It was Scarmouth. He had tottered to his feet and was still partly bent over, but he approached Rhiss, an animal glint in his eyes, waves of murderous rage radiating almost visibly from him. Rhiss suddenly knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, his life hung by a thread. The icy realization cleared the mists threatening to engulf his thoughts, but he had no time to say anything before Scarmouth was on him, hammering away mercilessly all over his body. Speech of any kind was quite impossible; in fact, he could barely get in a breath, and felt like his lungs were exploding.
An indeterminate time later — seconds? minutes? hours? — the blows abruptly ceased, and Rhiss groggily heard a disembodied voice say from a great distance, “Sweet Light of the One, Malreck, that’s enough! You’ll kill him!”
“No!” said Scarmouth triumphantly. “I’ll give him a taste of what he gave me!”
Rhiss felt what seemed like a red hot bar of lead crash into his crotch, and screamed involuntarily, waves of agony arcing through his body like lightning. He felt his arms released, and he dropped like a stone into the mud, feebly curling into a ball.
“Malreck, enough, I tell you! I think someone’s coming! Let’s away!”
“Filthy Tavvy-lover!” he heard someone else say derisively. “Let’s find the other two.” There was the retreating sound of feet splashing through puddles, and he became aware of staring at something glittering a foot or two before him. An icicle? he thought hazily. The dancing dark spots in his vision grew larger and larger until they merged together, and awareness drifted away on waves of pain in a bright red sea.
-excerpted from Gryphon’s Heir by D.R. Ranshaw
I’ve made my (mostly negative) feelings very clear in the last couple of posts about how I don’t like explicit violence and sex in literature and film (thanks for triggering the whole rant, Ronald Moore and Diana Gabaldon). What I haven’t done is be constructive in how we should approach these twin issues. As I’ve already said, violence is (unfortunately) an everyday fact of life. As I’ve also said, conflict in stories is absolutely necessary... unless you just want to read about Little Bunny Foo Foo hopping through the forest, stopping to smell the flowers and kissing the other animals. Which, frankly, would get old very quickly to everyone except a toddler. Maybe even a toddler.
In addition, as all of us who can observe the world around us are also abundantly aware, sex is an everyday fact of life. So, let’s be clear: as regards sex and sexuality, I don’t think we need to pretend we’re all as blandly featureless as Barbie dolls. And as regards violence, there’s nothing to be gained by pretending that violence doesn’t occur. Are there violent images in my own work? Sure there are. As an example, I began this with an excerpt from my novel in which my protagonist is getting the crap beaten out of him.
(I’m not excerpting anything about sex, because, frankly, nothing very sexual goes on in my novel. Not because I’m particularly squeamish about the topic (I’m not), but because my protagonist is a little too busy to be engaging in a roll in the hay; he spends much of the book making his acquaintance with a world that is simultaneously quite hazardous but also very beautiful. Although he does find the time to fall in love.)
So... how should we approach the twin beasties of sex ‘n violence in writing? I have three suggestions:
- Don’t shy away from sex and violence just because it’s sex and violence. Sex happens. So does violence. All the time. It’s dishonest to pretend otherwise, unless you’re really intent on writing a relentlessly sanitized version of what life is like, and I can’t really imagine why you’d want to do that. I was going to say for younger children, perhaps, but even there, kids learn very early on that life is full of conflict, and as I’ve also mentioned, a lot of classic children’s lit is very violent.
- Don’t be gratuitous about including sex and violence. Unless you’re writing something like 50 Shades of Gray or something else as deliberately pornographic, it’s just as dishonest as a writer to be including sex and violence simply because you know audiences are likely going to be titillated by it.
- Don’t be unnecessarily detailed. This is the flipside to my first suggestion. Sure, don’t shy away from sex and violence, but there’s no need to get too graphic, either. What’s too graphic? It’s a very subjective thing, I know. Well, as I wrote here, the Outlander television sequences detailing Jamie Fraser’s rape and torture at the hands of Black Jack Randall definitely qualify, as far as I’m concerned. (I realize I’m speaking of film here; apparently, in the novel, we’re told what happens, which is quite different from being shown.) If you look at the excerpt where my protagonist gets beaten, I do include details, but not so much that we have to have every excruciating moment spelled out in nauseating detail.
Remember my comment about the shower scene in Psycho? Sometimes, less is definitely more. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with allowing the reader’s imagination fill in the details to suit their own preferences. In fact, isn’t that what we should be doing as writers? Give our readers detail, sure, but let them fill in at least a few blanks with their own connotations. Caress their sensibilities --- in the vast majority of situations, there’s no need to hit them over the head with a 2 by 4.