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Writer’s Craft #17 – Gotta go

April 25, 2011

In my 2003 novel, Throne Price, a toilet issue disrupts tensions between my hero, Amel, and his brother D’Lekker after D’Lekker releases Amel from the room he’s been locked in for the better part of a day.

  Amel tried to slip past him.
D’Lekker dropped the bar he was holding into both hands, despite the pain it must have caused him, to block Amel’s path. “I don’t think Mother wants you out!” His pain made him cruel. He pressed closer until they almost touched. “Maybe I should put you back in your room.”
Amel put his open palm on the bar and said simply, but firmly, “Lek, I need to use the bathroom.”
D’Lekker had not expected so ordinary a response. He looked confused, and then moved aside with an awkward jerk.

How do you deal with bathroom matters in your writing? Share examples and/or give your opinion on when it is right or wrong to include elimination in the story, and why.

15 Comments leave one →
  1. April 25, 2011 8:18 am

    I include bathroom breaks the way I include anything else: when they advance plot or character. Some people who find stories where characters never go to the bathroom unrealistic, but I tend to assume that things happen in the blackout. One scene ends with a character packing up the remains of his shattered time machine; the next starts with him feigning sleep on a bench: most likely, he’s gone to the bathroom somewhere in between.

    When potty breaks matter to the story–like in your example, or if someone overhears a conversation they shouldn’t while they’re in the bathroom, or a human travels to another planet and discovers that its inhabitants don’t go to the bathroom at all, &c–then I’ll include them. Otherwise, I skip them. I don’t want to know *every* detail of the lives of characters I read about, and I suspect that people reading my writing feel the same way.

  2. Mishell Baker permalink*
    April 25, 2011 8:33 am

    My take on it: if it wouldn’t be included in a movie/TV show, there’s no reason to include it in a book. Even the most “shocking” filmed stories (if they’re any good) don’t just have a scene where someone is taking a leak for no reason. There is no time for waste in TV/film, and I believe the same should be true of the written word.

    They show a guy taking a leak if it’s meant to illustrate how very drunk he is to be doing it in this particular location, or if some strange person is going to accost him at the urinal, making him feel vulnerable and freaked out, or if his urine is going to suddenly turn blue to indicate that he has Xnprhok Fever… basically if the potty break is going to amount to something other than “Hey, everyone pees, so I should show it! It’s realism!”

    I like to have the freedom to dramatize any bodily function that is relevant to plot or character (which is why I don’t write children’s stories), but at the same time, I don’t like to throw in bathroom breaks, sex, violence, or even eating if it’s not directly relevant to matters at hand (i.e. the spine of the story). I ask myself, “if I had a firm word count limit, would this scene stay in?” If not, out it goes.

  3. April 25, 2011 9:08 am

    Aye, I agree, it only really makes sense to include it if it’s relevant to the plot. You don’t include that the characters breathe or eat, unless they’re having trouble breathing or if their food ran out or something.

    On the other hand, if I were writing something humorous, it could be worked in as a constant nag for the characters or something. But again, that would mainly serve to advance the plot and not just being there for the sake of realism.

  4. Kari T permalink
    April 25, 2011 10:48 am

    Am I the only one who is envisioning the Austin Power’s toilet scene? “Who does #2 work for?” hehe. (Actually, there were many ‘potty’ scenes in this franchise)

    I have a few ‘relief’ scenes in my story. They’re included for a reason. I notice that alot of authors include these types of scenes. (Just read one in Diana Gabaldon’s ‘Snow and Ashes’, but here there was no reason for it and I thought it could have been cut. )

    Then there is the famous Harry Potty scene of Weeping Myrtle being flushed out to the lake (for shame, JK, no first stop to a sanitary center). And another in ‘Water for Elephants’ – but here the character was doing something else on the toilet besides relieve himself).

    Often I think these scenes are ‘filler’, and I like the comment above about word count. They could have been cut, yes. I need my scene because it leads in to another, more important one.

  5. April 26, 2011 4:54 am

    As with others I tend to think these happen off scene. I think it also depends on how close you write. If your narrative distance takes us through the characters’ lives at a level of minutiae then to not include daily ablutions would be a mistake. Believe it or not, the daily toilet can inform character too. I wrote a novel where the protagonist had serious germ phobias. His use of an outdoor toilet in Sumatra with nothing more than a bucket and his hand to clean himself was a real peak in his character arc!

  6. April 26, 2011 12:33 pm

    Some writer friends of mine posted replies to this on facebook instead of here. But if you’d like to see their input you can find it on my facebook wall where I promoted the topic on Clarion. Sigh. So many places. Some of the comments were great, too.🙂

    See
    http://www.facebook.com/okalrel

  7. April 27, 2011 4:44 am

    There has been a trend (hopefully ending) over the past few decades to include details in books that were deemed “unsuitable” in the literature of the past. Bodily functions and intimate sexual details figured prominently, along with increasingly graphic violence. It was as if a challenge had been laid down: Hasn’t been done before? Gotta do it! Then it almost seemed de regueur; if one didn’t include all the gritty details — sexual positions, zit on the buttocks, sounds emitted while on the pot, the way the blood dripped — one’s writing wasn’t as “genuine” as someone who did. One might be considered prudish or hung-up, and there were workshops available to help you past it.

