by Sean Chercover
Over at John Rickards’ forum, there’s a discussion about darkness, graphic violence, and how far is too far.
There’s been a trend in recent years, a one-upsmanship of graphic violence, an unspoken competition to see who can be the Grand Puba of Noir. Yet, for all the arterial blood and brain matter smeared all over the page, many of these stories are not affecting, and their violence seems cartoonish, rather than dark.
Memo to would-be tough guys: An exquisitely detailed description of eyeballs popping out of their sockets does not, in and of itself, make a story dark, and it doesn’t make the writer a badass.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not against graphic physical violence. I do some of my violence on-screen when I write, and I appreciate realistically portrayed violence when I read. When done well, violence is messy and disturbing, and it needn’t be prettied-up and sterilized.
Excellent use is made of graphic violence, for example, in Lawrence Block's Edgar Award-winning Matt Scuddder novel, A Dance At The Slaughterhouse. The story deals with snuff films, so we’re talking about some ugly sexual torture here. Without wallowing in gore, Block offers enough graphic detail to make the violence truly disturbing. And that’s as it should be. The graphic violence in A Dance At The Slaughterhouse is not only justified, it is necessary, in my opinion.
What Block does so masterfully, is to offer a few specific details (one sickening detail, in particular) that stick in your mind. He then summarizes the rest of the torture without detail. In retrospect, you think you’ve seen more detail than you actually have.
And there may be a lesson here for the rest of us. Given the opportunity, the reader will make the violence more horrific than the writer possibly could. Because each reader will fill in the details with specifics to match his/her own worst personal fears. Block describes selected details that send a signal to the reader - this is very dark stuff - and then he lets the reader’s own imagination take over.
But when you spoon-feed every gory detail, you take that power away from the reader. The reader is no longer a complicit partner. Your worst personal fears are not shared by everyone, and will not be as affecting. Pile detail upon detail, and the scene starts to look like a cartoon.
And the writer starts to look like the kid in the schoolyard trying too hard to be a badass. Trying too hard is fatal, and has the opposite effect.
Now, I don’t know where the perfect balance is, and I don’t know how to find it. I just stumble along in the dark, trying this, trying that, until it feels right. I suspect that the point of perfect balance is different for each of us.
Where is yours? What writers do you admire for their use of violence, and for their ability to recruit your imagination in the commission of violence?