A Line In The Sand: How Far Can You Go?

“These violent delights have violent ends.” ~ William Shakespeare
“I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity to anyone, but they’ve always worked for me.” ~ Hunter S. Thompson
“When angry, count to four. When very angry, swear.” ~ Mark Twain
A few days ago, I was reading one of the blogs I follow. Tracy Krauss writes in the Christian fiction genre, and was writing about just how realistic a writer can be in that field. She spoke of things that you might not otherwise expect to find in the genre, such as cursing, adult situations, and even violence, asking the question… should issues like this be addressed in novels in the genre? Her conclusion was that she would have to be realistic in use of things like swearing, drug use, or other such matters if it served the plot, as long as it’s not gratutious. That’s a risk in a genre where much of the readership would strenuously object to any such use, but as she put it, a mafia don is not going to say “oh darn.”
It got me to thinking of my own solo work, which of course, is a very different genre. Heaven & Hell and the books that will follow are in the counter terrorism genre, and as such are very much rooted in the real world… in a very dark, ugly part of the world. When writing in that genre… or indeed, in other genres, such as horror or sci fi, which can be relentless in terms of awful things happening, where do we draw the line? How graphic and detailed can we be? How far do we as authors go? Those are the questions I’d like to explore today while talking about my own work, and I thought I’d do so along three fronts.
First off, I thought I’d start with sex. Now, now, calm down, no need to get overheated. I bring it up for a good reason. Sex is, of course, a part of the spy genre, has been for a long while now. It’s integral for the signature character of the genre, something that Ian Fleming took into account when he was writing the first adventures of James Bond. And the writers who have come since him have routinely worked sex into plotlines in their own works. Sometimes sex serves as seduction of a source of information. Other times sex is used as  a weapon (use your imagination). And from time to time, sex in a spy novel is just about the hero coming home to his doctor wife and getting lucky (this is what Tom Clancy was up to throughout the Jack Ryan books, after all; his hero wasn’t scoring with every woman he met because of the job… he was coming home to his wife, after all).
It doesn’t get overly graphic in the genre, mostly because the plotline needs to move forward. If you’re looking for graphic sex in a novel, head over to the romance and erotica section. Sex is there though, part of the whole in my genre. I’ve used sex as an element in Heaven & Hell, though interestingly, not for my leading characters. While I’ve mentioned the personal life of one character, and while there is a certain chemistry between them, I’ve generally refrained from taking it in a sexual direction for them. At least for the moment. Instead, it’s the villains of the book who are managing to get some of the proverbial horizontal action, so to speak. Again though, there’s a point I stop at, because I don’t need to get overly graphic with sex in this genre. Besides, my brother is adamant that he’ll never read a sex scene written by me.
This brings us to the second matter: language. Personally, I have no issue with coarse language in every day life. I don’t really consider words like hell or damn to be curse words, for example. I do think it’s something best done in moderation, or used sparingly. Too often we see someone on the street using foul language three or four times in every sentence, yelling at someone else (I saw this just the other day, in point of fact), and it leaves us wondering if the walking temper tantrum in question ever learned the slightest manners. Probably not. I have some of the same disdain for standup comedians who lace their routine with nonstop cursing. That’s done merely for shock value, not as their natural way of speaking.
In the spy genre, where you’re writing about the rough end of things, so to speak, you’re writing about characters who will use rough language. It’s natural for people in the field to employ the occasional curse word here and there, both the protagonists and the antagonists. I’ve done that, again in moderation, through the book. It’s actually something that annoyed my father, when he recently read some of the recent narrative during a visit. He’s quite old fashioned in his thinking, and couldn’t get past the thought one character has in referring to a terrorist as a “cold blooded son of a bitch.” It’s accurate, though, for the moment, and for the character, and in this genre, it’s to be expected. And of course, for more serious foul language… well, let’s just say that the most serious curse word in the English language does put in an appearance or two… once during an interrogation, and the next during a gun fight. I wrote it as part of the natural flow of the moment, and not gratuitous.
This brings us to the last element of the equation: violence. Obviously this is integral to the spy and counter-terrorism genre. Heaven & Hell features deaths of civilians early on, assassination, a massive terrorist attack, and a shooting war between two opposing armies. The central event, which I’ve taken to calling the Very Bad Thing (no, I’m not telling), claims the lives of thousands of people. I found when I was writing that moment in time that I kept a certain distance from it. In the aftermath, views of the scene tend to be from the distance. I only briefly use the point of view of firefighters on the scene for the close up, but I see little point in lingering with graphic detail. Another writer might wish to go into explicit detail on the condition of a body, or the way a bullet passes through flesh and bone. Certainly in the film world there are directors who are obsessed with the graphic detail, every gory element of a violent death (Mr. Tarentino, I’m talking about you).
I’m not like that. I think it detracts from the narrative. Still, given the demands of the story, it’s essential to show that it’s happening, to employ it as needed, and to keep moving on with the action. The key, I think, is finding the balance, the point where you’ve shown enough. This applies, in this genre and others, to all three: sex, profanity, and violence. Tip the balance too far in one direction, and you’re just being gratuitous. Tip in the other direction, and you’re not being realistic.

