Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Putting Limits on Sex and Violence in Writing: Missing The Point

A high-speed car chase.

Black Hummer veers off the road.

A spray of gunfire.

Two local schools put on lockdown as police descend on the scene.

Sounds like the opening of the latest action film, right? Well, that was the scene yesterday in Langley, BC.

Think shootings in Canada are rare? Not even in BC’s lower mainland. ”It was the second gang-related shooting in a public place in Metro Vancouver in the past four days.
Two people were shot at an upscale Kitsilano restaurant, Quattro on Fourth, late Saturday by a pair of masked men who fired shots through the plate glass windows.”

A few days ago there were two sexual assaults at York University. Yesterday a sixteen-year-old was stabbed to death near a high school in Scarborough. We’ve got perverts, accessories to murder and produce people who blow people up.

Call me jaded, but I think we live in a pretty violent world. When we have people stating on forums I'm horrified to admit it, but part of me was disappointed that the death toll in the Minnesota bridge collapse wasn't higher. I also had the same feeling during the early stages of the Tsunami disaster a while ago. Only in that case, my bloodlust was satisfied by a record death count I think it’s a pretty damning indictment on just how much violence we are exposed to, on a daily basis, even if only through the media. Reports on bombings in Iraq barely register unless the death toll hits at least three figures, or the journalists have to report that women and children were mutilated in order to get people to give it a moment’s thought.

The other night I was watching Blood Diamond and found myself thinking that anyone who criticizes crime fiction for being filled with blood and gore hasn’t clued in to the fact that the average crime book has nothing on these international thrillerish films. But there was a line that stayed with me, when Solomon said to the reporter that she’d write about this and then her country would come and help them.

And the reporter said, “Probably not.”

It’s the truth, isn’t it? It takes something truly shocking to get us motivated. The tsunami in Indonesia today hasn’t killed enough people to be much of a news story. Move on, and hope for a higher body count.

In the midst of all this, we have writers debating where the lines are in crime fiction. People argue that they feel they have an obligation to realistically portray violence. Others say they exploit violence in the books to shock. In another forum discussion, Barbara Fister asked Why is that stories about profilers and serial killers who torture women have become our master narrative, a folk tale that can be retold endless times? - a question that hints at the reality: There are a lot of books about serial killers, where body after body must fall, each in more gruesome fashion than the one before it, to keep the suspense. Meanwhile, Pari Noskin Taichert asked Do you have taboo subjects, ones that are just too close or too horrible to pen or read?

I walked away feeling as I often do, as though I slip through the cracks and just don’t fit in any camp. When I sat down to write my first manuscript I had a few rules in mind: no sex, for one thing. Minimal swearing for another. I didn’t want to write it. And while the characters rang true for that, and the tone of the book supported that position, I learned later that the limits I had placed on myself inhibited my growth as a writer.

This is not about what you choose to write. It’s about your willingness to write what is necessary to tell the story you’re telling without pulling your punches. If you have things you absolutely will not touch, then you may sell yourself short as a writer and sell your audience short by holding back with your story. I will not drop a body just to artificially inflate the tension of the book. In my opinion, that’s what weak writers do. Don’t misunderstand. I’m not saying all books with multiple victims are written by bad writers, but I’m saying that if the reason you drop a body is because you don’t know how else to maintain the suspense in your work, you’re doing it for the wrong reasons and it’s an indication that you rely on action to maintain the narrative… It’s probably a big hint that your characterization is weak.

When I drafted What Burns Within I knew what the story was from the outset. Someone abducting young girls. A series of arson fires. A serial rapist. The young girls start to turn up, murdered. But I can say with complete confidence myself that this is not your typical serial killer/slasher book. Profiling isn’t a factor in the story, actually. The reason for three big investigations of this nature? It has to do with the root of the story – unhealthy attitudes towards sex, as well as the pressures police are under when multiple high-profile cases collide and the public is demanding action. People make mistakes…

I can look at that book and know for myself that I never dropped one body that was unnecessary, nor did I glamorize the violence in any way, or even exploit it. I don’t show everything that happens to people: I show how what happens to people affects them.

And that is the critical difference. For me, what separates the wheat from the chaff is a story that, at its heart, is about how the things people experience change their lives. If the theme of a story I’m telling requires three victims, there will be three victims. If it requires one, there will be one.

I’m about ¾ of the way through the new manuscript, and there has only been one murder within this timeline. Perhaps there will be another one before the end, I can’t say for sure right now. But this is what I’ve learned writing it. It’s easier to raise tension by adding another rape/assault/murder. It’s much more difficult to build the suspense by forcing characters to address their doubts and confront them with their deepest fears.

