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