When Is a Shocking Scene Necessary…or Gratuitous?
Whether in real life or in our stories, horrible things can happen to people. Undeserved misfortune preys upon everyone.
Good people can be attacked, criminals can get away with their crimes, the innocent can suffer from devastating diseases, etc. But how we react when exposed to those situations in real life can differ from how we react to them in stories.
When it comes to real life, we know that life isn’t always fair, and things don’t always make sense. Heck, I’m dealing with one medical complication after another for no reason other than it’s apparently just not my year. *smile*
In real life, we might react to the misfortunes of others by taking action, donating to a cause, or helping victims. Or we might shake our head and think the event a shame, but go on about our lives because it doesn’t touch us.
However, in stories we read, we can’t take action to right a wrong done to a character. And unless we close the book, we can’t ignore the consequences faced by the victimization of a major character.
We also have the expectation that those horrible events are happening for a reason. Like a metaphorical Chekhov’s gun, everything in a story—every word choice, every character emotion, every plot event—should be purposeful.
Unlike real life, fiction is expected to make sense. So as authors, we need to be careful when dealing with shocking, horrifying, or potentially problematic story elements.
We might struggle with writing those scenes from a mental or emotional perspective. We might wonder how little or how much we should include. And we might worry about a scene coming across as gratuitous, there just for the shock value.
As Anne, one of my blog readers, emailed me to ask:
“Is there any advice regarding handling (unfortunately necessary) rape scenes?”
I’m going to answer her question by sharing the steps we can go through to figure out the right approach for our genre, story, and characters. As a bonus, this process will give us tips for how to approach any potentially difficult scene, whether a grisly murder or a hot sex scene. *smile*
Step #1: Is the Scene Necessary to the Story?
In Anne’s case, she specified that her scene is necessary, but let’s walk through how the rest of us could know whether a scene is necessary to our story…
Stories consist of scenes that connect in a long, cause-and-effect chain. In general, we’d want to include any scenes linking that cause-and-effect chain and maintaining our story’s flow.
We Don’t Need to Include Scenes When…
Obviously, if a scene idea doesn’t fit as part of the chain of story events, it’s a lot easier to know for sure we can leave it out. If one of our characters is a victim of a crime for no reason other than to fill pages with “obstacles,” that’s poor storytelling. In fiction, events need a purpose and result in consequences.
Yet even if a scene idea is part of the story chain, a desire for story flow doesn’t mean we have to give a blow-by-blow account for every scene:
- If we’re transitioning from a “point A” to a “point B,” we might choose to keep our story flowing by summarizing and telling rather than showing.
- Or if nothing changes during an event (no setbacks/conflict or new plans/goals), we might skip over the scene entirely.
We Do Need to Include Scenes When…
On the other hand, we must include a scene if it’s a plot point or a turning point for the overall story and/or the protagonist:
- From a plot perspective, we need to show enough of an event that readers know it happened. If an event forces plans or goals to change, readers need to understand how the new situation is different.
- From a story perspective, we need to include the turning points of the protagonist’s mental or emotional journey. If a character suddenly changes motivation or goals, readers need to understand that thought process or emotional justification.
Either way, we can’t expect readers to follow a jump without showing the trigger and the change. If we never see the characters face their dilemma and make their choices, we never see them change, and no change means no arc and no story.
Even most romances ensure their sex scenes exist for a purpose. The characters might have an emotional epiphany (I think I love him), or they reach a new level of intimacy (such as sharing secrets), or they settle on new goals (I need to keep her around).
In a romance, the point of those scenes is to show growth in the relationship, not just titillate the reader. If the only point is titillation, the story would be better described as erotica or “romantica,” where there’s no such thing as a gratuitous sex scene, but that genre is separate from romance. *smile*
Including a shocking scene,
if it isn’t a turning point or plot point,
might feel gratuitous or unnecessary.
Step #2: Do We Need the Scene on the Page?
