When is the graphic stuff too much?

After seeing a twitter discussion involving a book with a bad guy using a plethora of racial slurs (he was an aryan asshat), I felt the need to post a bit about crossing the lines on violent content. The central, key element to writing content that crosses some kind of violent line, psychological or physical, is that it must have some kind of relevance to the story. If it doesn’t, then you risk presenting the reader with the “tabloid trash” effect, where it appears you are crossing the line purely for shock value, to elicit the *gasp* from the reader, or get them to say, “Oh, my god! I can’t believe they just did that!”

In the above mentioned book, the asshat dies by chapter 4. The racial slurs of the bad guy have no greater context than to point out how bad the bad guy is. The effect is that the reader cringes at the violent word usage and then later asks, “why?” The point I wish to make here in mentioning this, is that you don’t ever need to cross that line in order to take your reader there. Imagination is a powerful thing. As a writer, your job is to open doors, not necessarily lead the way. Readers are actually quite adept and getting there on their own.

As an example from my own writing, my Deadworld short story presents some pretty violent action. The violence that occurs is something that formed the hero’s character for the series. In Blood Justice, Nick’s family is killed. It’s brutal. However, I made the choice to not place the children in the story at all. We don’t need to see them killed. The reader can understand the horror of it without seeing  a single drop of blood spilled. Here is the bit from Blood Justice where Nick realizes his children are gone.


Nick didn’t move. “Where are my children?” He attempted to stare Cornelius down, but those soulless eyes bore into his with their devilish charm, and shifted his gaze. The man’s face was a warped mass of scar tissue on the right side, his thinning hair gone. Scar tissue. Nick looked closer. The wound had healed overnight? How was that even possible? No human being could do that. What in God’s name was he dealing with here? Cornelius Battencourt transformed before his eyes from a who into a what.

“They are upstairs, resting…peacefully,” he said, resting a hand upon her shoulder. “Isn’t that right, Gwendolyn?”

Nick had started to move for the staircase and stopped. Gwen still did not say a word, but two single tears now trailed down her cheeks from wide, glassy eyes. His stomach seized in a burning knot. “What have you done?”

The boney hand left Gwen’s shoulder and rubbed at his chin. “Taken my life back, Sheriff. As you may recall, you did your damnedest to take it away from me. You are quite the shot, I must admit. You can see I’m still not quite back to form, but a bit more blood and I shall be right fine and dandy. Now, Nicholas,” he added, his voice dropping to a harsh whisper. “Sit before I put a bullet in your dear wife’s brain.”

We don’t see the children or get any real hint of what was done, but it’s not difficult to imagine what’s happened. Personally, I think leading readers up to the line, to that point of gratuitous, and then letting them take that step over on their own is a far more powerful force in story-telling. It doesn’t matter if it’s physical brutality or emotional hatred, if it does not have a reason to be there beyond signifying the actual act of violence, it’s not needed. You are merely filling pages and leaving a bad taste in the reader’s mouth.  If there is a reason, then by all means, put it in there, but make damn sure your readers sees why.

Anyway, that’s my little bit of writing advice for today. Have you all come across any stories where it was apparent that the graphic nature of things was there just to make you cringe? How about a story that took you there without ever crossing those lines? I’d like to know. Happy reading/writing everyone!


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