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  1. #1
    It could be worse. ~tmso Moderator N. E. White's Avatar
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    How do you know when you've gone too far?

    So, I have a writing buddy who says things like: "Don't be afraid to go all 'Tarantino' on us."

    He was referring to the aftermath of a rape/murder scene I wrote for one of my past projects. Luckily, not too many people were subjected to reading that scene. I subsequently bagged that story, but his advice always stuck with me.

    I may not apply it, but in the back of my head I always think, I didn't go far enough. I didn't make my characters bleed enough, or set up big enough challenges, or didn't convey their pain as much as I should have.

    But then again, I don't want to offend my (very few) readers.* And I definitely don't want to add sex or violence for shock value.

    So... how do you know you've struck that balance between hard realism and decorum?

    Is this just something else that "just depends" and is different for each writer and reader?

    *Beta-readers, I mean. It's not like I have fans.

  2. #2
    I'm no expert (lulz), but my take is that it depends on what you want to communicate, or what you want to evoke out of your reader. For example, in my current book, there are two rape scenes and I notice that I handled each differently. The first one did not provide much in the way of details as to what happened, and focused more on the scene protagonist's point of view as he stopped the attack. The second scene is told from the point of view of a man who is watching it happen, feeling helpless to stop it...I am more detailed there.

    Looking back, I want the readers to fully grasp the brutality of the man in stopping the first attack (I am detailed on his violence while stopping it), and then the brutality of the second scene in general; to be horrified by what is happening.

    It's a good question and something that I've never consciously thought about. I suppose I'm not that careful yet with my writing, but when thinking about it, the feeling I am trying to convey or provoke in the reader is what would govern my limits.

  3. #3
    There is no tomorrow RedMage's Avatar
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    As usual, well put, Nila!

    I don't have much to say other than I wrestle with this too. I have noticed my writing is in something of a rut when it comes to how I tell a story. While characters in my different stories are different from each other, they often share similar traits or I have a similar cast of characters. Likewise, I feel my voice as the author telling the story is the same in the different, unrelated stories. I like this voice, but I want more from it. I want it to go darker, be more violent when the story warrants it. I feel I shy away from going into the details of things. Not that I am afraid to say "X used to kill people" and then say that has affected her in her life today, but that I don't go into detail, and it doesn't even have to be very much detail, of showing how she is affected. Basically, it's like I'm have that thing you tell kids in the back of my head of don't do anything you don't want your grandmother to know about.

    So, to sum up, you're not the only one, Nila, and I want to go further.

  4. #4
    Edited for submission Holbrook's Avatar
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    The thing is, Nila, you will offend someone with your writing. It might be a simple thing, say a scene about flowers in the garden, not the sex or violence. But you can be sure that someone will get all huffy about your writing.

    The thing is you have to ask yourself, does it fit with what your characters previous actions? Is it believeable the way they react or don't? Are you comfortable writing the scene or do you prefer to fade to black leaving the reader to fill in the blanks. During the recent editing of Oracle I came face to face with the latter. I had my characters doing something, just to further the plot, so slot a, fitted slot b. In re-writing it I learned that I could get the pieces to fit without making my characters act out of character (does that make sense)
    Last edited by Holbrook; September 4th, 2014 at 06:43 AM.

  5. #5
    sf-icionado / horr-orator Andrew Leon Hudson's Avatar
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    I'm all in favour of being as cruel to your characters as the situation justifies. Little things can be as bad as big things, though, if you do it right, so context is everything. Being extreme without being gratuitous is obviously easy to say, of course...

    I guess I should add a "trigger warning" to the following: I'm about to talk about self-directed violence.

    I wrote a story after reading extended discussions online on the subject of self-harming, or "cutting", as voiced by people who actually did this at times. I don't like this second label, personally. People can self-harm in various ways, for various reasons, and focusing (via what could be called a "cool" name) on one particular method seems to me to be missing an important point; however, since this was the form of self-harm I used in the story I'm going to borrow it for the time being.

    What I observed in these discussions was not just the group support (as opposed to encouragement of the activity, btw) that their community had tried to create for itself, but also the bile that was directed their way by outsiders - accusations of attention seeking was the typical, uninvited, response, but rarely expressed in a way not designed to hurt. Again, missing the important point.