If a scene is necessary, we still have flexibility about how much needs to be depicted on the page rather than handled with hints, fade-to-black, or a focus on character reactions or emotions.
What Are Our Genre’s Expectations?
From a marketing standpoint, we might make this decision based on our genre and/or writing style. A cozy mystery might shy away from bone-crunching murder details that would be no big deal in a gritty detective novel.
That said, if we’re extremely uncomfortable writing the types of scenes expected by our sub-genre, we might choose to change sub-genres rather than try to change our style. There are sweet, kissing-only romances, and there are sexy, open-door romances. Even open-door sex scenes can run the gamut from vague references of physical actions to explicit language, detailing every movement.
Word choice and style matter a lot. We get to choose which end of any genre spectrum is a better match for us and the emotional impression we’re trying to create in our readers.
What Does the Story Need to Show?
Whether we’re talking about murders, rapes, sex scenes, or other potentially difficult scenes, we get to choose how much to dwell on the physical rather than emotional reactions. We also get to choose how much of the event to show before a fade to black.
But there are some guidelines for determining the minimum amount we need to show:
- From a plot perspective—assuming a scene is necessary—we need to show only the lead-up and initial actions of the scene. The minimum requirement is that readers must know the event happened, and if the circumstances are important, readers should know those too.
- From a story perspective, changes of goals, motivations, or emotions must happen before the fade to black or be held until the following scene(s). The minimum requirement is that readers see the journey of any thought or emotional changes.
For example, a rape scene could fade to black at the beginning of the physical attack (ensuring readers knew the plot event happened) as soon as we’d showed what we needed to of the character’s journey for that scene. The scene might end with the victim reaching a disconnected state, and their next scene could happen later, maybe showing the aftermath and/or their emotional breakdown when they can’t block out their emotions any more.
For a sex scene, the difference between closed-door and open-door romances isn’t just the words used or actions shown. Fade-to-black romances must include any emotional realizations or relationship epiphanies before the door closes. If a scene fades on happy feelings and something happens behind the closed door (off the page) to mess that up, readers will feel cheated when the next scene opens with a breakup coming out of nowhere.
Continuing to show a shocking scene past
the necessary journey or establishment of the event
might feel gratuitous or unnecessary.
Step #3: What POV Should We Use?
I’ve written before about how we can figure out which point of view (POV) to use for multiple-POV stories, depending on which character’s POV would include higher stakes (more to gain or lose) or higher emotion (covering everything from their emotional journey or motivations to whose storytelling would be better for the scene). But again, our options might differ depending on our genre.
In a mystery, readers might think nothing of a scene from a murderer’s POV. That perspective might be best for maintaining tension and secrets.
In a romance, that style of POV is much rarer. In that genre, unless a criminal’s journey was the point of the story, including their POV could seem gratuitous—even a book-throwing offense if the victim was one of the protagonists.
A shocking scene can easily become more problematic if a perpetrator’s POV is used and anything indicates that readers should sympathize or empathize with them or their crime, such as a heartfelt tragic backstory excusing their motivations or goals. While some genres do use this structure, we should be careful and aware of the messages and impressions we’re creating with readers.
Using a criminal’s “gaze” without a storytelling reason
might feel gratuitous or unnecessary.
In many cases, what can make these scenes so hard to write is the emotions behind the event. My reader Anne questioned what emotions her rape victim should experience, but that’s not something that I or any blog post could answer.
The emotional journey of a character depends entirely on them and their arc. Just like real people, some characters will face shocking events with a matter-of-fact attitude, and some will retreat into denial.
There’s no end to the possibilities, and there’s no right or wrong answer. Trying to build a “perfect reaction” will only fall to stereotypes.
As always, we’re not likely to get these scenes right the first time with our draft, especially not when it comes to the emotions of our characters—or our readers. Feedback from critique partners, beta readers, and editors can be essential in pointing out where we might have made a scene more problematic than necessary or where we might need to tone down or ramp up the emotions or word choices.
