Thursday, August 4, 2011

Topic: "Violence in Literature; When is Enough, Enough?" My guest today, Author, Debbie Bennett

Topic: "Violence In Literature; when is Enough, Enough?"

My guest, Author Debbie Bennett.

Please join in the discussion, your comments are most welcome.

Is too much still not enough?

How far you can go in depicting violence before the reader is turned off, disgusted and throws the metaphorical book across the room? As a writer you have to accept that not everyone wants to read about torture, murder or rape – but I also think that the reader has some kind of responsibility for their own reading material. After all, you wouldn’t expect to go and see a Harry Potter film and then complain that it’s full of child wizards, would you? And reading crime or thriller books surely comes with a built-in expectation of a certain level of violence. I’m not talking cosy mystery here – I’m talking Karin Slaughter, Karen Rose, Lee Child. Those writers who tell it how it is, who grab you by the throat and force you to into their world for a few hundred pages. If you don’t want to read violent scenes, then don’t pick up their books.

I think the level to which you can go largely depends on how good you are as a writer. Take for example a book called The Angel of The North, the first few chapter of which are currently on the authonomy writers’ site. The author has not been around for a long time and I don’t know if this book has been or ever will be published, and I can’t find it on Amazon. The opening chapter contains a highly graphic scene of a man being crucified. We get intricate details of exactly what is being done to him, but at no point – to me, anyway – does it come across as gratuitous, because I am inside this guy’s head, caught up in the moment, willing him to survive. I think violence in literature only comes across as gratuitous when the writer isn’t skilled enough to make you a part of the scene – keeping you on the outside looking in, rather than on the inside with the characters. When you are aware that you are reading, rather than living the story, is when it starts to fall apart.

Less isn’t always more. Sometimes it just simply is less. If the violence isn’t there, if the stakes aren’t high enough, then why on earth should you care about the characters? You can hint at it, yes, but that is often the coward’s way out. Sometimes you have to be true to your character and story and not skimp on the detail, otherwise it is impossible to build and maintain the tension, if nothing much happens.

On the other hand, if you rack up the murders in the first chapter, there’s nowhere else to go and you can’t raise the stakes much higher for your poor protagonist. Think of the classic Rambo films. When I lost count of the dead bodies, there wasn’t much reason to care about anyone and the whole thing became little more than a gore-fest. Or look at more modern movies – the Saw set of films. There are apparently 7 of them, although I’ve only seen the first one. Now I’m OK with violence if it’s relevant and necessary to the context of the story, but to me the entire point of Saw was the violence – there was no other story – and it did nothing for me at all. Cutting off limbs for no reason other than shock value is not the same as cutting off limbs in a deeply thoughtful psychological study of survival like 127 Hours. And yet the basic premise of the two films is the same.

So I deliberated about the level of violence in my novel. Specifically sexual violence. Way back when I had an agent, she advised me to leave it all in, saying that an editor would remove it/tone it down if necessary, but she agreed it was both necessary and essential to the story, to show the motivation for what happens later. When I decided to self-publish, I asked some trusted writer friends for their opinions and independently they all said exactly the same thing – that it is vital for the scenes to be there in order to understand why things turn out the way they do later on in the book. So far, the reviews have proved them and me right.

Debbie is a middle-aged boring civil servant with a secret life as a writer. She's worked in law enforcement for over 25 years, in a variety of different roles, which may be why the darker side of life tends to emerge in her writing. Her thriller Hamelin’s Child was long-listed for the Crime Writers’ Association Debut Dagger Award and she also writes fantasy. You can find out more at and there’s also a recent blog about why we like to read crime at the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival website.


  1. Excellent point about the high stakes... if we spare the details too much as a writer, why should a reader care? A visceral response to grip the audience is what we strive for in any genre.

  2. Deb,

    I absolutely love your remarks about the Rambo and Saw franchises. As a result of tripe like those, I've wholesale dismissed the horror genre of movie--and book--from my interests in life. I mean, life is too short and I WRITE about enough violence to not really want more when I seek out entertainment.

    I do like tension, however. Sadly, sometimes the best tension just HAS to lead up to something incredibly violent or it makes no sense at all. Too true.

    I think as writers, we are responsible for what happens immediately AFTER the violence. As you said early on in your article, if we're good enough at our craft, we've got our readers inside the head of our character, feeling their pain, so to speak, rallying for them to live through it by sheer force of will of the reader. If there's a death (or worse, survival) despite our reader's prayers, then it's our responsibility as writers to have the aftermath make just as much sense.

    I don't believe it when I read about someone killing another human being and having no reaction at all. I don't find them to be cold-hearted. I find them to be 2-dimension and made out of cardboard. I often put the book down with a sigh and go look for some munchies because obviously, the book is going to require reinforcements to read on.

    Immediately following a death is NOT the time I want any of MY readers putting the book down!

    I've done both torture and murder and beatings for the sake of interrogation. I've done rapes of various sorts and for me, the single-most rewarding part of the entire process is getting to work through the aftermath. I mean, having my CHARACTERS work through the aftermath. Yeah, that's what I meant! That's my story and I'm stickin' to it.

    Great blog post. Much thanks to Soooooz for inviting you to make a guest appearance, too!

  3. Debbie how can you blame the readers for the limit, why can a writer set a limit either? The gory details of rape, sexual molestation, shooting, gang war, parading naked...not everything can be shown or written in detail.

    Just give a touch, stretch a bit and finish. Let the reader guess. I can't watch violence in movies and close my eyes. Eeh!

    Here, here the telling element is necessary at the end. There must be violence as it is a part of our society but there is a limit. If a writer can tolerate extreme violence, this does not mean the readers will tolerate. And not all writers can depict violence in graphic detail.

    In Sooze's Empty chair, she has chosen to give a hint and told the event rather than showing.

    I think there is a limit, i can't see the blood, pieces of flesh and withstand too much wailing or moaning or screeching.

    In an Indian film, Bandit Queen, the director showed gang rape in a quiet way. There was everything, the rape, the cry, the screeching. Once the clothes were tore, shown some resistance and final giving up. Then sound of opening and closing the door while one man would enter and another would come out. This was brilliant as it showed the intensity still showed it in a hushed way.

    I'd not write a violence scene in gory details.


  4. @Sudam - I get your viewpoint entirely and showing it for the sake of showing it elicits the same response in me. But sometimes I feel I owe it to my characters to tell their stories as completely and truthfully as I can.

    @Webbiegrrl - you're right. It's all about the aftermath. In my thriller, it isn't what I expected it to be at all. That's what I love about writing, the way the characters take on a life of their own and won't do what you want them to do. :-)


Please leave a comment/review on any of the stories/poems contributed.