    Anyway, my approach to using the insider insights was to put my sometime-cutter protagonist in a bad situation, and start eroding her resistance to hurting herself via a steady progression of making things worse; then, once she'd started cutting again, I began making things even worse, to the point where she eventually comes to a major tipping point - in effect, where her urge to hurt herself may not come with any degree of restraint. Come the finale, she gains a reason not to choose that path, and puts her knife to better - generally non-violent - use.

    I guess my point is, although I had a more or less happy ending in mind, the object of the story was to make the motivations of people who hurt themselves (as embodied in just my one character, of course) be comprehensible to any reader, regardless of whether they do or don't actually engage in self-destructive activities - so I jumped that character through some nasty hoops, things that any person would find traumatic, in the hope that this degree of empathy could generate sympathy for the bad choices the character makes as a result.

    Having said that, in my early notes I was going to go further than I ended up doing. In the end I didn't do so partly to keep the pace of the story high, but it was also because I felt that presenting too great a departure from the norms of society* would actually work against my objective; if readers started thinking "Well, that's unlikely", their capacity for empathising with the protagonist's response could be diminished.

    Now I've talked my way around to the original question again: I'd say that knowing the reasons why you are including something (or anything, really) in your story will be the best guide to determining if it's the right choice. That's not to say you have to plan every detail in advance; just that awareness of what you want to achieve will establish a kind of preliminary boundary for your story, and if you find yourself crossing it you have a frame of reference by which to judge whether you should turn back, or break on through.



    * ignoring for the moment that this was a piece of ecological scifi, so hardly "down to earth" in its scenario...

  6. #6
    KMTolan kmtolan's Avatar
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    For me, going too far is like a pot hole - it's not consistent with the rest of the road, it's jarring, and as the driver continues down the road they're not thinking of the view alongside them in so much as they are that pot hole.

    Kerry

  7. #7
    It could be worse. ~tmso Moderator N. E. White's Avatar
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    So, I think what you all are saying is that I need ample justification in my stories for what is going on. And I think I see where I missed out in the particular case I am thinking of. I just didn't link all the dots clearly enough (or at all). As usual. Back to the drawing board (or at least, revision board).

    Thanks to all who responded.

  8. #8
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    For me Tarantino's really a matter of style, not morality. Fictional violence is not immoral or unethical per se, but the way it's portrayed matters. The rules of film are completely different than literature in this regard. Film can appear to show an extremely graphic situation, when in reality it shows very little. To be graphic, and therefore risk crossing these lines, literature has to use graphic words, and rely on its readers to picture what's happening in their imaginations.

    Routine violence (battles, bar brawls, etc.) can be more graphic in novels than in film. A film of a man dragging his intestines across a battlefield has a very different impact from a chapter describing it.

    Graphic sexual violence is a separate category. It's very hard to write well, and it may hurt, not just offend, people who have experienced sexual violence themselves.

  9. #9
    Registered User StephenPorter's Avatar
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    I wonder about this with my own writing. I have a lot of hard content in my books, and it's one of things I think about. Ultimately, I just use my own tolerance levels as a guide. If it's something that I personally feel is too far, then I'll tone it down. But really, the only way to see what other people will feel about it is to put it out there for someone else to see.

    Until then, the best judge of what is too much is yourself. You are a human being, just like everyone else out there (well, barring the sci-fi/fantasy concept of other intelligent species at any rate), and that means there will be other people who share your comfort zone. I've read some truly disturbing stuff by highly popular writers. Neil Gaiman certainly went into creepy-town with the Sandman comic books, especially the "Twenty Four Hours" issue. More recently I read The Drowning Girl by Caitlin Kiernan, which had a hallucinatory scene of a woman raped by a female werewolf, eaten, buried, then resurrected as some bizarre skeleton/ghost/slave thing. That scene surpassed yours in sheer brutal depravity, if you're talking about the same GODDS story I read a while back. I know what to expect from Kiernan, but it still surprised me. There's going to be an audience for whatever level of disturbing stuff you write, so I wouldn't worry too much about it. As long as it's in service to the story, people will roll with it. Terantino is popular for a reason after all.

    I would suggest letting yourself go in the first draft, trimming out (or adding in) what feels necessary in subsequent drafts, and then incorporating what you can from beta readers to get a broader perspective for the finished product. I guess that sounds a lot like the normal writing process, actually. So maybe my point is that questionable content doesn't need to be handled in any different manner than the usual writing concerns.