That said, with shocking scenes, everyone’s comfort zone is likely to fall in a different place. While we should respect the feedback we receive, there’s not necessarily a perfect solution. So we also need to balance the effect we’re trying to create and listen to our characters and be true to them. *smile*
Have you ever struggled with deciding how to include a potentially difficult scene? What made it questionable or difficult? Does this post help provide guidelines for when to include potentially problematic scenes or how much to show? Do you disagree with any of these steps? Do you have any other advice for this situation?Pin It
This is a great topic, and you handled it so well. In a young adult short story I wrote, I had to show that a rape had occurred in something like real time. (It’s paranormal; she “sees” the event happening but can’t intervene.) I focused on various details in the scene and the POV character’s emotion rather than the action itself, which I think worked much better than describing what happened. Which I definitely didn’t want to do.
And this case is especially interesting because I was struggling later with the story, and a writer friend suggested I write that same scene from the POV of the killer, just for myself. I balked at the idea, because this guy is totally creepy, but I finally sat down and did it. And oh my goodness, I shuddered for like a full hour afterward and needed a good long shower. However, I learned a lot about my characters doing that exercise that I couldn’t have learned in any other way. Even so, I would never publish that scene because it’s shocking and terrible and not necessary for the reader. So just because you can write the scene does not mean you should include it in the story.
Excellent point! As you said, we–as authors–might need to work through more of the specifics so we know the physical details or emotions or motivations of our characters, but that doesn’t mean including those details is necessary for the story itself or for the reader. Thank you so much for sharing that great insight and sharing your experience!
Another timely post. Thanks for your insights. I recently finished a shocking, violent scene and did have those thoughts about whether I was doing it just to have something exciting happen or whether it needed to happen. I went through a checklist in my head, much like the one you wrote, of whether it is necessary or not. Turns out it is! I tried to keep the violence to a minimum, BUT violence was a big part of this world and my POV character needed to actually see it first-hand in order to grow up.
I don’t know about other writers, but I feel everything acutely in my real life, so I like to write emotional scenes…like an adrenaline junkie out for a fix. 🙂
I’m glad this checklist of steps resonated with your process. 🙂 And I understand what you mean about emotional scenes–kind of like how a good cry can be cathartic. LOL! Thanks for sharing!
I have had a few times had to write scenes I wasn’t comfortable with. What I did was push *myself* and got the scene down. Then in edits, I went back and dialed it back to where I felt like it accomplished what it needed to, but wasn’t gratuitous. As mentioned above, you don’t need to (and shouldn’t) include everything you write- just what’s necessary to tell you story.
Good post! (I’d been discussing this topic with a friend, only about TV. How so many shows are pushing the envelope because they CAN, not necessarily because it’s best for their story. IMHO of course.
Yes, I’ve discovered that every one of my books has at least one scene that makes me uncomfortable, but if it’s right for the story, I push through it. Then as you said, we can always pare down from there to get the right tone.
And I’m right there with you about TV. In fact, as I was talking about this post with my family, all the examples we were coming up with for gratuitous content were TV-based. :/ Thanks for the comment!
What everyone else has said so far. Plus, please consider consolidating all this wonderful, thoughtful cogitation on writing into a compiled book of articles? Your articles break the writing process down into such clear terms and definitions, I think they (and you) deserve their own book on it. The only other writer who I think writes as useful articles is Patricia Wrede. Yup, naming names.
And of course, as usual, this article is timely for me. I just had to write a mass killing scene in my current WIP. It’s not extremely detailed (gore, body parts, crystallized blood floating around in space…all sorts of violent stuff happens) but I’m approaching it like a sex scene. It’s the emotional component that’s the most important. It’s how it affects the characters that’s the most important thing. Details will be filled in and modified during the rewrite/revision.
