The Question of Violence In Fiction

I write suspense. Topics I’ve covered include domestic abuse, religious cults, and hired killers. The nature of my chosen genre requires a certain level of detail to the violent scenes. But how much is too much?

No doubt, if I asked ten people this question, I’d get at least five different answers. Each of us has our own limit, and tolerance varies widely. Maybe a better question would be, how much is enough?

For me, as a reader, the answer is I need enough detail to make me feel the emotion but not so much that I’m overwhelmed by it. On the surface, I know that’s kind of vague. I need to dissect it in order to give a clearer answer.

If I’m reading a thriller about a killer who cuts his victims into pieces, I do not need five pages of detail on how he does it. (And I’ve read books that offer excruciating, endless pages of graphic detail.) For me, the experience becomes like those slice-and-dice B-rated movies – nothing left to the imagination. I want enough detail about the killer and his behavior so that I can understand both his motivation and the victim’s fear. I do not need so much detail that the entire book becomes page after page of bloody madness. At that point, I’ve lost the story. The victims become nothing more than a prop to support the violence.

On the opposite spectrum, if I’m reading a book about a man suffering post traumatic stress after being attacked by a gang, I don’t want to simply be told in a sentence or two that five gang members jumped the man and beat him up. In order to understand the PTSD, I need to feel some of that same terror felt by the man in the story. And that requires details.

When I write, I try hard to provide enough detail for readers to understand the emotions of the characters, while also not becoming unnecessarily graphic. I know I overstep the boundaries for some readers, while not going far enough for others. In fact, I’ve received emails and reviews to verify this.

My novel Enemies and Playmates is about domestic abuse and a young woman’s struggle to escape. This is a difficult topic to write and read about. The realism needs to be there, and I had an inside view to offer. My first draft was, admittedly, way over the line. Too much detail made it a painful read. Yes, readers needed to understand the abuse; see it, feel it. I wanted readers to be horrified, to empathize, to understand how a woman and an entire family can become victims. The characters demanded that realism. I also wanted the story to show hope, resilience, and love. I didn’t want the details in the abuse scenes to overpower the story. Several revisions later, I had scaled it down to what is now the finished product.

Not long ago, a reader argued that the abuse scenes were completely unnecessary. His opinion was that I could have stated the husband abused his wife and children and left it at that. No details whatsoever. In essence, he thought I should write about abuse without writing the abuse. I couldn’t disagree more. Reading is about stepping into another world, another person’s life. Without the details, most people are not able to take that leap. If I tell you that Alex is a bad man and beats his wife, you’ll know that on an intellectual level but you won’t feel it. If I show you Alex slamming his wife’s head into a wall, you will feel it. And you won’t forget.

So, yes, I show detail. I let my characters lead the way. I want you to know them. My hope is that I hold enough middle ground to please most readers.

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