Susan J. MacGregor has been an editor with On Spec Magazine since 1991. Her written work has appeared in On Spec, Northern Frights, and other venues. In 1998 her anthology Divine Realms was published through the Ravenstone imprint of Turnstone Books. Her non-fiction book The ABC’s of How NOT to Write Speculative Fiction was published in 2006 by the Copper Pig Writer’s Society and has been used for numerous workshops. Recently, she co-edited Tesseracts 15: A Case of Quite Curious Tales, released through Edge Books. At present, she is working on a paranormal romance trilogy set in an alternate medieval Spain–think the Inquisition vs. gypsies, tattoo magic and psychic gifts. When Susan isn’t writing or editing, she studies Spanish and dances flamenco. She lives in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.
When I attended the When Words Collide convention in Calgary last August, I sat on the ‘Writing Difficult Scenes’ panel with a number of folks, including Lynda Williams (author of the Okal Rel Universe saga), fellow On Spec editor Barb Galler-Smith (author of Druids, Captives and Warriors) and others. I made a comment that I liked gritty scenes and that one of the most personally disturbing stories I ever wrote was about castration. The story was later published in Northern Frights V. After the con, Lynda asked if I might write about violence on her blog, Reality Skimming. She assumed that I liked to write ‘extreme stuff’, and that I might address some questions on ethical considerations.
I had to decline.
Why? Because what I write isn’t excessive compared to some of the really extreme stuff out there. But it did get me to thinking about the portrayal of violence in fiction, and what works for me and what doesn’t.
Violence in fiction needs to be there for a good reason. With my castration story, the horror wasn’t only in the act to which I alluded in the end; the horror came from my protagonist’s lack of conscience, her ability to manipulate events and her sense of loss and betrayal coupled with her need to control. Embedded even deeper in the story was the idea that her psychopathy stemmed from demonic influence. I kept the reader guessing, never knowing what my anti-hero might do next. Horror is much stronger when it leaves an aftertaste, when you can surprise your audience and make them wonder about the potential of such things happening in their own lives. I set out to write a story that suggested an unremarkable girl with a crush might hide something sinister, might stalk the object of her infatuation and see his involvement with another as an ultimate betrayal. Her love interest and his paramour had no idea of her intentions until my protagonist took matters into her own shaking hands.
I’m not titillated by blood spatters and intestines looping about one’s knees, left to steam in a pile on the floor with a ‘the end’ sign affixed to them. On their own, such scenes are gratuitous. For such visceral elements to work, they must be appropriate to the action. More importantly, there must also be a strong emotional reaction to them on the part of the point of view character. The stronger and more graphic the scene, the more I need to understand the character’s motivation and his psychological make-up. These things should be in place before the violence occurs, or afterwards, in some kind of a review. I have no sympathy for characters (or their writers) who fail to give me a reason for the violence. Even then, it will also be a question of whether the seeds sown beforehand are enough. Many times they aren’t, or there’s a disconnect, where, despite an attempt at validation, the violence is justified by a thin excuse like ‘that’s just what werewolves do’. A defense such as this shows a lack of imagination and the effort needed to present something original.
So perhaps I’m talking about the skill level of the writer, or maybe it’s just a matter of personal taste as to when something is ‘not enough’. I prefer to see some sophistication in what I read, which is another way of saying that I want to see solid characterization. Gratuitous violence rarely includes the inner workings of the characters’ minds or their world. It gives no understanding into the horror. The point is to shock rather than to offer insight.
