The problems in writing a violent scene, and one unexpected benefit

After reading Bronwyn Lea’s great post about why she won’t be seeing (or reading) Fifty Shades of Grey, I wrote the following comment:

I haven’t heard many women talking about this book; none, in fact. But the Bible Belt has a far different cultural climate than California, so probably all the closet 50 Shades readers around here are keeping it a secret from fear that their fellow church members won’t approve. I read a summary on Wikipedia and was thoroughly disgusted; I read reviews on Goodreads, too. There were two extremes: those who thought it was “brilliant” (really?) and those who trashed it. Horrible writing, rape disguised as sex, etc.

Life’s too short to waste time on trashy novels.

Then I went on (and this is what I want to focus this blog post on, so here’s a warning if rape is a hard subject for you):

Incidentally, some of my fiction has sexually explicit material. Rape, in both cases. I tried my very best to be as careful in my depiction as I could, because I couldn’t tell the story without some depiction. (The rapes play a large role in the plotlines and the stories.) But I tried not to be detailed, kept it short, and above all, tried not to show more than necessary to convey what happens. Those writing sessions were some of the most emotionally draining and intellectually difficult days I’ve ever had.

Obviously, I’m not writing erotica—although I’ve had interesting and annoying incidents where people apparently thought I was. I mentioned my novel writing to a group of women, and one asked about the subject matter. As we were within earshot of this woman’s young child, I said that I’d rather not talk about when kids were around. Sex trafficking isn’t a child-friendly subject. But these women made this sort of “ooo-la-la” sound, raising their eyebrows mischievously and winking, as if to say, “We didn’t know you’d be writing sexy novels!” (Ah, the joys of miscommunication.)

Writing about rape is difficult; it’s just as difficult for me, as a novelist, to write rape scenes. I don’t take pleasure in it.

Young writers are told, “Show, don’t tell.” But what if showing an action is unacceptable? What if it triggers someone who has been abused? What if I write badly and, instead of being horrified, the readers are titillated? What if I appear to be glorifying rather than condemning rape?

But on the other hand, simply telling is problematic. Is it effective to tell the reader what has happened in a just-the-facts manner? Possibly. But if the rest of the novel isn’t written in this style, it might feel like a cop-out, as if I were too lazy to deal with a difficult scene.

So when I approached writing this one particular scene, I thought long and hard about it. I searched for any Christian writers who had written effective violent scenes; I couldn’t think of any.

Then I thought two other novels that dealt with violence, though not rape.

One: Toni Morrison’s Beloved revolves around the murder of a child by her mother, a runaway slave fearing capture of her and her children by slave hunters. Rather than allow her children to return to slavery, she kills her young daughter. (She is stopped from killing the other children.)

It’s a haunting narrative. What interested me, though, is that Morrison never shows us the killing. We read everything up to and away from this point in the narrative, but she falls silent at the moment of the child’s death.

It’s as if she points the camera away from the action at the crucial moment, and we only see the bloodshed in our mind’s eye. Effective and chilling.

Two: Sena Jeter Naslund’s Ahab’s Wife focuses on the character of Una, the wife of Captain Ahab (in Moby-Dick), and her life both before and after her marriage to him. At one point, Una is aboard a whaling ship; it sinks; the starving survivors in one lifeboat (hers) resort to cannibalism. (The theme of cannibalism appears over and over in Melville’s works, so this plot development is appropriate for Naslund’s story.) The captain’s son is dying, so someone shoots him, and you can imagine the rest.

What’s interesting here is that Naslund doesn’t describe the terrible act in detail. She doesn’t even use complete sentences, really.

Phrases.

One word lines.

Snippets of fact, sensory details.

A sound.

A smell.

Taste, touch.

Stacked one on top of the other.

Building a picture.

And in that picture, we create the scene in our minds.

We see what is happening in that white space on the page. We don’t have to have graphic, titillating detail; she’s given us just enough and no more.

