried they wouldn’t have enough carrots to feed them.

Then a rabbit elder stood and called for everyone’s attention. The elder made a suggestion: what if the two groups worked together to plant more carrots, so they all had enough? None of them had ever farmed before, but they had to try.

Adding Tension

While the above example has less tension than the one with the weasel attack, it still has tension. Let’s look at how.

  • Stakes: If the rabbits fail to build bridges with the groundhogs, the unpleasant quarrels will continue. During the party, readers discover that if something isn’t done, neither group will have enough carrots to feed their families. If I had more time, I might also establish that the wild carrot patch is getting smaller because of the competition between the groups, leading to over-harvesting.
  • Likelihood of failure: Trying to make peace with someone you’ve been fighting with is a difficult task. Once they decide to farm together, readers learn that they’ve never farmed before, which raises the perceived difficulty.
  • Urgency: The regular quarrels mean that every day this problem isn’t solved, there will be more unpleasant fighting. How long the groups have until they run out of carrots isn’t specified, but farming takes quite a while. So it’s likely they’ll need to get started right away and also ration the wild carrot patch. In a full story, I would set a time frame for harvesting the new crop of carrots and make it clear they will need the carrots by then.

Most activities that characters might engage in can be matched with a problem, but some are trickier than others. Generally, any form of personal expression, like arts and crafts, could be a solution to a social problem of some kind. Anything that could be used to gain money also works; the trick is to establish why your character needs the money. That gives you stakes.

Activities that don’t solve problems can still be included in a story, but they can’t hog scenes to themselves. First, consider summarizing them. For instance, all the fun details about how the rabbits prepare for the party would probably be in summary. Readers will enjoy hearing how the rabbits are lighting the warren with fireflies, but an entire scene collecting fireflies would slow the story down too much. This is because while the rabbits want to hold a nice gathering, it’s hardly necessary to have fireflies. It’s an embellishment rather than a step in solving the problem.

The other option is to use the activity as a backdrop while the characters focus on something else. Maybe the rabbits go to collect fireflies for fun, and they run into some groundhogs who are doing the same thing. That’s when it occurs to them that they aren’t so different from the groundhogs after all. In the scene, they try to convince the groundhogs to come to the warren for a party, hoping it will repair the relationship between the two groups.

Setting a Good Pace

The example with rabbits and groundhogs also has problems that build upon each other with good pacing. While the example starts with the quarrel, it turns out that’s a symptom of the carrot shortage. This sets up a problem, leading to a plan – the party – which creates a sense of anticipation over how the party will go. The party contains an exciting argument instead of a battle with a weasel.

Then, the argument is settled in a way that leads to a new problem that will be tough to solve. This means the last paragraph is less tense than the fight, but still more tense than the first paragraph. We get two steps up in tension, and then one step down.

Ongoing problems such as these quarrels are often a good match for light stories. It adds enough urgency without the more stressful feel of a looming disaster. However, the tension will need to rise as the story continues. If you’re actually interested in fighting or action, you can build up a light action plot that doesn’t have any death or gore. But you don’t need to.

Another option is for the protagonist to come up with a plan that has higher stakes than the ongoing problem. The protagonist might do something a little dangerous or scary, or maybe their plan goes against the rules, putting them at risk of getting caught and punished. In the rabbit story, inviting the groundhogs over risked an even bigger fight.

Alternatively, you can raise the urgency. You might add a strict deadline – perhaps the group has to gather enough carrots before the first snow, and the days are already getting colder. Urgency can also be raised by showing that things are getting worse, leading to a point of no return. For instance, the carrot patch is being over-harvested, making it smaller and smaller. Soon, no one will have any carrots.

Increasing the likelihood of failure can also be a good way of raising tension, but you’ll need the right circumstances. If failure seems inevitable, the story will become gloomy. With low stakes, such as ongoing quarrels, the problem may not seem worth fixing if it looks too difficult. However, making problems seem tough to solve is often necessary when your characters come up with a plan or complete a step in their plan. These things will make the problem seem easier to solve, causing tension to plummet. Fix this by explaining how it’ll still be tough. You can give the character a setback if you need to.

If you want to write about light material, the best thing you can do for yourself is learn how to give that material good structure. Include action only if you want to write it, and integrate any action into the rest of the story. The Wandering Inn could have used its goblin conflicts to create excitement without making them excessively unpleasant and out of place in the story.

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