Writing Violence in Fiction with William Ryan

Last Monday an audience of intrepid writers braved a dark, damp evening for our salon at the Tea House Theatre Cafe to discuss, There Will Be Blood: Writing Violence, with guest writer, William Ryan.

With William Ryan and Emma Darwin (right)

With William Ryan and Emma Darwin (right)

William is the author of five novels, including the Captain Korolev detective novels, set in 1930’s Stalinist Russia. His novel, The Constant Soldier, tells the story of a German soldier in the dying days of the second World War. It takes place in an SS rest hut, a retreat for those that ran the concentration camps. His most recent novel, A House of Ghosts, set in 1917, was published last month. He teaches creative writing at City University and is a Teaching Fellow on the Crime Writing program at the University of East Anglia.

William's interest in twentieth century history runs through his fiction. Although his novels explore societies that have endured violent events, he’s not interested in writing violence for its own sake. He’s more concerned with how ordinary people cope in extraordinary circumstances. Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany operated with a persistent sense of danger which makes for fertile ground in fictional terms. Placing characters in settings that imply a certain amount of risk help to engage and maintain the reader’s interest. The main thing is to keep pressure on characters to set the plot in action. It doesn’t have to be explosive - it can be some sort of confrontation or even a fear of revealing something.


William’s novels explore why people end up in particular situations and how they behave. He often uses photographs as source material. You can see people’s emotions in photos which allows the novelist to imagine what that person’s feeling and how they might react in that particular situation. In fictional terms this can help the novelist explore some dark emotions. A reader will develop empathy with a ‘bad” character if they understand the moral choices being made in complicated circumstances. Ensure that the choice that the character makes is the ‘right’ one. Try playing with point of view - use multiple points of view to emphasise and contrast character. Researching his novels, William discovered that people coped with living in totalitarian regimes by developing a split personality and compartmentalising their public and private personas. He also mentioned that while working as a criminal barrister, everybody always had a reason, their own logic, for committing a crime. It’s the novelist’s duty to make the reader feel this justification. Think about the plethora of TV series’ like Breaking Bad, Dexter or The Wire where ‘bad’ characters operate in a parallel world imbued with a complicated morality.

We talked about gratuitous violence on the page. When is a scene justified? Are there no go areas, like violence against women or children? William suggested thinking about the scene’s moral purpose. Work it through and see if it’s justified. While the reader needs to know what has happened, a scene of violence must also have a purpose in the story, namely to create an emotional reaction in the central character. Once you've achieved that, to carry on may not be justified. Be clear: the scene should really be about the character’s reaction to the horror - i.e. what it’s doing to people and how they cope. As long as you write with logic and credibility you can do anything in fiction.

Writing scenes of violence, like writing intimacy and sex, has the potential to make a writer feel uncomfortable. Try thinking about the kind of novel you are writing. Are you writing literary or genre fiction? Is it a psychological thriller, domestic crime or perhaps historical fiction? Consider the genre’s particular conventions and think about how the scene might serve the story in terms of character, plot, setting or point of view.

William’s approach to writing novels has been influenced by studying screenwriting. He works with an XL spread sheet to monitor the action in each scene of the novel. Something has to happen at the end of each chapter to move the story forward. If it doesn't move the plot forward or add momentum then the scene or action is out. He used to write longer and fewer chapters. Now in the interests of pace, he writes short scenes but lots of them. If there’s a time or location change in the story, for example he’ll start a new chapter.


Violence, as one of the audience suggested, is an expression of control and power. Exploring this issue in fiction can be a cathartic way to process difficult themes and issues. We moved on to the value of writing prizes, particularly the inaugural, Staunch Book Prize which, “will be awarded to the author of a novel in the thriller genre in which no woman is beaten, stalked, sexually exploited, raped or murdered.”. What might such a prize achieve, especially, in light of the fact that women are the main producers and consumers of crime fiction*? By celebrating the kind of writing promoted by the Staunch Book Prize, do we shut down the exploration of a difficult subject and silence any effort to make sense of violence against women? William suggested it might be more interesting to instigate a Bad Violence Prize - in the manner of the Bad Sex award.

With thanks to William Ryan for his thoughtful and considered response to a challenging theme. Next month, we’ll be gathering by the Tea House fire for our last salon before the Christmas break. Emma and I will be talking Folklore, Fables and Fairytales: Enrich Your Fiction with Zoe Gilbert. Keep an eye out too for new year salon dates and masterclasses with some wonderful guests.



William Ryan, Staunch Prize, Margery Allingham, The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler, 50 crime writers to read before you die, Breaking Bad, Dexter, The Wire, The Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith, PD James, Susan Hill, *Crime pays: thrillers and detective novels now outsell all other fiction, *Why Men Pretend to Be Women to Sell Thrillers