Sunday, September 21, 2014

Twisted: Can a story go too far?

Decisions, decisions

This is what you get when you
can't decide! RAW MEAT!

As writers, we are making decisions constantly. When one of our characters asks, "What's for dinner?" we can't say, "I don't know," like we do in real life. We have to decide what the meal will be, how to describe it, whether or not the character will even get to eat it.

We have to make decisions about sentence length, word choice, the structure of our story, chapter length, hell, we even have a multitude of things to pick from when organizing chapters. "Do I want parts and chapters? Do I want to put Chapter One or One or 1? Can I quit now? No one said writing would be this hard, damn it."

Then there are the bigger decisions, the dark things, the creepy things, the things that dwell in the recesses of our imaginations that want to claw their way free and bleed all over our pages. These things might be violent, scary, sexual, dastardly, racist, sexist, bigoted. They may be the moments we censor because they make us uncomfortable. Should we write about those things? If we are supposed to write the truth, if we are supposed to capture moments that are honest, do we leave the graphic stuff out for fear of being too gory, too gross, too perverted?

No one can make the decision for you. Just like the tiny details, these big moments are ultimately up to you. There are some questions you can ask yourself, though, that might help you make the best choice for your book.

What's your genre?

If you're writing cozy mysteries, you won't include graphic sex or violence. Cozy readers have certain expectations when they pick up your book. If your cozy mystery features a sexually active prostitute, they'll probably put your book down and find another that meets the requirements for that genre.

If you're writing fantasy, you have to consider a different set of expectations. Same with sci-fi, romance, thrillers, horror, et al. Think of genres like hashtags on Twitter. They help people sort a large amount of information into categories that are easier to browse through. You don't want to plop a violent fight scene in the middle of a contemporary romance. Your readers will throw your book across the room.

What is the purpose of the scene, word, image?

Don't go there, girlfriend. Or boyfriend.
Or gender-neutral friend.
Sometimes you come to a spot in your story where things get boring. Your characters are practically sitting around picking their noses and something exciting needs to happen, stat! "I know," you think. "I'll throw in a graphic sex scene. People like sex, right?" If the element is going into your book for no other reason than to liven things up, then it's not going to read authentically. It's never good when a reader throws your book across the room and yells, "Susie Q Character would NEVER sleep with the butler!" If you add a scene for titillation, then your readers, if you have any, will get a lot of exercise tossing your books into walls.

Does the scene move the story forward?

This is important. If the scene doesn't move the story forward, then it shouldn't be in your story, easy as that. If the sex scene doesn't have any purpose beyond getting some yum yum nibble time in your story, then you need to cut it out. (If you need some sex scene insight, check out our blog post: Sex Scenes Are Hard (Part One)

I hate it when I get spleen juice on my
chopping knife. Sigh.
This goes for your bloody serial killer chopping up his victims, too. If the dismemberment of a group of choir boys is only in your story because you want to show your serial killer is EVIL as of the DEVIL, then you need to rethink it or cut it. It shouldn't be in your story unless it's moving things forward, unless it's giving the reader insight into the character, unless it's showcasing a game changer. If it's not doing those things, rip it out as ruthlessly as your serial killer would rip out his former science teacher's spleen. 

Why are you putting the scene in your story?

This is a good one to explore. Why do you want to write about a character being mutilated? Raped? Cussed at? Discriminated against? What's the message you're sending to your audience? Be careful that you aren't adding an ultra-violent scene in your serial killer story because "people will expect one." Be sure you aren't adding a rape scene to your urban fantasy because "it's a good way to add emotional depth to my character." (If you want to read a good article about this subject, check out what fantasy writer Jim Hine's has to say on the subject in his article: Writing About Rape.)

There's a difference between adding a scene for shock value and adding a scene because it's integral to the story. If you're unsure, let someone else read it, someone who is willing to be honest with you. Be honest with yourself. 

None of this is to say, "Don't write that terrible thing." It's to urge you to consider why you're writing that terrible thing. It might need to be said. It might need to be told and you might be the only person honest enough to write it. Just be thoughtful and deliberate when you do write the hard thing.

What are your readership goals?

There's always someone who ruins
it for everyone else. Stop leaving
your sperm swimming around, please.
Violence, gore, knife-edged honesty about historical horrors, sex, rape, and all the other controversial topics are divisive. They are controversial for a reason and you need to realize that you are shrinking your audience whenever you make the choice to add certain things to your story. If you have graphic sex, you will lose a portion of the population who hate sex scenes or find them offensive. If you have graphic violence, ditto. There are stories that become popular in spite of their controversial subjects or because of a particularly graphic scene. But they are the exceptions. Are you okay with fact that there will people who won't read your story specifically because of that one scene or that one subject? There's value in having a smaller, dedicated readership. Ultimately, you have to think hard about what your expectations are. 

Can a story go too far?

Sure it can. For someone, somewhere, your story will go too far. Justine by the Marquis de Sade went too far for me. Just look at a banned book list and you'll find a myriad of books whose authors went too far for someone. 

The question really isn't, "Can a story go too far?" anyway. The question is, "Is this the story I need to write and if so, how can I tell it true?"


  1. Thanks Jennifer. I need to think about a couple of scenes. They are part of a subplot. I think of subplots as somewhat independent smaller stories that intertwine with the main storyline. Something that doesn't fit into the principal story can be indispensable to the subplot. Making a subplot intertwine well with the leading storyline can get difficult, and just plain hard. That's one reason why writers often have to make some complex decisions at times.

  2. Your post also raises an even more important question for me. Should a non-antagonist character's negative character traits be exposed? I lean toward 'yes they should'. I find that subplots are an excellent way to fill out characters, exposing both positive and negative traits that would appear contrived and out of place in the main story. I wonder if this is a good strategy.

  3. I would also point out, what I feel is an excellent example of how an extremely negative, even evil aspect of a story can be made to fit, and to be a primary story element in a character that the reader can root for. Dexter is the example. Dexter is a psychotic serial killer whom the reader can empathize with.