Of course, there are times when the characterization doesn’t provide insight, but the theme does, and being theme, the reasoning doesn’t become apparent until the piece is seen or read in its entirety. One of the best examples comes from the movie, Pulp Fiction. Lots of violence there, but every brutal scene is linked with elements of down-home, folksy Americana, like the music in the background, the settings—kitchens, bathrooms, pawn shops, restaurants with look-alike Marilyn Monroe waitresses, consumer goods—hamburgers, gourmet coffee, magic markers, or simple niceties, like saying ‘pretty please with sugar on top’. Spoiler Alert: When Pumpkin and Honeybun chat over coffee and then hold up the coffee shop, when Jules recites Ezekiel 25:17 before he executes Brett, when Butch toasts toaster pastries and notices Vince’s gun on the counter before he blasts him full of bullets, or when Jules is more concerned about Vince bloodying Bonnie’s bathroom towels than the dead body in the back of their car, the message is obvious: Our culture is familiar, misdirected and dangerous. Violence is Us. The theme shows us who we are. Not to mention the irony and black humor that causes us to laugh because we recognize ourselves in it. If Pulp Fiction portrayed violent scene after violent scene without any juxtaposition to the culture, it wouldn’t be the amazing piece of fiction it is. It’s also interesting to note that the actual violence portrayed is short-lived. It doesn’t go on and on. When Marsellus tells Zed that he’s going to ‘get medieval on your ass’ we know that he’s going to have thugs take pliers and a blowtorch to Zed for sodomizing him, but we don’t actually see this scene. Marsellus threatening Zed is enough.
Violence is the stuff of action. As writers, most of us will pen a violent scene at some point or another. Therefore, it’s important to understand why we’re writing the scene, who we’re writing for, and what our motivation is. Here are a few reasons I’ve come across as to why writers write violent scenes:
- They write them to prove they can.
- They write them to live vicariously through them. The violence gives them an outlet where they can blow an enemy away or portray a rival in an unflattering light.
- They like being able to stomach vivid, violent events with dispassion. They have guts. They can handle it.
- They write the story to impress or compete with others. Anything you can do, they can do bloodier.
- They write the scene or story because it’s based on real life. The event actually happened to them or to someone they know.
- They write the piece in the hopes that it will work for a particular anthology, magazine or publishing house.
- They write the scene or story to give the reader a thrill.
- They write the scene because violence is the outcome of rising tension and action.
All of these reasons (with the possible exception of #5) fall short of why we should write violent scenes or stories. If we’re writing to prove we can, that’s fine for a start. Many of us begin this way. We want to push ourselves to see what we can do. But as we mature as writers, we need to get beyond this motivation. Reasons #2, #3, and #4 are misdirected. They’re all about the writer, and the focus is in the wrong direction. Reason #6—writing for a publication—is strictly pragmatic. On its own, it’s slightly removed from what a better motivation might be. Reason #7—writing to give a thrill—heads in the right direction, but it doesn’t go far enough. Reason #8—violence as an outcome—makes sense and is justified, but it shouldn’t be the sole reason for penning a violent scene. As for Reason #5, if a writer is writing a memoir, or using a past experience to add reality to a story, it may or may not be an appropriate reason for writing it. It depends on whether or not the violence provides a fulfilling experience for the reader.
The point of any violent scene or story should be to give one’s audience a visceral, an emotional and, by the end of the work, an insightful experience. Some readers are happy if they encounter only the first element. I’m not one of them. The trend to make things more graphic than ever doesn’t satisfy me. What does is encountering violence in a creative work that punches me in the gut, the heart, and the head. That brings me a new understanding or a way of looking at things. That makes me feel deeply for the characters. That makes me want to do something about a situation. That makes me feel richer for the experience, because what’s happened in the story matters.
Creating stories that do those things, takes a lot of work. There are many layers, and there is much thought and craft that goes into making them. Certainly, much more than the shallower stuff that settles for the shock of a cheap thrill. Here’s a final reason:
- 9. A writer depicts violence because it provides the platform and stimulus for higher ideals to address it. Those things might include actions involving sacrifice, forgiveness, love, justice, determination, survival, hope, gratitude or redemption.
This last point invites us to strive for loftier goals than simply pointing out that ‘life is hell and then you die’. But that’s me. And there are many folks who write from the opposite camp, where violence is depicted and relished for its own gory sake.