    The curiosity of the reader, morbid, puerile or otherwise, may often want more detail than a writer cares to include. As a reader, I more often feel the reverse; I don’t care to follow the characters into the bathroom or the bedroom. I know what happens in there, and my imagination is quite up to supplying the details if necessary (more often not). I see such detail included in many stories where it does little or nothing to advance the plot or develop the character. It is almost as if the author is saying, “Okay, here’s your gritty realism. Happy now?”

    In my own writing I, like the other commenters, feel that bathroom breaks are not necessary unless they are pivotal to the story, and no other device or scenario would work as well. And when including them, I try not to embarrass my character by including descriptions which he or she would not want millions of readers to know.

  8. April 27, 2011 6:34 am

    I think it depends partially on the style. A high fantasy novel is unlikely to have the hero take a leak before going into battle, for example. I tend to only use it in very limited ways if it can be used to further the plot or is relevant to increasing discomfort or tension for the character. For example, I have a woman character dressed as a monk sleeping in an inn amidst a bunch of men, listening to them get up to use the chamber pot and needing to go desperately herself but holding it for fear of discovery. If it weren’t for the fact that she’s concealing her gender, the issue wouldn’t need to come up.

    • Lynda Williams permalink
      April 27, 2011 8:02 am

      Good example of inclusion because it serves the plot.

      • April 27, 2011 10:34 am

        I struggled with this a bit more in a novel dealing with dryads. My dryads don’t normally need to eat or eliminate as long as they stay close to their trees. My heroine has to make a long journey, but I don’t think anyone really wants to read a scene where a dryad takes a crap for the first time. Instead, I focus on how hungry she is and has to eat things she finds distasteful, like dried meat. The reader can probably figure out the rest if they really want to. Earlier in the novel the need to eat and eliminate and use animals for food and clothing is used by dryads as an example of how inferior humans are.

  9. April 27, 2011 6:56 am

    The one thing that strikes me about the passage is that “bathroom” is a modern American euphemism. “Toilet” is also a euphemism. Seems out of place in fantasy–or any non-modern-mundane setting. But having to piss (or the alternative) is a nice ploy for being let out of confinement!

    • Lynda Williams permalink
      April 27, 2011 8:09 am

      Wrestled with that one. Also with the use of the word ‘shit’ as a cuss by a character. In the case of the bad language, I decided elimination was much the same in any culture so kept ‘shit’ but because my culture had a very different religion, I put the effort into developing appropriate swearing conventions. On the euphemism question, I would invent a new one if the elimination issue was important enough to the whole story to justify the “teaching” required to get it across. Excellent point for some future “craft”! How much do you reinvent and what do you pick to do that for?

  10. April 27, 2011 11:38 am

    Ditto on the general consensus: no stopping for potty breaks until the story requires it. Same is true for meals, sex, sleep, bathing, and any other basic need.

    Yes, these needs can humanize the character. Yes, sometimes these basic bodily functions come to have greater meaning–as when someone tries to assassinate your character in a toilet stall, or when part of the humiliation and pain of imprisonment is having to wallow in your own waste. But in general, you shouldn’t need to resort to such crude measures gratuitously.

    This said, I do have people ask me technical questions sometimes. If you posit a universe with multiple star-faring races–yes, there will be some people who want to know how they eliminate wastes in their star ship. Probably a good thing to know where the bathrooms are in any set where you characters will be spending a lot of time–the house, a ship, etc..

    • April 27, 2011 7:03 pm

      “This said, I do have people ask me technical questions sometimes.”

      This gets the end of the MST3K theme going in my head:

      ‘If you’re wondering how he eats and breathes
      and other science facts (la-la-la),
      Just repeat to yourself, “It’s just a show,
      I should really just relax…”‘

  11. Johnp permalink
    May 30, 2011 12:19 pm

    Although I agree these items can slow the story, the flip side can sometimes leave the reader with a sense of “unreality” that reduces the ability to immerse yourself in the story (as in, the difference between a “yeah, it’s ok” response and “don’t want to put it down” response.

    The best example I can think of is Lee Child’s Jack Reacher. To sum up for those who haven’t read them, Reacher is an ex-army type now in his 50’s who gets involved in investigations.

    The unreality sets in because –although he is getting on to middle age– he is constantly moving from locale to locale, drinking coffee and eating starch, never exercises, never sees a dentist and yet he is never ill, not even laid up with traveller’s guts from changing water, has perfect teeth and always physically bests his opponents, sometimes multiples at a time.

    No, I really don’t want to read descriptive scatalogical detail but some reality has to stay in place or risk losing the reader at a gut-level believability check.

    Gut level, get it? 🙂

    Best,

    – John

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