Sex, violence, morality and other Scintillating-somewhat-scary stuff . . .

Déjà vu Thursday – In light of my last post, I thought I share one in a similar vein, written way back on October 12, 2009. Enjoy and as ever, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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I spent a lovely morning reading and contemplating various writing blogs. Kathy Chung (of Kathy – Rambling—a new blog I will now frequent) wrote about questions of morality that she’s been pondering because of one of her characters.

Joseph Grinton (Writing about modern romance), also newly frequented by me, had thought-provoking words in How To Write Sex Scenes.

I didn’t come across a blog post that opined on how much detail should be given in depicting violent acts, or discussed how to write violent scenes realistically, or tackled realism versus gratuity, but somehow (and not just because I think Sex, Violence and Morality makes a grabbing title) the three things seemed linked in my mind. Writing about them (and similar high-octane subjects) demands a certain bravery.

In the early days of my fiction, I realized that I was guilty of writing in the same manner that I watched scary movies as a kid. Scary music cues something Awful about to happen—swoop, blanket over my eyes. Smack, hands over my ears to tune out screaming and howling . . . I’d actually ask, “Is it over yet?” and wait for confirmation that the most horrible bits had passed before I’d peek again.

In writing that avoidance technique looked like this: Write a hook or some great invocative scene that foreshadows emotional or physical (or better, both at once) danger to character. Insert # # # to show that time has elapsed. New scene starts immediately after Event deemed too violent, too sexy, too something-scary to delve into comfortably. Often, since the reader needed to have some knowledge of the ordeal, I would do some sort of recounting, usually in the form of a conversation between the sufferer of the atrocity and his/her close friend.

“I can’t believe you went through that.”

“I can’t believe it either. I thought I would die when Joe pulled that knife on me and proceeded to—”

“It must’ve been even more terrifying because it probably triggered childhood memories of watching your own mom be killed in front of you . . . ”

“It did—but I managed to summon the will to fight, because I pictured my own daughter Macy’s little innocent face—I want her to grow up strong, to not feel like being a victim is inevitable the way I always did . . . ”

(Okay, please, please note, my writing was never really that bad—or Gah, I hope it wasn’t! But if a person avoids showing events as they happen, unnatural, stilted summary scenes become necessary—and if you’re even thinking, “My summary scenes aren’t stilted. They’re graceful and elegant,” go slap yourself and delete/rewrite the scene!)

I’m still working through what I feel is a good balance between portraying life as it is really experienced and what is too much—a completely subjective line, I realize. And I still battle with self-consciousness and worry. What will people think of me when they see the things that make up my head? What will people close to me say if my stories don’t line up with their ideas of morality? GAH—I write sex scenes and have children who read—awkward! I keep returning to the fact that to avoid writing something because it makes me (or someone else) uncomfortable is stupid and goes against the very reasons I write: to explore the world I live in, to figure out what I think, to yell into space: I am here, trying to figure things out . . . And in the end, if I offend or make someone close to me feel awkward? Well, they don’t have to read me.

So how about you? Are there topics you “don’t go”? What scenes are (were) your Kryptonite? Have you found ways to overcome your inhibitions? Should writers even try to overcome a shyness? Maybe some boundaries are good things . . .

8 thoughts on “Sex, violence, morality and other Scintillating-somewhat-scary stuff . . .

  1. You may need to read “On Writing” again…King has some brilliant things to say about our inner censors, and how we just can’t pay attention to them. I was very fortunate to have an early editor of my work who would not let me pull any punches. If I wrote a rape scene, it had to be horrible enough that the reader could easily feel exactly what emotions the character went through–otherwise, it just doesn’t ring true.

    I’m not talking about gratuitous sex and violence, but if a sexual or violent scene is necessary to the book, it has to be real. To evoke emotion in our readers and get them to actually CARE about our characters (quite a feat, if you think about it), we have to go through a lot of angst ourselves, and some writers like to stay on a superficial level so it doesn’t hurt as much (not saying that is true in your case). After I wrote about Tessie’s murder in “Lost” (formerly “When Demons Wear Shoes”) I literally threw up. It was that emotionally disturbing for me. But when I read it now, I’m proud of the way it was written, and I think it does her struggle justice.

    Just my two cents. Take ’em or leave ’em. 🙂


  2. Hello Ev. Thank you for reminding me that I am writing about modern romance. It is so easy to get distracted.

    You have raised some very interesting issues. Every writer has to face that no-go zone and go through it in order to mature. Although I admire Flaubert’s discretion as a writer, I am often shockingly indiscreet.

    “If they think you’re crude go technical; if they think you’re technical, go crude.”

    The quote is from Johnny Mnemonic by William Gibson, whose subtle allusiveness when describing scenes of horrific violence I wrote about here:

    It can change you inside if you write about things you shy away from. Just remember, it’s always your choice whether or not you let anyone read it. You don’t have to write for other people. Sometimes it can be exhilarating to write just for yourself. All my best work is unpublished. 🙂


  3. Interesting question, Ev. Every writer would probably answer that question differently. Probably just as some people are more open to discussing things that others do not, so is the way with writers. I haven’t yet come up with a subject that I feel shy about writing, maybe it’s because I write YA, maybe it’s because I do it and don’t realize it. 🙂


  4. Ev, I struggle a great deal with my inner censor, especially when writing nonfiction or personal accounts in which the identities of other people might be recognized or inferred.

    Another pen-stopper for me is the thought of who might read something I have written. (This is the “but my grandma might read it” problem.) For example, in my novel, I have a “politically incorrect” character you says some really racist things. I worry that someone reading it might feel hurt or angered. I also worry that a reader will think of me: “How can that writer have thought up such horrible words for her character? Even if this is fiction, those thoughts must be in her head in order for her to write them down.” And what if the reader thinking this is someone who knows me in another capacity in my life — mother, teacher, colleague, etc.?

    But what is the alternative? Writing bland pablum that nobody would find interesting?

    Tricking my censor by telling it that I am only writing for myself, and that nobody will ever read it or see it doesn’t work either, because I know that if I write something good enough, I will publish it. My inner censor isn’t fooled.

    Thanks for prompting me to reconsider this dilemma. I haven’t found a solution yet.


  5. Dear Holli,

    Yes, Stephen King really does have some good/inspiring advice on this subject. And you’re so right, re: “To evoke emotion in our readers and get them to actually ARE about our characters (quite a feat, if you think about it), we have to go through a lot of angst ourselves.” Well said!


  6. You’re welcome for the reminder, Joseph. And I understand needing it, lol. I’m always off on a new story tangent.

    I enjoyed the post you referenced and it was a great example of the power of restraint and understatement. I was blown away (pun intended) when the gun fired. Sometimes brains and blood all over the dashboard is what the scene needs. Sometimes it’s better to be the person holding the gun, feeling weirdly detached.

    Re: “It can change you inside if you write about things you shy away from.” — Totally. That’s one of the reasons I write, actually.

    “Just remember, it’s always your choice whether or not you let anyone read it. You don’t have to write for other people. Sometimes it can be exhilarating to write just for yourself.” — Yes, I use that very truth often as my “unblock” tool, so to speak.

    “All my best work is unpublished,.” — Mine too. 😀


  7. Hey, Laura. You’re so lucky to never struggle in this area! But didn’t I read a post of yours where you had temporarily stopped writing a story because your mom had objected to the character’s language . . . . Maybe that was novice-writer-you?


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