If I need to drop another body in this book, I will. If I don’t, I won’t. The point is about a level of artistic integrity that means I’ll put on the page what I believe is necessary for the story that I’m telling. Not what’s comfortable for me to write, not what’s easiest. What’s necessary and valid for that story.

Sure, there are things I doubt you’ll ever see from me. I’m sure I could write torture scenes, but I certainly wouldn’t enjoy it. At this point in time I see no reason that’s necessary in my work. I don’t particularly want to write about pedophiles and rapists… but I’ve written what I believed in my heart was necessary to tell the story being told.

I think that what matters is not whether or not an author addresses violence or sensitive crimes, but the sensitivity they use in tackling such issues and handling them in a way that is respectful, instead of exploitive.

I’d like to think that most intelligent readers will pick up my work and know the difference. That said, I look at books like Carol Anne Davis’s Sob Story and am awed by the level of tension built without portraying rape after rape or murder after murder. True skill in writing is not with how many you can kill, but in how much you can make the reader care about what’s happening.


pattinase (abbott) said...

For me, I don't think I'll ever tackle explicit child abuse. I just don't want those images in my head. But almost anything else can and has been done and well, and often brought attention to it. For instance, Rendell's Simisola, over a decade ago at least, brought to my attention that African women were being brought into middle-class homes in England and kept as domestic (and possibly sex) slaves.

Sandra Ruttan said...

You know, I thought long and hard about this. Would I ever write a torture scene? How could something like that be called for, be necessary?

Then I got thinking about the Star Trek TNG episodes where Picard was captured by Cardassians and tortured. Certainly since it was for network television it wasn't excessively graphic, but I thought about what it showed, and how you could only really understand the impact by not shying away from the reality. I hope I never feel writing something like that is warranted or necessary on the one hand, because I would find it painful, but if I thought it was necessary after careful consideration, I'd do it.

angie said...

"True skill in writing is not with how many you can kill, but in how much you can make the reader care about what’s happening."

Yup. That sums it up very nicely.

I think I've learned my lesson on the "never say never" front. I swore I wouldn't write a sex scene and then I did it. Freaked me out, couldn't write a thing for two days. Not something I wanted to do, but the storyline really needed it and it would have been disrespectful to the story, the characters and the readers to refuse only 'cause sex scenes squick me out. Just my take. Can't imagine writing torture or explicit child abuse, or any other number of things, but if the story calls for it, then I'll probably do it and do it to the best of my ability.

Sandra Ruttan said...

I still don't particularly enjoy writing sex scenes, but I believe in putting in what needs to be included for the story. Kevin Wignall's FOR THE DOGS is a good example, where what's included about one sexual encounter is precisely what the reader needs to understand the relationship and the mental state of the participants, and it's not at all graphic or distasteful.

I will say this, though. Any author I know of who is known for having all their books contain a lot of sex just isn't one I pick up, as a rule. Certainly I've read sex scenes, and will read them, but I think authors should be more than one-trick ponies. Part of the skill of an author is knowing when something is necessary and when something's just being put in for filler or because that's what they're known for. I'd feel the same way if an author made a habit of having someone crucified in every book they write (the crucifixion not being the issue, the fact that they keep going back to the same well being my concern).

Anonymous said...

Sandra brilliantly written and I have to agree with you -being a novice I put restrictions upon my own writing and find I have to maybe do a u turn. Thanks for setting it out clearly. Betty

JamesO said...

As far as I'm concerned, the only consideration is whether or not it's right for the story. If I'm thinking 'I need to put character X through the wringer here, what can I dream up that's really, really nasty,' then I've already lost the point of the story anyway. If the character's right in my head, and his interactions with the other characters are working, then it will be obvious what to do to him.

That said, I think the opening scene of Natural Causes is perhaps a little graphic;}#

I'd be far more likely to shy away from writing something simply because I had no knowledge of it and no clear idea how to even begin researching it (or indeed desire to do so).

Sandra Ruttan said...

Betty, you may have inspired a whole new blog post from me. I'm thinking...

James, I completely agree. I'm more likely to avoid something if I don't know about it, or enough to feel I can properly address it. But yes, it must be true to the story. I don't think Natural Causes is gratuitous, and that's more important to me than anything. Violence itself is not the issue, but if it's included just for cheap thrills it will be obvious. It isn't always what you write, it's how you write it.