“We see the effects, but not the incidents themselves … We as writers would do well to absorb this lesson: Violence, like sex, is strongest when it’s implied, not shown.” William Kowalski (The Writer, August 2008)
As a connoisseur of movies, I admit that when it comes to a choice between watching a Dirty Harry flick and watching Beaches, I usually pick one that promises to make my day. After all, a man has got to know his limitations, and I feel lucky watching a story that will have me clutching the armrest with white knuckles. This is not to say that I avoid Kleenex movies. It’s A Wonderful Life is one of my favorites. But when I want to escape, I tend to do so with a bag of popcorn, an extra-large Dr. Pepper and plenty of gunfire on the screen.
It’s probably no surprise, then, that I paused when I found the quote above while playing catch-up with my magazine reading. What's the point of subscribing if you're not going to read? The context of the comment above is about violence as part of the background, setting the mood and tension for the entire story. The author uses The Great Gatsby as an example. Though F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel is still on my Books-To-Read list, I think I understand Kowalski’s point. Violence in the form of war, and the physical problems it left on the character of Jake Barnes, definitely shaped the background of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. It helped the reader to understand Jake’s frustration, and what drove him to drink so much. Yet, when I look at book sales, and who is on top of the markets, I still ask the question: is violence stronger when it’s implied?
I think the answer depends on the audience. If the author's target is the literary market, maybe violence can be avoided. If the market is horror, he may not get a large audience without it. As an avid reader of Dean Koontz and Elmore Leonard, I have come to expect violence and would be disappointed if either one left out the key ingredient.
Granted, just like sex scenes, an author can take things too far. Some time back, my brother and I were talking about movies. I still remember the words when he described a movie I had not seen. “It had a lot of yeah-right moments.” Enough said. I scratched it off my list. The same experience can happen when reading, or even listening, as was the case just last week. On a whim, I decided to listen to a free audio book available through the internet. The first chapter started out well. The author had my attention. Even though the violence was graphic, I still kept listening. By the second chapter, however, all hope diminished. The deal breaker came when the author crossed the boundaries with one of those yeah-right moments. Using an ax, the character severed both of his legs below the knee … using only one swipe for each leg. Now, I’m not a doctor. I have never been to medical school. But common sense tells me it just might take more than one whack to severe your own leg, especially when the probabilities are high that you will hit either the femur or the tibia in the process. To paraphrase Senator Clinton, I knew it would take a willful suspension of disbelief to continue. I didn't.
Just like sex scenes, violence is one of those areas that should be avoided if you don’t know how. I like Tess Gerritsen's approach (The Writer, September 2008). “I’m not so good at depicting violence,” she said. The gruesomeness in my books is always after the fact. I have investigators walk into the scene, see what’s left behind, and try to imagine the crime.” As one of her readers, I did not have to experience the violence in real time. My stomach churned just as much after-the-fact.
To be fair, the reason I included the first part of Kowalski’s point above (We see the effects, but not the incidents themselves) is to agree with him on one level, and then make a point of my own. A crime or horror writer doesn’t have to risk a yeah-right moment when all the reader sees is the aftermath. The reader can visualize for herself what happened, and the violence will be just as powerful. Stephen King did this extremely well during a scene in The Dark Half, where an unsuspecting landlord pays a visit to a tenant who has just been murdered. The scene actually made me hold my breath for a moment.
Is violence necessary? Not if it doesn’t fit your market. If it does, which is often the case in my writing, an author who doesn’t know how to depict violence can create just as much of an impact by showing the results. It would be better to write around the violent act than to lose a reader through a yeah-right moment.