I wish I had a magic word wand that could wipe your physical ailment away; you’re a trooper to keep writing about writing, and thinking about it so that others can access the process in a logical way.
LOL! Yes, putting some of this blog content together into a book is on my list. Sometime… 😉
Exactly! I’ve studied before what makes a sex scene necessary or not and used the same concepts of evaluation here. As you said, plot events are important for how they affect the characters. 🙂 Thanks for sharing that insight!
Great post, Jami! And perfect advice about how to do a rape scene. Fade to black once it’s been established that the rape is definitely going to happen, then deal with the emotional fallout afterwards.
Lots of great reminders here for me as I start editing a manuscript.
Yes, one of my books includes a scene that could have ended with a rape, and even though I didn’t want to, I had to stick with the attack scene so readers knew it didn’t happen. So there are two sides to this as well. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
Oh my gosh, I’m personally very squeamish when it comes to graphic scenes of violence (including rape), so it’s always off-scene in my writing. They’re always just summarized (told), because I expect my audience’s nerves to be just as delicate as mine. In fight scenes, I rarely even mention the word “blood”, as strange as that may seem. When some character tortures their victims, I am SO squeamish that I don’t even specify what type of torture it is, not even in a passing summary. Okay, the only “torture” I ever specified is creating a virtual reality thing to plant a nightmare of the victim’s greatest fear in their head. That is probably as far as I can get!
As for mutually consensual sex scenes, I’m not afraid of writing them at all, but I’m too shy to show them to anyone, and I guess I want to keep up my reputation of having “clean and innocent” romances. I don’t mean that romances with steamy scenes are “dirty”, unless we mean “dirty-minded”, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, haha.
I feel perfectly comfortable reading explicit sex scenes, though sometimes I yawn because it feels so repetitive and tiresome that I almost want to skip it.
Oh! That’s a great idea for mental/emotional torture though–which I think is far more effective on readers than physical torture. So, if we focus mostly on the mental/emotional reactions with our style, that kind of attack is stronger anyway. 🙂 Thanks for sharing that insight!
Oh, I just remembered yesterday that I have a story where the torture was being locked in a sensory deprivation tank (for less than 24 hours, gosh). This would be a very scary experience for most people, but the guy has a lot of training in resisting torture, so his lack of an emotional reaction probably makes it less frightening for the reader. Also, a sensory deprivation chamber is a lot less horrifying than something like being burned alive. O_O At least in my opinion.
This is a great framework for deciding when and how much of a violent or sex scene is needed in a story. One device that I have found much more palatable than a description of the event itself is when the writer shows the “discovery” of the event shortly after it happens. As Louise Erdrich did in The Roundhouse — opening the story with a description of a distraught woman after a rape but not the rape itself.
In service of the theory that less is more, perhaps a tear in a dress is enough.
Exactly! As I’ve written about with intense scenes before, an approach of less can often give the reader more room to process the emotions on their terms. 🙂 Thanks for sharing that insight!
Yes! “Less is more”. I love this expression and I think this would apply to a lot of things in writing and life in general. Thanks ?
I struggle with this issue a lot, and the related issue of “How much racism/bigotry is enough or too much?” Every time I feel a need to show a character witnessing or suffering racially-charged violence, I cringe and worry that I’m setting myself up to receive ALL the hate mail.
It’s important that I portray events honestly and accurately, but without going over the cliff and just putting a lot of unpleasantness on the page. Always a tricky balancing act.
Ooo, good example! I struggled with that issue in one of my books, as I needed to show a minor character as racist, but I didn’t want to focus on that character (to the detriment of the hero or heroine) by making his racism so awful that readers couldn’t focus on anything else. I ended up toning down the word choice and sentences. I left enough that his racism is still for all to see, but not so much that he or his words steal the focus of the scene or trigger readers.
It’s a tricky balance to be sure! 🙂 Thanks for sharing!
