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