  10. #10
    It could be worse. ~tmso Moderator N. E. White's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by StephenPorter View Post
    As long as it's in service to the story, people will roll with it.

    So maybe my point is that questionable content doesn't need to be handled in any different manner than the usual writing concerns.
    Very good points, Stephen. This is concerning another story, but you are correct, it may apply to my sci-fi story, too. In that story, it gets worse. So, I better just be careful with it as I would anything else.

    Quote Originally Posted by suboptimal
    Graphic sexual violence is a separate category. It's very hard to write well, and it may hurt, not just offend, people who have experienced sexual violence themselves.
    Very good point. With the story in question here, there was sex, then violence. Maybe I just didn't write that scene well enough to separate the two. Thanks again for all your input!

  11. #11
    If you ask me, you should not write to anyone's expectations. If you think about others, it's no longer your story, it's reality intruding into the realm of wherever the plot takes action. So you cannot go too far. There's no such thing. It's like saying you have too much imagination.
    Igor

  12. #12
    >:|Angry Beaver|:< Fung Koo's Avatar
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    Intruding with my thoughts from the fugue of child-rearing...

    "Going Tarantino" is often misinterpreted, so it can be a dangerous game. I watched Django and 12 Years a Slave in close succession, and I found that the two different approaches to the subject matter evoked very different reactions in me. After seeing Django I read about Spike Lee's boycott, which seemed silly. For me, the almost comic-level of gore had the same effect as it did for Inglorious Bastards -- the level of violence forced me out of the narrative and prompted self-reflection on how I was reacting as a citizen of my own world. This is an entirely different effect that in 12 Years a Slave, or even something like Passion of the Christ, where I was pulled even further in and forced to acknowledge the experience of the character. I didn't find Django to be flippant in any way -- quite the opposite, it made me feel sad for us.

    Tarantino's thing is to amplify the situation the characters are experiencing to the point that it breaks the umbilical cord between the reader the and the text, revealing (to me anyway) that his whole point is to comment on our present real-world and how it perceives the subject matter, and not really to comment so much on the subject matter itself. Django was pointing out that our society has turned slavery into cartoon version of itself, and Basterds was pointing out much the same about how our society treats the Holocaust/WWII/Naziism.

    Passion and 12 Years, by contrast, go to extremes in graphic depiction to reach past sensitization, to hit the skin under the societal callous of the oversimplified cartoon-like myth that we retell -- it reminds us of the more-real reality, in a tremendously amplified way, and lets that ring in our heads a while. The world was like this. The experience was like this.

    I doubt it would stand up to scrutiny, but it seems like Basterds/Django is more of a 3rd person/top-down approach -- the subject is treated in an "outside observer" kind of way -- and 12 Years/Passion seem more 1st person, bottom-up -- the subject is very close, demanding uptake and internalization.

    These two sorts of graphic amplification are worlds apart in effect despite a lot of similarity in the basic detail of how they're done, so how far you go with a particular topic really depends on the point you are trying to make and what kind of experience you want the reader to have.

    In either case, I would never recommend a writer to shy away from the graphic. I think writing, particularly in the genres, is fundamentally about amplification (either through selective focus or creating/pushing extremes), so it's a tool that's essential.

    That said, elision can also be a powerful tool. To me, though, the danger is when elision becomes the norm as a way of deferring to sensibilities -- a kind of self-censorship. Elision, like amplification, should primarily be used for the effect it produces, not just to meet a standard of relative cleanliness (censorship), or (in the case of a lot of horror films) to meet an expected level of goriness (a sort of anti-censorship, in a way).

    So... yes, it depends on your purpose how far you go. But more important is to go the right amount to tell a "true" story relatively free of self-censorship. If you're questioning if you've gone far enough, that probably means you washed it a bit, or avoided it. Why? Did you over-clean it? Was it uncomfortable to go there? Or did something you wrote later suddenly make it obvious you skipped something, or that something needed more weight/emphasis? If you're wondering if you've gone too far, either you're uncomfortable because your internal good-person self-censor voice is speaking up or you actually did go too far. Why? Is the detail now less important? Is it occupying too-central a space in your story? Is it unbalancing things?

    Having the confidence in your control over what you wrote to know when it's the self-censor and when it's what you wrote is the difficult, but essential, thing.



    (ahhhhhhhhhhhh procrastination.... )

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