Violence and Gore in Writing: Is There a Limit?

Happy Friday, lovely ladies and classy gents! Before I dive into this week’s topic, I’d like to let you know that I’m holding a Question/Answer in light of the blog hitting 100 followers (woo!). WordPress has been wonky following the recent update, so I wanted to make sure you knew. If you’d like to leave me a question, I invite you to do so here!

Now, onto what you clicked for: violence.

In an almost paradoxical fashion, violence is a fascinating subject. Humanity has learned the horrifying consequences of violence en masse time and time again, yet we have yet to shy away from it. Inflicting harm upon another human being is understood to be immoral, yet we enjoy reading, hearing, and watching stories full of violence. Isn’t that interesting? We sure give violence a whole lot of limelight for something we hate. One would think violence would be treated more like how Mike “the Situation” Sorrentino was treated at the 2011 Comedy Central Roast of Donald Trump (The star of Jersey Shore was booed because he was intolerably unfunny).

But we don’t treat violence like we treat the Situation. Rather, we treat violence closer to how we treat Rihanna in that nobody actually likes her, but she is impossible to avoid so you nod along to her songs anyway.

There are two key reasons why violence is pertinent in our stories:

  1. it’s a knowable, human plot device which can be used to propel the story forward
  2. it’s fun.

No, really. It is. When Quentin Tarantino was asked to account for the violence in his films while promoting Kill Bill, he responded, and I quote,

Because it’s so much fun, JAN! Get it!

Tarantino’s right. Violence is fun. Don’t we all enjoy executing Mortal Kombat fatalities on our friends? (The intestines come out the nose, you say?) Don’t we all enjoy Tarantino’s Tupac-fueled western shootouts? I know we enjoy UFC, and it’s not only for the leprechaun who would surely pull out my sternum with his bare hands if I made such a comment to his face (please don’t hurt me, ye Lucky Charms mascot, ye). e475e88202155040418450dd9d53a8cb83b0a142.gif

But that’s the thing, isn’t it? Violence in reality is a whole different ball game. I’ve seen fistfights up close. I’ve been in a couple. And you know what? It’s nothing like the movies. Do you guys recall Robert Downey Jr.’s Sherlock Holmes movies? Neither do I. But I do recall Holmes’ freeze-timey-hyper-perception trick where he observes his opponent and devises an intricate way to immobilize him by exploiting his weak spots. Yeah, real life isn’t like that. Fighting is comprised of a nearly incomprehensible flurry of balled fists and blurred limbs. All of the choreography you’ve seen in Star Wars goes right out the window. There’s nothing cute or coordinated about violence. There’s no rhyme to it. There’s no glamour, no flashiness. Even in the UFC, where professional fighters spar with each other, the result isn’t a dance-like fight like we see in Kung Fu movies. And we know this.

Be it through the news, documentary footage, personal experience, or WORLD STARRRR!!!!!, we’ve all seen the ugliness of real-world violence, yet we still feature it extensively through fictional means. I find that to be interesting. Not surprising (violence is practical and exciting, as I said), but interesting.

Throw in gore on top of violence and we have an intrigue smoothie (How’s that for a visual?). Indeed, if violence is the piñata, gore is the candy. This leads me to the question posed in this post’s title:

Is there a limit to violence and gore in writing?

The technical answer is no. A writer can technically write novels chock full of graphic butchery and extensive violence. I have yet to read a novel that is so blatantly gratuitous from start to finish, though I’m sure many of you more wizened readers can recall picking up such a book. It should go without saying that writers have a right to write whatever they would like. Everyone has that right, and it should remain so.

But I don’t care to discuss technicality. Sure, technically I can eat a book if I divide it into small parcels and pair it with hummus and a touch of olive oil, but that would be a pointless display of jackassery more than anything. I’m interested in pondering what sort of responsibility a writer has when putting pen to paper. Should violence be written graphically as to portray its heinousness Hacksaw Ridge-style, or should violence be written “cleanly” as to only communicate the bare action? Should graphic violence be written sparingly, only “when essential?” Or perhaps violence should be written 100% freely, with no restrictions or second thoughts paid to it. Let’s discuss.

In Homer’s The Odyssey, Odysseus finds himself at odds with Polyphemus, a cyclops. The hero and his crew devise a plan to escape the monster’s clutches. What follows is a pure thrill.

Heating the end of the pole until it was glowing red, we ran it toward the Cyclops like a battering ram, aiming it for his eye and driving it deep. The thing sizzled like hot metal dropped in water while I twisted it like an auger.

