I'm working on a trilogy of YA novels that revolve around a group of teenagers (aged 15, though in the made-up world, 16 is adulthood) who set off to rescue someone who has been kidnapped.

When they find him, there are guards protecting him and a battle of sorts ensues. It's not a large scale fight - 3 on 5 - and I don't want to bluntly write that "Justin killed him" or "Eddie stabbed him". This kind of language is too out-of-character for my characters and too jarring for the rest of the narrative. I'm struggling to write an effective and believable battle scene that allows my protagonist characters to emerge victorious - at the expense of the three guards - without it being too violent for the targeted audience.

Any suggestions?

EDIT: I'm new here! In accordance with the site policy, let me clarify I'm not asking about how to specifically write this scene but asking about thoughts on how people navigate the subject of violence in young adult literature. For me, this means as young as 13 years old which makes the conversation slightly more relevant.

Some context to my writing - medieval period, nothing more than dull swords and hand knives. At best a bow and arrow.

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    Hi Aimee, and welcome! This question as written feels precariously close to what we consider a "what to write" question, which is off topic on Writing SE, and it may be at risk of being put on hold temporarily as such. However, if you're able to Edit your question to ask about generally applicable techniques, that will likely be a better fit for our format as such questions provide more lasting value also for other writers with similar problems. You might want to take our quick site Tour to learn about our format, if you haven't already.
    – user
    Sep 7 '18 at 19:24
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    Agree with @MichaelKjörling. Aimee, Could you also say what time period your story is set in, and what kind of weaponry the characters and the guards would be using? Swords? Guns? Type of weapon affects how violence is experienced. Sep 7 '18 at 19:27

I've read the Three Musketeers when I was 10. Here are some reasons I did not find the violence troubling, and how you can apply them to your writing. (And just to clarify, I wasn't a child who didn't mind violence. In fact, by age 14 I still couldn't watch big parts of X-men, for example, because the violence was overwhelming.)

First, you will not find gory descriptions in The Three Musketeers; no spilt guts, no blood spraying over everything (soaked shirts are present), no grown men screaming in pain (Aramis all but faints from the pain of a wound twice, and Athos makes his first introduction to the story collapsing in Treville's office, but their stoicism evokes respect rather than revulsion).

What do you take from it? Don't linger on the image of blood puddling on the floor, guards choking on their own blood, definitely don't describe how their bowels give out in the last throes of their suffering. Give them a clean death, and keep it clean.

Second, the violence is "fair": the opponents have a sword in hand, they may defend themselves, in fact usually they outnumber the heroes. Nobody is murdered in cold blood. If the heroes do not defend themselves to the utmost, they might find themselves dead on the battlefield.

This point you already have covered by the righteousness of your characters' goal (rescuing a friend), and by the fact that the guards are likely to respond with lethal force. Also, the guards are (I guess) stronger than the three teenagers. When violence is just, it's more like punishment. It's OK for the bad guy, and whoever happens to represent him in the scene, to get killed.

Third, surprisingly few of the Musketeers' opponents actually get killed. Many more are incapacitated, receive medical help, and later it is mentioned in passing that they recovered. Dumas was personally familiar with this aspect of the world he was writing about (duels were still being fought in his time), so I'm going to trust him on the realism of this.

It is up to you whether the guards need to be killed or merely incapacitated. I would guess that keeping them alive is not a priority for your characters, but the overall tone of the story would be softer if not all of them die.

Fourth, violence (duels) is a fact of life for the musketeers. They do not linger over having killed - rather, they rejoice at having survived and gained a victory. Other forms of violence are shocking, to the characters and the audience alike (Constance's poisoning), but that's done by the antagonist. Because violence is a fact of life, it receives less focus, and thus less time for the reader to actually experience and understand it.

I would imagine that in your medieval setting, some form of violence would be a fact of life for your characters. As such, the experience of "I've hurt someone" would be diluted for them, replaced with "I won". In essence, you'd be glossing over part of the violence.

When it comes to describing the scene, "Eddie stabbed him" is indeed blunt and bland. Instead, consider a tense combat scene - something that would draw the attention away from killing to the danger, and the awesome swashbuckling. Take a look at the duel scenes from The Three Musketeers (I only have the book in French, so can't insert a quote). Ivanhoe should also have something useful.


If it is YA 'too violent' isn't really applicable. Consider 'The Hunger Games'. 'Maze Runner' is not without violence. If you want to include WattPad texts, think of 'The Shy Girl with a Gun'. Perhaps one of the defining conventions of YA is violence.


I suggest you search for "knock outs". I've done some research on martial arts, and there are several hot spots on the head that, if struck, can knock somebody out cold, so bad they can fall and fracture their skull on the concrete, perhaps fatally. These knock out points exist on the back of the head, behind the ear, on the jaw, on the chin, on the temple, at the join of neck to head, etc. They also almost invariably cause concussions (the brain impacting against the inside skull) and that usually involves a small amount of brain damage.

There are also a few choke-holds that render somebody unconscious, and for smaller opponents against larger ones, some of these can be accomplished with the legs, which can be far stronger than the larger opponents arms trying to get them off.

Despite the real danger of actually killing somebody with a knockout punch, or causing brain damage, or killing somebody or causing brain damage with a choke hold, most people (and a larger proportion of the less educated young adults) severely underestimate that danger, and consider a knock out or choke out relatively harmless. They are routinely presented as such on TV, as if it were just falling asleep and waking up with a headache, or not even that.

Presuming your teens have access to this kind of information (on the Internet or with a coach teaching self defense), they could practice this kind of battle, and prevail that way. No killing, and to most people not trained in martial arts, no serious injury either.

  • please do not propagate this trope. Anyone unconscious for more than 10 seconds is probably not waking up without a modern hospital
    – Andrey
    Sep 7 '18 at 20:35
  • @Andrey This is fiction. Would you rather propagate the trope that heroes can just kill people and instantly forget it, and be laughing with each other twenty minutes later? Or the trope you can be shot a few times and "tough it out" and keep on fighting? Trying to stick to real psychology and real battle consequences in fiction will kill most fiction, in print, in the movies, and on TV. I'd rather propagate the "knockout" trope than the "you can kill 'em and forget 'em" trope.
    – Amadeus
    Sep 7 '18 at 20:41
  • yes. I you kill someone,the characters can later react to this in a meaningful emotional way. If you disarm someone and tie them up, you can feel good about what a great swordsman you are. But if you push this trope you A glorify violence with a fake out. B Teach people (kids) the wrong lesson about a dangerous topic
    – Andrey
    Sep 7 '18 at 20:44
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    I think your viewpoint may be a little outdated. This was very popular in the 90s, but if you look at let's say marvel movies, they do not let themselves do this. Either way when I look at answers on any stack exchange, the goal is not to help the person do something wrong but popular, the goal is to help the person do what is best. I do not disagree that you have given an answer, I just dislike it, and the community can vote on it.
    – Andrey
    Sep 7 '18 at 21:10
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    I think we're getting into the debate on whether Young Adult fiction should be something they want to read, or something they're told they should read (counterproductive, in my experience). The target audience will run into violence in fiction, in the news, and possibly (unfortunately) in person. While I have some reservations, I think this answer discusses the difference between fiction and reality, and that it - and the discussion provoked by it - will be useful to the Original Poster. Sep 8 '18 at 10:07

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