[…] shocking scenes as we write. In editing, though, we need to ask the question Jami Gold ponders: When is a shocking scene necessary vs. gratuitous?. Other issues to consider in editing are making sure you use the five senses to bring your story to […]
Good topic and you might find men and women would approach it differently.
I haven’t needed to write a rape scene but I’ve got some emotional scenes down of people being harmed or breaking up, I did need to have a few hours of quiet to zone out and write.
When a sex scene is very detailed I find it reads like a manual so don’t overdo the detail, concentrate on whether it is making the people involved happy, and if not why not.
When reviewing I find myself increasingly annoyed by romance stories depicting a man who keeps groping a woman as ‘trying to win her over’ or a man who spanks a woman as ‘being playful’ when in fact he is beating her. If a man loves and/or respects a woman he won’t do either.
Great point! Yes, gender might play a role in how people react to a scene (or how authors write them). And as you mentioned for yourself, I vary the detail level of sex scenes I write, as it’s all about how to reach the emotional point of the scene for both the characters and readers. 🙂 Thanks for sharing!
Hi Jami, Thank you for such valuable advice. Your words are gold. I tend to wear my heart on my sleeve in real life, and I’ve also been through a lot of trauma in my life. I love writing with emotion, and I would say that definitely, when it comes to physical descriptions, I don’t and wouldn’t venture beyond the bedroom door. I am Christian, but even if I wasn’t I feel that mystery is more romantic than blatant detailed description. Some people like erotica, but it’s never been my cuppa. I did read “Fifty Shades of Grey” … very curious to see what rocketed this particular author to instant stardom. I persevered throughout the whole trilogy (my conscience was niggling). At the end of it all I could see that in amongst the smut there was indeed a love story. However, the detailed descriptions of weird sexual acts etc. I felt were not only unnecessary, but a lot of people probably wouldn’t bother reading past the first book. I’m leaning on the stubborn side … “It’s got to get better”. Well it didn’t, and I learnt quite a lesson from reading this rubbish. Sorry, but I really felt it was badly written, and relied upon shock and smut to keep the reader engaged. Your article is extremely informative, and I thank you for that. There is so much information here to ponder, so I’ll be saving this to re-read. As a novice writer, I need all the help and… — Read More »
I completely respect your position even though I do have open-door sex scenes in my stories. 🙂
I thought I’d be able to avoid them–LOL! But my characters had other ideas when their emotional journey needed the physical to take place before the mental/emotional turning points could occur. So while my stories aren’t erotica or shock-sex, they do have spicy scenes because that’s what my characters’ stories called for. We each have to figure out what works for us, our writing style, and our stories/characters. 🙂 Good luck with your writing, and let me know if you have any questions!
P.S. You will never hear me defending FSoG. 😉
Hey recently I’ve had more relevant reading experiences on this topic. Remember how I said I feel bored by a lot of sex scenes? Even if there IS some emotional consequence or character epiphany? Well, I’ve learned a few things about this: IMO, sex scenes are much better if there is only ONE or two in the whole story, not 5-10, lol. When there are so many sex scenes, the details blend together and nothing is memorable; it just gets tiresome and feels redundant. If the characters have sex more than a couple of times, I’d say it’s better if the other sex scenes other than the 1-2 are summarized rather than given a full scene. Sometimes I wish I could just get the main point and then get on with “the real story”, you know? Back to my point that it’s better to have only one or two sex scenes in the novel, I realized that in novels with just the one or two, I look forward to and enjoy reading these scenes. But in the typical romance with many sex scenes, it’s so much that it’s cloying. Like eating too much chocolate cake in one go that you get so sick of it. This is again just my opinion, though, and I am an asexual (well, demisexual), so I would probably have a different feeling towards this compared to many other readers who are not aces! The other thing is, I find sex scenes more tolerable, i.e. less… — Read More »
[…] help, we can use the steps I previously shared for how to avoid gratuitous scenes of any […]
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