Polyphemus came awake with a roar, tore the spike from his eye and began groping for us in his blindness. His screams of frustration and rage brought the neighboring Cyclopes to the mouth of the cave.

– Homer’s “The Odyssey,” Book Nine

Graphic, right? The cyclops had his eye gouged by a large stick! By telling this particular part of his story in such a graphic manner, Homer succeeds in thrilling the reader in spite of (or perhaps because of) the nasty details. The imagery was not the point–Odysseus’ escape was the point (no pun intended)–yet the imagery served the passage well.

Euripides’ Medea approaches violence differently. Though Euripides describes the murder of King Creon and his daughter in graphic detail earlier in the play, he handles Medea’s murder of her own young children with more restraint. Here is how that particular act of violence is portrayed. Note, I’ve heavily trimmed the passage in the interest of giving you the essential pieces (breaks indicated by ellipsis).

MEDEA
I’ve made up my mind, my friends. I’ll do it—kill my children now, without delay,
and flee this land…

…[Exit MEDEA into the house]

….CHILD [from inside the house]
Help me . . .

CHORUS
Did you hear that?
Did you hear the children cry?
That wretched, evil woman!…

CHILD [from within]
What do I do? How can I escape
my mother’s hands?

SECOND CHILD
I don’t know, dear brother.
It’s over for us . .

CHORUS [shouting in response]
Should I go in the house?
I’m sure I must prevent this murder.

CHILD
Yes—for the love of gods, stop this! And hurry!

SECOND CHILD
The sword has almost got us—like a snare!

…CHORUS [to JASON]
Open the doors and you will see them,
your slaughtered children.

…[JASON shakes the doors of the house, which remain closed. MEDEA appears in a winged chariot, rising above the house. The bodies of the two CHILDREN are visible in the chariot]

-Euripides, Medea, selections from lines 1456-1625

This psychotic lady butchers her two children, puts them in a chariot, and flies the chariot past her husband to show him what she did to his children. That’s a sick case of extreme violence. Interestingly, the act is far more heinous than the eye-gouging carried out by Odysseus, and yet Euripides does not provide the reader with even a hint of gruesome detail regarding what transpired inside. We presume the children were slain by knife, but Euripides does not describe the killing or the state of the corpses as bloody or otherwise maimed. Does this lack of detail minimize the implication of violence in this context?Absolutely not. The violent action spoke for itself, whether it was detailed or not.

The same tactic is flawlessly executed in Khaled Hosseini’s Kite Runner. Hosseini describes the violation of Hassan in the most minimal of details, yet the reader feels no lack of sympathy or horror.

Evidently, there are clear instances where writers have included violence within their stories and simultaneously succeeded in communicating the consequences of such violence while avoiding graphic detail. In other words, graphic detail is not essential to communicate the weight of violence. However, as is displayed through the passage from Homer’s Odyssey, graphic detail can work wonders to supplement action and paint a vivid picture. Thus, in my view, there is no single correct way to go about violence so much as there is an incorrect way.

My standard for violence in writing is this: So long as consequences are conveyed in wake of the violence, any and all violence is fair game. This doesn’t mean I need to see the perpetrator locked up for his or her transgressions, but violence needs to instigate some kind of effect. Somebody has to mourn. Somebody has to be worse off, whether it be the victim, the perpetrator, or a bystander. Violence should not just be.

Whether or not you write violence in a detailed manner is irrelevant. So long as you give me a consequence, I’m sold.

Robert Jordan expertly meets this standard in Lord of Chaos. At the climax of the story, Jordan describes a series of cataclysmic, violent acts with extreme, graphic detail. Once the carnage ceases, however, he focuses on the tremendous emotional impact the event has on all characters present. The repercussions carry over to the next book, even. Jordan did not treat violence lightly. Neither should you or I.

My final thoughts are as follows: Fellow writers, describe all of the blood and guts you want, but don’t treat the details as fireworks intended to please the eye. Instead, treat them as casualties to rattle the mind. Your work will be better for it. After all, channeling reality often makes for better fiction.

(This post was inspired by Dave Astor’s “Novels are Read. Violence, It Grew” and A.Z. Anthony’s “Fight Scenes: How and Why?”)

How do you feel about this topic? Whether you’re a reader or a writer: is there a line? How should violence be handled by writers?

As always, stay classy.

~J.J. Azar

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40 thoughts on “Violence and Gore in Writing: Is There a Limit?

