Questionable content - do you read it?

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shinesteak
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Questionable content - do you read it?

Post by shinesteak » January 26th, 2011, 11:48 pm

My work in progress is...well...complicated, to say the least. I've created a dystopian world that's basically the last place any human would want to live. It's violent, corrupt, and any other horrible thing you can think of. (Excuse the lack of descriptors; it's late and my brain turned off about twenty minutes ago.)

Most importantly, it's adults only. However, I'm about to start writing a scene that tops all of the other atrocities; a little boy, my character's son, is about to die. It will be murder. It will be horrible no matter how I write it.

Part of me wants to go all-out with it. My character is in the room when this happens, and he's going to see it all. (But I don't have to write it all, if you know what I mean.)

I'm fully capable of toning down the graphic bits and focusing more on my character; I'm just not sure if it's the best thing to do. How "out there" do I want to be? That's the question I've been asking myself.

The problem I'm having is this: the boy is only five years old. I'm not sure how much graphic violence is considered "acceptable" when it's directed at children in this type of scenario. I'm not a parent. I can't say how a parent would react if they read this bit of the book.

I know how I'd react. I'd completely lose my mind for awhile, then go back and keep reading in hopes that the boy would magically be brought back to life.

I've poked around online, checked a few forums, and found close to nothing on the subject. I'm guessing that means I'm not looking in the right places, but I think this may be a good place to start. What are your thoughts on this type of violence directed at children?
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Re: Questionable content - do you read it?

Post by shinesteak » January 27th, 2011, 12:04 am

Not even one answer? How sad. :( Please help me. Please?
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HillaryJ
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Re: Questionable content - do you read it?

Post by HillaryJ » January 27th, 2011, 3:36 am

If you have a violent world, one where atrocities occur every day, it might be more powerful not to show this act. It will leave something to the readers' imagination if they don't "see" it, but only see the father before and after. Or maybe he's in the room but forced to face away and fixates on something else, like a tilted lampshade or the dripping of a faucet, and then seeing that sight or hearing that sound sets him off later, a metaphor for his rage and despair over his son's death.

A lot of crime novels feature dead children, and while the crimes often occur off the page, the description of the damage is evocative enough to disturb. As a parent, I would say that seeing or reading about such acts hits me about ten times harder now than it did a few years ago. It opens up a whole new level of fear and anger.

I don't normally advise this, but think it's probably appropriate for this story: don't turn away potential readers with a single scene. Of course you have to write what is necessary for the story, but if you're thinking of writing this for publication, consider whether this might drastically limit your audience.
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Re: Questionable content - do you read it?

Post by Mike R » January 27th, 2011, 5:29 am

I'm going to second Hillary's comments.

I would also add a question. What's the point of the scene?

If you need it to justify something the father is going to do to the murderer, then write it.

If it's to show the father's pain or what a bad man the murderer is, show us the aftermath.

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Re: Questionable content - do you read it?

Post by Sommer Leigh » January 27th, 2011, 8:36 am

I always wish I had better answers to questions like this than I do, but unfortunately all I've got is: it depends.

I know that's not helpful.

I don't think that anything you write can be considered "too much." I don't think authors should ever be afraid of "going there" and "going all the way." What I would caution is - ask yourself why this his happening, where do you want the characters and the world to be when it is over, and will narrating each detail accomplish what you need it to?

Horrifying acts done for shock value are going to seem like overkill, like the author trying to hard. Horrifying acts that set out to accomplish something specific is different. I just finished Stephen King's new book Full Dark No Stars and it is full of horrifying acts, particularly the second short story called "Big Driver" that has some of the hardest reading I've ever faced. But King didn't give a blow by blow account of what happens to the main character during this event. It was worse and more subtle and careful so that my own imagination filled in a lot of the details and I think I'd have been less emotionally scarred if I hadn't had to do that and he'd just told me what happened.

My suggestion: write the scene several ways with the first draft having few details and the last draft giving a play by play of the whole event. See where in the middle you think the scene is most powerful and accomplishes the most for the story. It sounds like this is the sort of character changing scene you do not want to get wrong.
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Re: Questionable content - do you read it?

Post by Falls Apart » January 27th, 2011, 11:13 am

I'm in a similar situation, except it's a book for young adults, and the victim is an infant. I've never been a good judge of appropriate vs. inappropriate, but, when adults I knew who enjoyed bloody shoot-em-ups said that this would be enough to make them stop reading, I realized that it would probably not be a good idea for the teenagers I'm gearing it towards and took out the whole infant death thing altogether.
From what I've seen, implicit violence towards children is taboo in YA stuff, and, while, in adult, kids can die violently, showing it happen is generally frowned upon, and showing it happen graphically is almost always avoided. For instance, in Hostage, a movie with almost constant violence which features graphic burnings, shootings, stabbings, etc., has a young boy die at the beginning, which is one of the only deaths that is off-camera. You just see the bloody body, and even that disturbs a lot of people.
My general recommendation would be that, while graphic violence can make the book more exciting and draw in more readers, keep the recipients of said violence above the age of twelve. If they're younger, I'd recommend your narrator closing his eyes for the scene, so your readers don't end up closing the book. Just my thoughts, though. :)

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Re: Questionable content - do you read it?

Post by Down the well » January 27th, 2011, 2:20 pm

shinesteak wrote:The problem I'm having is this: the boy is only five years old. I'm not sure how much graphic violence is considered "acceptable" when it's directed at children in this type of scenario. I'm not a parent. I can't say how a parent would react if they read this bit of the book.
I have a pretty high tolerance for violence in books and movies, but I wouldn't be able to stomach reading a detailed killing of a child. I would stop reading. I think it would be much more powerful to clue the reader in that this was going to happen, but leave the details up to the imagination. That way the reader is in control of how much or how little they want to experience in their own mind. And if the importance of the scene, as someone else pointed out, is to show the father's reaction then I would advise focusing on his emotions rather than the act of killing the child.