These two works were incredibly helpful for me as I approached the rape scene in my third novel. I spent an hour or so brainstorming every aspect of what my character’s senses experienced: sight, smell, taste, touch, hearing. I picked one or two from each category, and built my wobbly word-tower (as Naslund did) and pointed the narratorial eye away at the worst moment (as Morrison did).

I won’t say it was brilliant; no one else has read it, so I can’t judge others’ reactions to this part, nor comment on its effectiveness.

I will say this: it was the most emotionally draining writing session that I’ve ever had, and I’ve had many, many sessions when my emotions wore me out. I was done writing for that day.

But it also gave me great empathy for my main character. I was early in the first draft, and though I knew part of what she’d endured as a sex trafficking victim, I hadn’t seen it all. I hadn’t put myself in her place and felt, seen, heard what she had.

Now, after this exhausting writing session, I had. I knew. And I knew I couldn’t let her story die. I had to finish writing this novel because I owed it to her, the fictional representative of the many trafficking victims in this world, to tell her story and ultimately, to give her (and her real life counterparts) hope.

Maybe I did that. I hope so.

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10 thoughts on “The problems in writing a violent scene, and one unexpected benefit

  1. Hmmm…off hand I Redeeming Love comes to mind. A child is raped in the beginning and the manages to convey exactly what happened with two tiny sentences.

    What a complex subject. I can’t imagine how hard it would be.

    I’ve read Fifty Shades. The writing, not even going to comment on the content, was HORRID.

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    1. I’ve read Redeeming Love, too. Rivers’ technique there wouldn’t have worked for either book, unfortunately, though perhaps a good editor might show me how it could be done.

      I’ve read some scathing remarks on Fifty Shades’ writing, some even coming from people–writers, usually–who normally like erotica. I figure this is one book I will gladly skip. But this is a bestselling book. Somewhere I read that the Fifty Shades trilogy made up a full 25% of all book sales in a recent year. Apparently, porn pays. Sigh.

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  2. Your approach to writing this kind of difficult scene sounds very good to me, Laura.
    As a reader, I appreciate the trouble the writer has taken.
    I’m not interested in reading about horrible things as a form of entertainment. But I do read books, fiction and non-fiction, that deal with difficult issues. I just choose books where it appears to me that the author’s intention in writing about these things is not to entertain, or to appeal to the readers’ voyeurism, but to enlighten – to help the readers to feel empathy, just like you felt it for your main character after writing that scene.

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    1. Tuija, I’m with you on reading material. I try to pick books that aren’t intended just to entertain me, especially if that “entertainment” involves horrible things. I try not to write books like that, either. Difficult topics, yes. As mindless time-killers, no.

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  3. I agree with Tuija’s comment too: that being entertained by horrible descriptions/depictions is not something I’m interested in. But sometimes to inform and enlighten the reader, it’s necessary to write hard and very painful scenes. I really like your idea of using these details to create empathy as a writer so that you can dig deeper into what the character felt and experienced,without necessarily having to give us every single “gory detail.”

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    1. Thanks, Jeannie. I’ve read some violent scenes–sometimes written by experienced authors and others written by clueless ones–that were very detailed, sickeningly so. I didn’t want my readers (if I ever have them) to feel the way I felt in reading those ones. It’s hard enough to know that these horrible things actually happen in real life.

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  4. Those are great things for writers to keep in mind, Laura, and it helps to see how you’ve wrestled with them. In one of my novels I start with a very short but graphic crime scene. I’ve been told it’s a powerful introduction and I’ve been told it doesn’t fit the rest of the story (not by the same person!). It’s hard to know whether to keep it in if I ever shop the book around.

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    1. That would be a tough call, Tim. I’ve read advice saying starting with graphic violence is a no-no, others say it’s powerful if done well, and agents with opinions on both sides. I guess it depends on a dozen other factors, including whether or not that information presented in the opening scene is necessary and relevant to the plot. If you ever decide to shop it around, consider having a professional editor look at it. That’s my two cents. 🙂

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