  1. Excellent piece, J.J., and I love your point that violence — whether very or only somewhat graphic — should have consequences in a literary work. Violence almost always has consequences in real life, so fiction with any aspirations of realism should depict the same.

    (And thank you very much for the mention of my post!)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I couldn’t neglect to mention your post, Dave. It resonated with me when I first read it.
      This proved an interesting write-up, as I expected the gore to be the focus of the analysis. As I got deeper into the heart of the matter, however, I realized that gore is not a worthy determining factor: consequences are.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. You are pretty spot on with this post and address this topic in a way that many might be hesitant to do so. It rings with a lot of truth, even if we are not always comfortable admitting so.

    Some of my favorite moments in GoT were the most violrnt and graphic. I applauded and relished in them shamelessly. These moments evoked strong emotions and were not without consequence.

    Again, fantastic write up!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Any time somebody ventures to make a claim about how others should or should not write, there is bound to be contention. I stand by my analysis 100%, and I’m glad you found its honesty to be compelling.

      Game of Thrones understands the power of violence, electing to exploit this power to create shocking moments that come with plot-shaking consequences. Movies like Saw, on the other hand, handle violence and gore in a different manner entirely (tastelessly, in my opinion).

      Thanks for reading and dropping your thoughts. I’m glad you enjoyed it!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Ah really interesting post!! I think it’s a way of dealing with it and confronting the fact that “life is suffering”, perhaps? hahaha like your rihanna simile! Plus it’s cathartic and a way to release these feeling without actually having to go through it in real life! haha while I like both hummus and books- I agree that they don’t exactly go together 😉 I agree with you, if it’s not to gratuitous and it has consequence, I’m also sold! Great post- really good food for thought!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There is absolutely an element of confronting the ugly in a harmless way through writing. Great point! I’m happy you appreciated the jab at Rihanna. I had to include it haha. I’m glad you found the post to be thought-provoking, too. This is a topic that deserves thought.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, A.Z. I’m glad you got something from it. I didn’t discuss the mechanics of constructing scenes as you did because I felt you had that covered 100%! You got me thinking, and I wanted to take the conversation in a different direction. I appreciate the link!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: Fight Scenes: How and Why? | A.Z. Anthony

  5. A writer will write about violence which always sell, our job as parents and grandparents is to educate and teach our children the difference between real and fiction. violence has been and will always be part of our life, just watch the daily news on TV and you will see it, we cant blame the writer for writing what he sees.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I 100% agree with you, George. This is a question that has been raised in the film world as well. Some feel that pointing a camera at something glorifies what is being filmed, when in reality, portraying something, (just like how the writer writes what he sees) is not an endorsement on its own. Parents and grandparents absolutely have a responsibility to educate their children as to what is real and what is fiction. Great points!

      Like

  6. I think the amount of violence one has depends more on what they’re reading. Fans of horror expect a degree of graphic violence that fans of RomComs simply don’t. If you’re speaking specifically about the science fiction and fantasy genre, I think anyone would profit from studying Wheel of Time (after first simply reading it because it’s a gloriously told story).

    What’s most valuable in what you said is the reaction and impact of the events. Graphic violence should impact someone. When people see something like that, it changes them, and writers need to be aware of it.

    This is a VERY nice post.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. You make a great point about genre determining what may constitute “excessive” violence. Additionally, there’s a whole YA market where standards have been frequently challenged. Do the same standards apply to books intended for a “younger” audience? I haven’t pondered that, but your point brought me to ask the question.

      I’m glad you received my core message loud and clear through all the nonsense about hummus and the rest.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I agree that there is no concrete limit, no universal limit, but I do believe there is a personal limit, both for each story and for each audience member.

    For me, I think the issue is less “does the violence have negative consequences” and more “does it contribute to the meaning of the story”.

    Most of the stories I like use violence and gore only sparingly, in those most extreme moments that represent some of the most horrifying or upsetting moments in the story.

    I think we are sometimes fascinated by the aesthetic of movement, the precision of a good fight, and other times we are struck by the absurdist comedy inherent in some violent scenes. I think Tarantino films feature strong examples of both.
    In general I don’t think there is a line so much as a relationship to the story. HP Lovecraft and Clive Barker write with a fair amount of gore and violence, but it fits the story.

