Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Visual Violence and the Writer's Risk

A portrait of Martin Forbisher,

Cornelius Ketel, 1577.

What follows is the rough draft opening of another Lillie St. Claire story -- short or long, I don't know yet.

He'd been castrated.

His dismembered penis lay like a little pallid sausage in the grass a foot from the drawn-up knees.

The body of a muscular man in his late thirties, wearing a brown t-shirt and dusty Wellington boots, lay hunched in a semi-fetal position, toppled on its side and facing away from a picnic table at the edge of the park. He'd been in the habit of shaving his head but the heavy eyebrows, dark against the pale, pocked face, provided the necessary descriptor. Below one staring eye an old scar stretched from cheekbone to his right ear.

Above bloody brown chinos, his bloody tattooed hands still clutched ineffectually at his groin.

The size of the blood pool -- skimming over now but glistening in the bright sun of this cool June morning -- indicated he'd bled out. The dead don't bleed.

He'd been gelded while he was still alive.

I knew now why the constable who escorted me here and the men at the crime scene all walked with a stiff, knee-locked, tight-assed gait. And why, presumeably, PC Bert Wiggins was puking up his breakfast all over a bush about ten feet behind me.

What I didn't know was why I had been called in.


I think it may be risky to begin a story with visual violence. There's the obvious risk of inducing an instant and emphatic wall-banger. So it may be better to produce any necessary noir scenes later in a narrative.

A writer also runs the risk that the rest of a story may seem anti-climatic, so an immediate and delicately functioning suspense factor is particularly critical.

Of course, for some readers, any graphic, gritty scene -- even a short one -- can be too much. They prefer corpses and death off camera, not in their face, so their imagination can select the degree of horror they want to assimilate or ignore it altogether.

So my question is: do you include violent visuals in your stories and where do you place them?


writtenwyrdd said...

Very nice stuff, Bernita!

Regarding opening with violence of this sort, e.g. a dead body, it's a standard for police procedurals, mysteries, and urban fantasies that involve investigations. So I think this is a great opening scene. And the description is really good, too. The only thing missing is Lily's reaction to the body, whether she's getting ready to vomit herself or whatever. I presume you'll be mentioning that, though.

sylvia said...

I don't tend to descriptions of the effect of violence in my stories (although the actions may be violent) and I can be turned off by blood and gore in books (and certainly I will close my eyes at blood and torn flesh in films / video games if realistic).

But I would certainly keep reading this - there's a scientific tone to it that tells me the narrator isn't *trying* to shock me, just to take in what is there. And that makes it somehow palatable, for me.

Bonnie Calhoun said...

*snort-giggle*...dismembered members...that's an eye-opener first thing in the morning!

Hmmm...I wonder what the rest of the day has in store for me? :-)

Charles Gramlich said...

It's pretty effective, I would say. I actually like violent openings like this. I think the main risk is the danger of anti climactic endings. I've done this kind of opening before, and have even used a castration scene or two, but never at the very beginning.

Gabriele C. said...

I don't mind blood and gore. What I can do without it the farting some authors seem to be rather fond of these days. Blood and gore may be necessary to show a world where these things happen, but farting doesn't really add anything to a story. ;)

Like that beginning, Bernita.

Whirlochre said...

Yes, I have violence, and yes, I have other vile visuals (including peni), but no, now you mention it, I've never been minded to wonder where in the narrative they belong other than where the story seems to want them to fit.

I suppose it's true that displays of giblets right at the start of a chapter might lead to perceptions of anticlimax later, as you say, but if that's where they actually belong, it's better than artificially forcing the narrative around them "for effect".

I enjoyed your brief snippet, and didn't consider the question of violence in this way until the comments at the end. But that's just me. What would irk me immensely is if the violence made no sense, seemed overly gratuitous, and then, it wouldn't matter where in the narrative it appeared.

Plus, violence isn't the ultimate climax, so a chapter that began with a graphic punch could reach its conclusion with an equally vigourous reflective section.

Your opening

Whirlochre said...

That was my original opening to the comment btw, but it kind of got lost in the postman.

Just to reassure you I haven't been axed to death in mid-sentence...

raine said...

Geez, Bernita, this is your idea of a ROUGH? You must need to do very little revising.

It works, right off the bat. I have no problem with violent visuals in my reading or writing, as long as they're well done. Lillie's objective pov makes it seem more interesting than gruesome.
I do have a problem with violence just for the sake of including a violent scene, or when it's been placed somewhere (beginning, middle, otherwise) just to hook me and it's OBVIOUS.
A murder accompanied by a mystery wouldn't fall into that category, as if it's a good mystery that'll entice me to want to read more.

I have worried about having such a scene near the beginning (the current wip does), but I've tried to make the following scenes as interesting in other ways.

Bernita said...

Thank you, Written!
Yep, the very next paragraph. I still fiddling with the arrangement of details like that.

"there's a scientific tone to it that tells me the narrator isn't *trying* to shock me,"

Sylvia, your comment gratifies me immensely - because I hoped to imply that Lillie was assessing the scene in a factual manner.

Hee, Bonnie, where's your fan?

I'm glad, Charles.And I agree that an anti-climax is what I have to watch for - another reason for the clinical style here.

Thank you, Gabriele. I agree about farts, not sure they work even as black humour.

Whirl, thank you.
The castration is the key to the plot.
The use of violence and blood 'n gore stuff can be annoying when it merely provides local colour.

