How do you make violence in fiction interesting without feeling gratuitous and unnecessary? As writers, should we treat emotional violence differently? Study the works of Benjamin Percy, Tim O’Brien, and Flannery O’Connor, among others, then apply the lessons learned to your own fiction in Ruth Joffre’s 6-week workshop, Landing Your Punches in Fiction, starting July 27.
Benjamin Percy’s short story “Refresh, Refresh” opens with two teenage boys slugging away at each other in the narrator’s backyard, “trying to make each other tougher.” The boys are the sons of soldiers fighting in Iraq. They’re angry, lonely. They spend a lot of time waiting for messages from their fathers, clicking “refresh” in their inboxes over and over again. Finally, the boys snap and beat up Dave Lightener, the recruitment officer who preyed on their fathers and who tries to manipulate the boys into enlisting. In the course of the beating, they tape Dave to a sled, and the narrator pushes him up to the precipice of a crater, threatening to push him over the edge.
What do you think happens next?
In this moment, there are three options for Percy’s narrator:
1) Push Dave into the crater. This would be brutal, satisfying, excessive. After everything Dave has done to the main characters, their families, and their community, it’s what he deserves. Or so the narrator could argue, in his own defense.
2) Set Dave free. This would seem smart—an act of self-preservation by a character who realizes that he’s gone too far—but in the context of this story, it would seem almost cowardly. The boys have spent the entire story getting tougher. What was all that work for, if not for this?
3) Leave Dave hanging on the precipice.
While writing and revising the story, Percy himself must’ve come to this same dilemma: what do I do here? Push him over, don’t push him over. In each case, the reader’s response would be, yes, of course, because they both seem plausible. But given this third option, the previous two prove less narratively interesting. They become almost foregone conclusions, and in so doing make the story seem predictable. So Percy goes with the third option: leave Dave (and the reader) hanging.
In a story built on blood, broken bones, and the horrors of war, pulling a punch and deciding not to kill Dave proves surprising and, ultimately, chilling. More so even than the beating these boys give Dave. Leaving him on the edge suggests that the ultimate form of violence is indifference. I won’t bother killing you, the narrator’s choice says. You’re not worth it.
“Refresh, Refresh” is just one of the short stories we’ll be reading. In this six-week course, we’ll read stories about war, sexual assault, hate crimes, and other forms of violence and learn how to write about this difficult topic in a way that’s worthwhile.
Ruth Joffre is a writer and a critic whose work has appeared or is forthcoming in Kenyon Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Mid-American Review, Nashville Review,Copper Nickel, DIAGRAM, The Millions, Full Stop andColorado Review among others. Mary Gaitskill selected one of her stories as the winner of the 2013 SLS Unified Literary Contest. She’s a graduate of Cornell University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she earned her MFA, and she lives in Seattle, where she develops online education tools.