    I think the most important responsibility of a storyteller is to accurately represent the kind of story that they are telling. Nothing’s worse than getting blindsided.
    There’s an anime called Higurashi no Koro ni, that really exemplifies this problem. The story starts out like Card Captor Sakura, but by the end it’s more akin to Hostel. Their solution was to start with a quick scene from the end, as a way of clearly establishing how violent the series was going to get.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Adam! Thanks for your insightful comment. Your point that violence has to contribute to the meaning of the story is strong. To use Tarantino as an example (since we both did!), I wonder if the bloodiness of Tarantino’s shootouts contribute to the “meaning” of his narratives. The bloodiness certainly adds style and excitement to the experience, but does it complement a particular film’s core “meaning?” Perhaps it does, perhaps it doesn’t.

      I agree with your final assertion in which you warn against blindsiding the reader. Pulling such a stunt could prove tasteless.

      Like

      1. I think Tarantino uses it well. I think the most iconic instance of it, for me, is the big finale at the end of Kill Bill Vol 1. I feel the way that it’s portrayed was specifically designed to show, in the middle of a fight, a character has to intentionally desensitize themselves, choose not to see the violence and gore, and instead only focus on the fight. It isn’t until the fighting is over that the protagonist is free to become human again, and see the bloody horror of what they’ve done.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. Excellent post! Violence is fun. When we’re not part of it! I liked that smoothie image you insert there, quite stunning and refreshing. With all the fictional violence that has been omnipresent throughout television, I guess everyone has learned to see beauty in violence even if its a lot more chaotic, inconsistent and incomprehensible in real life. Violence done right definitely gives a very satisfying feeling for readers/viewers! 😀

    – Lashaan

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Pingback: I Am Writing – J.J. Azar

  10. What’s implied but not said enters the mind like molten plastic and sears without letting go. You revisit the situation again and again, each time expanding on the ramifications, compelled by the characters’ motivations. (“The violent action spoke for itself, whether it was detailed or not.”) I often find it more powerful because the limits of action and consequence are less defined, giving the reader more freedom to interpret the situation through the lens of his own knowledge and experience. However, there is a place for each technique when properly applied.

    Or I could have just said “Less is more!!” like Jga, who nails it in three words.

    Well-written piece, J.J.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Very well said! Implication entrusts the reader’s imagination to do the writing for the author. It’s an interesting yet difficult concept for me to wrap my head around. On one hand, the writer has a responsibility to sell a reality to a reader. On the other hand, the writer is obligated to trust the reader’s intelligence and engage. I plan on writing a post about this in the near future, as I find it to be a fascinating subject.

      There certainly is a place for each technique. The thing is, the use of each technique is to be used as per the writer’s discretion. That’s the root of controversy in this matter: everyone has their own discretion! Once again, well said, Eva.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. You have such a way with words you humble me, J.J. I wish I had your talent.

        As for two of the points you bring up:

        (1) “Implication entrusts the reader’s imagination to do the writing for the author. It’s an interesting yet difficult concept for me to wrap my head around.”
        It gets easier the older you get. It used to be difficult for me as well, but at some point, it just clicked.

        (2) Use of technique and writer’s discretion: I didn’t mention it earlier, but I completely agree with you that writers should be free to write what they like.
        Another fine quote: “Fellow writers, describe all of the blood and guts you want, but don’t treat the details as fireworks intended to please the eye. Instead, treat them as casualties to rattle the mind. Your work will be better for it. After all, channeling reality often makes for better fiction.”

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Eva, you give me too much credit. I sincerely appreciate your kind words.

        I wonder how my writing will evolve as I get older. Life experience will give me more ammunition, but I wonder how my “firing” of that ammunition will fare. I hope that every book I write will be better than the last.

        People who express themselves through creative mediums ought to be the first defenders against attacks against creative mediums. Of course, this isn’t to say everything expressed through creative mediums is defensible. Quite the contrary! Creative work is supposed to prompt discussion! Rather, placing a blanket restriction upon the medium of music or the medium of writing or the medium of art is wrong. As you noticed, I stated my preference in this post. I would prefer that violence be handled a certain way. There are limits I place for myself while writing. But I would never dare tell you, “Hey Eva, you and the rest of the author community shouldn’t be able to write *insert x y z*.”

        It’s always a pleasure trading words with you, Eva.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. I have no doubt that each book you write will be better than the last.

        As for limits, I prefer things handled a certain way as well, but I am only one voice among many. Like you, I would never tell anyone what they “shouldn’t.” Creativity, by definition, is a spectrum. A single wavelength or frequency would make us all the same.

        Liked by 1 person

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