HillaryJ wrote:A lot of crime novels feature dead children, and while the crimes often occur off the page, the description of the damage is evocative enough to disturb.
I thought of Dennis Lehane when I read this. Many of his novels include bad things happening to children, but I don't recall being drawn in to the details enough to be repulsed.

*Edit: It just occurred to me that the Hunger Games Trilogy is full of violence towards children. Even though it is a YA series you might want to review it to see how Suzanne Collins handled the details of the childrens' deaths. The way she did it did not put me off from reading it, so maybe it's in the art of knowing which details to include and which to leave out. Just a suggestion.

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Re: Questionable content - do you read it?

Post by shinesteak » January 27th, 2011, 8:00 pm

Yes, I've read The Hunger Games trilogy. But I've always felt it's different because it's kids killing other kids. This would be a grown man killing a little boy with either a sword or a metal club or something like that.

Anyway, thanks for the replies, everyone!
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Re: Questionable content - do you read it?

Post by Mike Dickson » February 4th, 2011, 8:29 pm

Questionable content - do you read it?

Speaking for myself, as a father, that would be the very last thing I would want to read. The actual murderous act would turn me off with just a few words.

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Re: Questionable content - do you read it?

Post by Down the well » February 5th, 2011, 3:02 pm

shinesteak wrote: This would be a grown man killing a little boy with either a sword or a metal club or something like that.

Anyway, thanks for the replies, everyone!
I've been watching the Spartacus television series on Netflix. It contains VERY graphic scenes of violence -- over-the-top, graphic novel, cartoon-type violence. Yet I noticed in the story line, when there did come a point when a child was to be killed, even this very violent program, that has not held back on anything else, chose to allude to the act. There was no showing. The writers and director didn't go there. I think it's just one of those fixed mores that you don't mess with if you want to keep your audience.


*Edit: Turns out the decision to not show the murder was more of a plot device than any real sensitivity to viewers' reactions.

Note to self: Finish watching the series before using it as an example.

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Re: Questionable content - do you read it?

Post by oldhousejunkie » February 9th, 2011, 1:37 pm

I think I would err on the side of caution, and leave it to the reader's imagination. As Sommer Leigh said, sometimes visualizing what happens can shake you up more.

I'm like that with animals--especially cats. I absolutely ABHOR violence towards them, and will not read on (or in some cases, watch on) if something cruel is done. I'm extremely sensitive, and even the mere mention of a cat being killed on purpose will disturb me for days. I remember watching The Butterfly Effect and beyond the fact that the movie was just disturbing, I was traumatized by the scene where the dog is set on fire (I think that was it). Heck, even the ASPCA commericals bother me. I have to turn the channel every time. I think it's because I wonder what they feel, how scared they must have been, etc.

Like animals, children are innocent and cannot defend themselves, and so it may be best to "gloss" over the scene. If done appropriately, it will be no less meaningful.

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Re: Questionable content - do you read it?

Post by bcomet » February 9th, 2011, 6:07 pm

No.

It turns me off on the writer too unless there is a really, really good and specific reason to include such material and even then, I would not read anything graphic. I think it takes a mature writerly art to know when to include and also handle certain material. It is usually better, in my humble opinion, to exclude it, fade to black or better yet, go another way.

I don't care how PC it might be in some circles to accept and allow anything and everything. It turns me way off. I draw the line on it when I find it's abusive. I've even told a critique member that I would not hear his writing again after he surprise-shocked us with some extremely graphic reading. I let him know that I needed notice to leave if he was ever planning on reading his certain material in the group again. He and the group agreed. What was striking was that almost everyone in that group privately felt the very same way––assaulted by that writer's subjecting us to some very disturbed writing (and some of us did not feel safe after that for a very long time around that writer as well)––but few had the courage to object because shouldn't there be room for everything expressive? Others can wrestle with that question, but I have no problem drawing my own line. My answer is: no.

There is just too much senseless violence and graphic material that rarely helps a plot and it can become very crass gimmickry. The voyeuristic audience for such material, (see "male gaze" in literary theory), equally turns me off.

The worst thing you can do to me as a reader (or movie goer) is try and surprise attack me with such material. Really, I want to have the right to opt out.

And, if you look at fairy tales, there often was no sugar coating: there are monsters. But, as humans, when dealing with "the monster in the house" plots, there are so many (still thrilling) and higher roads to take. Look at Jaws, Moby-Dick, Darth Vader (heavy breathing at its BEST), Lord Voltemort, and yes, even yucky Dolores Umbridge, even much of Hitchcock.

A story can get dark without going that far.

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Re: Questionable content - do you read it?

Post by wordranger » February 15th, 2011, 8:43 pm

I probably would have answered this differently ten years ago, but now, as a parent, I would suggest being cautious.

You can have it be an absolutely horrible experience without giving any play by play at all. Go right for the juggular. Get into the raw emotion in the head of the father as he sees what he is being forced to watch. Grip with his emotion, with his feeling of helplessness as it is happening, his disbelief when it is over, and then the anger when he comes to the realization of what has happened.

You can do all of this without mentioning one thing about what he is seeing. If done correctly, it could be absolutely horrifying, but gripping at the same time. Any parent would ba able to relate to that kind of emotion, and they would not be so horrified that they would put your novel down and not pick it up again. Good luck!
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Re: Questionable content - do you read it?

Post by Collectonian » February 17th, 2011, 7:36 pm

I have and would read what others consider "questionable content". The victim being a child wouldn't really change it for me. I would generally say if you want to do it "on-screen", avoid excessive and gratuitous details to avoid turning off some readers though.

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