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How Far is Too Far?

“What disturbs me is that we’re developing in our culture, in our cities, a kind of siege mentality. A lot of books reinforce this, make it sort of normal to think that the world is a place in which violence can erupt at any moment.”
--Roberick McGillis, University of Calgary

I was in Austin last week during all the Texas Two-Step political hoopla, doodling with the opening pages of a new novel, a murder mystery. Somewhere between wanting to smash in my television with every ringing phone ad that ran and the process of planning a murder on paper, I started thinking about violence.

I’m not really opposed to violence in young adult fiction. My mantra is if it serves the story, use it. As a writer, I think my job is to write the best story I can, and if that particular narrative just happens to include an assault or a murder or something in between, I won’t hesitate to write about it if it’s vital to the story.

But just how far am I willing to go with it? How much raw detail am I willing to express on the page? How much psychic distance am I willing to give the reader?

I found this quote from Dr. McGillis in an old article (pre-911) in Time Magazine. Yes, the world is violent, but do we need to shock readers into an angst-driven mentality? Don’t we end up reinforcing the common wisdom that violence is desensitized in our society?

Maybe I need to take a minute to define violence so we can have a common understanding. In a 1995 article in Social Work, Van Soest and Bryant write that violence is a complex social phenomenon where an individual injures another, physically or psychologically. They note that violence is multilayered: individual, institutional, and structural-cultural. Violence is the ugly stepchild of power, and it can be any situation from acts of aggression on individual persons, to school bullying, to fascist governments. In terms of a novel, violence disrupts the lives of characters and gives structural elements to the plot.

As a definition, violence can be rather encompassing, but every novel and every novelist must make specific decisions about the use of violence in a text. Moreover, every writer has to make choices about how far to take the visual impressions and action needed for the story.

So what questions does a writer need to ask before writing scenes of violence? I have a list in mind, but what do you think?

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( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 10th, 2008 01:16 pm (UTC)
You have to decide if it's necessary at all- that's an entire topic unto itself. But I do believe that violence can be absolutely organic and required of a story. So once you decide there will be blood, I think the two essential questions you have to ask are:

1) How much can I get away with?
2) How little do I need?

Because I think, as artists, sometimes our job should be to shock and scandalize the senses. Things wouldn't have changed in turn of the century factories if Upton Sinclair had sanitized "The Jungle." But, living in the culture that we do, I think any potential audience has a saturation point. You can go right up to that point, but if you step over it, all your impact is gone.

It's like people laughing when the guy hits the propeller in Titanic. It's nervous laughter, sure, but it's a release. The whole scene is so overwhelming, there are so many foci of tragedy, that that singular note steps over the line and makes it ridiculous. If the audience laughs, you've lost your tension.

For violence to be effective, you have to run right up to the edge of the abyss- but you can't jump in. Easy, huh? :)
Mar. 10th, 2008 07:42 pm (UTC)
If it were easy....

I agree about the balance. Trying to figure out just where the edge is and how readers will process violence can be tricky. I'll talk a bit about that tomorrow. H.
Mar. 10th, 2008 01:43 pm (UTC)
Great topic, Helen.
That YouTube video was really provocative- chilling, actually. A perfect illustration of how much more horrific we view violence when it's in a child-like context.
Mar. 10th, 2008 05:36 pm (UTC)
It makes me feel kinda creepy to say this, but I wonder, too, how much we can make violence SPECIFIC? I consider specificity to be a pretty huge factor in what I consider "good" writing -- detail choice, ya know. So I think, from a literary standpoint, I'd want to at least know -- if not see -- the actual details of the act of violence. Rather than "He was stabbed," or even "She stabbed him," I think I'd like to know what that knife looked like, where they were, where on the body he was stabbed, etc.

Then again, Hitchcock's famous not-showing-the-stabbing in PSYCHO was chilling at the time and, I think, remains so. But he showed the knife.

( 4 comments — Leave a comment )