do and don't · how to break the rules well · writing problems

Gratuitous violence

I have under consideration a horror I love. It breaks all the rules: long sentences, lots of description, As You Know Bob, and telling vs. showing. But it has amazing voice, great suspense, and chilling plot. Edgar Allen Poe is clearly this author’s muse. 

Besides murder, the story includes bits of incest, cannibalism, and attempted rape. Intense.

Being horror, this isn’t out-of-place. But reading the synopsis, two violent scenes stood out to me as unnecessary. 

The problem was the incest. It wasn’t that the violence was over the top. Nor was it poorly-written. My sensitivity to violence wasn’t throwing me off: I didn’t feel the same about the cannibalism.

While well-scripted, the incest served no purpose in the plot, except to reaffirm how awful one character is and lessen our reaction to their death.

Yet this is horror: murder should chill us. If we’re conflicted whether the antagonist deserves it, the story hits us in a deep way. Second, you should not use a real-life atrocity as a character framing device.

c[dot]paras c-paras

We need to write about those particular horrors like domestic violence, rape, infanticide, incest, and sexual slavery. To pronounce justice, dispel ignorance, mourn dehumanizing loss. But if you use a worst-of-the-worst case scenario, you must give sensitivity, time, and attention to it. Don’t move on blithely: “next bad thing!” That churns my gut as much as Auschwitz jokes.

Rule of thumb: if the violence involves children or if the victim loses all dignity and identity in the violence, assess how much detail to include and whether the scene is necessary.

You could fade to black: Amy Bai’s amazing book SWORD never actually states one character is raped. You could replace a sensitive topic with psychological intensity or more familiar violence. Murder, gang violence, sociopaths — still awful, they don’t present the same problems.

These guideline includes sexual violence, which erases the victim’s humanness. Too often, writers use rape as a device: “that person did an awful thing to this person, they’re scarred for life, the end.” It’s lazy storytelling. Stories may include rape. But you must treat it right.

Ask constant questions as you write intense violence:

  • What effect are you trying to achieve?
  • Is this the best choice of scene?
  • Is your perpetrator male? Why?
  • What psychological damage would your victim experience?
  • What psychological abuse might your perp inflict?
  • If there’s rape, is your victim female? Why?
  • With each detail: is this necessary? Is the effect better when left untold?
  • How many readers will you alienate by describing X one way vs. another?
  • Are you treating your victim — and real-life victims of this tragedy — with dignity?


Photo by c.paras.

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4 thoughts on “Gratuitous violence

  1. Would a story that is really about the journey back from incest be something an agent would be interested in? Say there is one very violent scene and then the book focuses on the journey back from them. How can a writer know what is considered too violent? thx

    Like

  2. Would a story that is really about the journey back from incest be something an agent would be interested in? Say there is one very violent scene and then the book (fiction) focuses on the journey back from them. How can a writer know what is considered too violent? thx

    Like

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