Moral Framing: 3 Steps To Justify Violence

External moral framing fuels the need to fight.

Well, here are the three steps.

  1. Unify the self of the violent character first. A disconsonant self, or misaligned parts of self, will lead to unforgivable collateral damage to bystanders (see: many scenes in superhero movies where hundreds of people in cars or on the streets are crushed/burned/mutilated during a climactic fight).
  2. Allow the violent character to witness unjustified destruction of innocents. This is that scene in every Wolverine movie where Logan watches a bunch of helpless humans slaughtered, usually after he’s formed pseudo-familial bonds with them.
  3. Have the bad guys attempt to destroy the violent character, without just cause. So, for example, the violent character can’t go ballistic on the bad guys after witnessing the destruction of innocents; you’ve got to wait until the bad guys turn their aim onto the character, and actually attempt to obliterate him/her, too. That is when the violent character can start destroying people, and be morally justified.

It doesn’t much matter why the three steps are necessary; they’re embedded in our social consciousness. Watch films and examine the books you read; you will find, when you experience vicarious violence in your entertainment, that stories that skip steps in the build-up to externally-motivated violence feel kinda empty, and a little gratuitous.

And here’s an example.

Bad Writing (precipitous violence):

Gary watched the entrance of the bar. He was waiting for those two thugs to come out. He didn’t want to attack them on their home turf; there were too many burly women in the bar, and he knew from watching previous fights unfold that these ladies would lay into him mercilessly, without finding out whose side he was really on.

Gary liked his face the way it was; the ladies (not the ladies in the bar, but the women of the world in general) had a particular fondness for the auburn locks that curled, like fragrant petals of some Eastern flower, over his thoughtful brow, and Gary had no intention of damaging the goods, so to speak.

The first thug appeared, a cigarette clutched in his meaty fingers. Gary raised his BB gun, and took careful aim. Just a few shots to the knee caps, and the other thug would be drawn out by the cries of outrage. Then the fun would really begin.

Good Writing (just-so violence):

Gary found, as he exited the steamy bar, that he was being followed by a pair of unsavory thugs. After attempting unsuccessfully to throw off the two men, Gary turned in an alley, and glared at them.

“Whad’ya want?” the first thug asked, before Gary could utter a word.

“He’s thinking it wasn’t fair, what we did to those two old laddies. Isn’t that right, cupcake?” the second man crooned. He had a stubby cigarette pushed between his lips, and his words came out squashed.

“Stop following me,” Gary said. The two thugs laughed, and one of them pulled a pair of brass knuckles out of his jacket.

“I guess them girls is fond enough of your pretty hair, huh?” the second man said around his cigarette, which gleamed red-gold in the twilight air.

“Back off,” Gary said, snarling. The first man pounced, and Gary ducked around his massive arms, and skidded down the alley. He dodged around a pair of cars, and scrambled down the tunnel towards the crowded subway.

“We’ll get youse, next time!” the second thug’s voice called. His words floated, like a venomous banner, over the noise of the city.

Fucking buffoons, Gary thought, as he slid through the turnstile, and entered the first open compartment he came to. He put a careful hand through his gorgeous curls, and checked his reflection in the subway window.

You will note that the good and bad examples are so entirely different as to seem like excerpts from autonomous works.

This is how violence works: when you incorporate unjustified violence into your writing, your work is lessened automatically; it becomes derivative, and relatively meaningless. You strip yourself of the ability to comment on society at large, because you have classed your story among cheap and shoddy entertainment that relies on shock value, rather than legitimate storytelling, to create emotion in the reader.

If you want your work to endure, your violence must be justified.

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