Bernita said...

Raine, I need to do lots and lots. That third sentence, for example, is awkward.
"just to hook me and it's OBVIOUS."
Me too, I always feel mildly insulted when the technique is showing.
Am really glad you don't find it overdone.

Scott from Oregon said...

I was thinking you might take your last two paragraphs and open there, then get to the penis sausage breakfast bit in paragraph three...

Too shocking an opening line just leads me to think "The author is trying to shock me".

Bernita said...

I see your point, Scott.

On the other hand, in first person, character is revealed by the pattern and order of that character's thoughts. Lillie observes before she draws conclusions.

I'm not trying to shock (is anyone shockable these days?) merely to rivet the reader's attention.

Natasha Fondren said...

Oh man, it's SO vivid! I love it. I love it. It's perfect.

I don't think I'm ever going to forget that image, though, LOL!

sex scenes at starbucks said...


My boys are involved in a shoot-out and I used a lot of description after the dust settles, trying to bring in the gritty truth. I think in that case it's the point, yeah, that this is real.

And I've used a lot of other violent aftermaths, too. So yeah, I use it.

I don't think it'll be anticlimactic. We all want to know who did this horrible thing to him and why! And I'm very, very happy to see you're writing! :)

Bernita said...

Thank you, Natasha!

I decided to leave out those carnivorous, feeding wasps that usually collect around picnic tables.

Bernita said...

Betsy, thank you so much!

"trying to bring in the gritty truth. I think in that case it's the point, yeah, that this is real"

And we have to see what the character(s) see(s) to make it real, I think -- or their emotions/reactions likewise lose validity.

And, um...'re channelling your character again!

StarvingWriteNow said...

Somewhere I read once that you should "throw the baby out the window" as soon as possible in order to hook the reader.

Reel me in, Bernita!

BernardL said...

Well written, fetal position inducing prose. :)

Bernita said...

Working on it, SWN!

Oh, Bernard!
~laughs evilly~
Thank you!

Vesper said...

I'm afraid, this is not a very palatable scene for me... but, it all depends on what follows.
I've seen books that start with violence, hoping to shock and attract the reader, and the beginning has little to do with what comes after.
Knowing you, Bernita, I'm sure that's not the case. The writing is very good - this is NOT a rough draft!!! :-)

Bernita said...

Thank you, Vesper...
'tis rough - I've printed out the first pages and have scrawls and arrows all over them.
You probably wouldn't like the story, it's shaping up to be rather grim tale of ghostly revenge.
Have been thinking about reader shock - to me what would be truly shocking would be a description of the castration as it was taking place .

laughingwolf said...

i'm all for having you grip the reader/viewer by the throat from the outset, and not letting go til the final scene... bloody brilliant, to steal a term from the brits! :D

Middle Ditch said...

I'm new here but I keep seeing you all over the place. As writtenwyrdd said ....... A good beginning. It has you hooked straight away. And that's exactly the point, isn't it?

Bernita said...

Thank you, Laughing Wolf!
They do say a story should start with the pivotal event!

Glad to see you, Middle Ditch, and thank you!

SzélsőFa said...

apart from a short fighting scene, i have not (yet) described any violent actions directly.
i killed many of my characters, but those were only referred to in hints.
direct description may grab the reader's attention for the length of a whole chapter.
but too much violence can make many potentials readers turn their head away.

Lana Gramlich said...

That's certainly a grabber of an opening! I'm sure that all of your male readers winced when they read this post. ;)

Anonymous said...

I think it's okay, because you're not showing the violence. Just the totality of the aftermath. If you pulled us through the violence in real time, it might be too much for the beginning.

Angie said...

I've never really thought about it from that POV -- placing a violent scene here or there IAW its possible impact on the reader. When I'm writing, the story is what it is, and if someone bails on page one, they're clearly not part of my target audience.

For what it's worth, I think this is a great opener. I wouldn't even think of this as "violence" -- to me, that implies action and there's no action here. This is all aftermath, and while it's a little gory, it's not violent because all the violent action is in the past.

And actually, I wouldn't even think of it as terribly gory. You're not lingering lovingly over the details of spatter patterns and ragged edges of torn flesh, or describing the exact color of different types of tissue, or whatever. It's just there, given to the reader in a very spare and unemotional manner.

I think you're fine here, for whatever my opinion is worth. And if this is the story you're telling, then you should tell it. This is the basis of the case, yes? Would it really help to insert a thousand words of talking and travelling to the crime scene and speculation about whatever? I think that'd slow things down and weaken the story. This is where the story begins, so you should begin here and then keep going.

You're doing a good job so far; don't second-guess yourself into ruining it.


Travis Erwin said...

Very visual and a squirmier for we men but if it fits the story I see no problem starting with such vivid descriptions of violence.

Bernita said...

SzelsoFa, you must be much more delicate than I am.
On the other hand, the amount of mayhem Lillie runs into in these stories surprises me.

It's that reaction that made me a little dubious about it, Lana!
You and Charles take care on the roads, you hear?

Thank you, Jason and Angie. You reassure me. Enormously.
That's why Lillie is brief and dispassionate.

This is the nexus. I couldn't see Lillie "recalling" the scene in vapid backstory.

"if someone bails on page one, they're clearly not part of my target audience."
And that's another point (thank you, Angie.)
Death and vengeance isn't fluffy.

Bernita said...

Funny thing,Travis, I have a squirmy scene for females in A Malignity.