20 thoughts on “A Line In The Sand: How Far Can You Go?

  1. This is an excellent post. I do think it is something a lot of writers wrestle with as a sort of personal demon. There is a line you draw for yourself, and a line behind which an author is choosing to leave some readers. I think if the author does that which serves best serves the story, in either defining characters or maintaining the pace, he or she has done well.

  2. I began my career as a published author back in the ’80s, when graphic sex in novels meant huge sales. The more the better. But these days, as a self-published author, I write what I want how I want, and sex is never gratuitous. Though William and I do get a bit graphic in our collaborative efforts, like him, in my solo works I try to steer clear of graphic sex scenes.

    As for profanity, I only consider blasphemy to be genuine profanity–but, still, I prefer to avoid a lot of swearing unless it’s necessary to the character. Writing my novels in multiple first-person has presented some challenges there. A lot of four-letter words and sexual innuendo gets old fast in real life, so it’s going to be annoying in novels as well.

    A wise man I knew years ago said anyone who constantly peppers their speech with profanity and/or sexual innuendo lacks intelligence. I tend to agree.

    In Chasing the Wind, there were a few scenes of excessive violence, but I either mention them in the characters’ discussions or fade to black as the scenes begin to escalate.

  3. My writing includes sex, cursing and violence. Each serves a purpose and is intentional. Will it put off some readers? It might. But it is true to the story and that matters. If the moment calls for it, then I add it, but only if it feels natural. These all serve a very specific purpose.
    In the case of cursing, it can amplify a situation, create tension, and show both who a character is and what state they find their emotions. Hailey curses because she was raised in Southern California. Because she is no longer a teen her cursing has reduced dramatically, but she still peppers her speech with colloquialisms like ‘dude’ and ‘seriously’. It fits for her. It tells us more about who she is and where she comes from than any description ever could. If, however, the word-or scene-does not serve to move the story forward, then it has no place in the book.

  4. There was a cable series here for several years that featured excessive cursing, but it didn’t seem gratuitous at all, because it felt like the natural way of speaking for the characters, who were all lowlifes of one variety or another, primarily cooking up one criminal scheme or another, mostly involving growing weed. It never came across as over the line.

    Stand up comedians, however, will curse a lot, and they’re only doing it for the shock value. That becomes tedious.

  5. Good points to bring up. A good author should be able to sense when he/she is crossing the line. You have always known where to draw the line. Smart people would follow your example.
    I think Norma’s wise friend was indeed very wise. People who lack imagination rely on these stand bys.
    Loved the post.

  6. William,

    Excellent post! This topic is indeed one many writers struggle with. I recently was deciding whether or not to use profanity and some sex with some characters in a short story. I found it would not be realistic for the characters not to curse some because that is who they are and where they came from. It just fit and I had to be realistic. But yes, as a reader and a writer do not like excess in anything because it lowers the value of a story in my opinion. There can be too much of a necessary thing.

    Thanks for clarifying your view and giving us this wise advice. I have also enjoyed they way Norma has handled the characters and these issues in “Chasing the Wind”; she uses great balance.

    • With some types of fiction, yes, you do have to be realistic. Readers today are far more sophisticated than they were fifty years ago. If you screw up details, they will call you on it.

      He’s not trying to be sensual….

  7. I have some violence, sex and cursing in my books, and these scenes were integral to the story. The violence was a bit harsher in The Bracelet, but that was because of the fantasy part of it. In the other books, the violence is much less.

    As for swearing, my trilogy has a few ‘bitch’, ‘shit’ and that sort of thing in it, but no f-bombs…

    And, when I do a sex scene, it’s not graphic–just implied. I like it better that way. Leaves a little to the imagination…

    Great post, William!

  8. I avoid any cursing or graphic sex, where possible — but I don’t shy away from them if they work in the story, either.
    On an unrelated note, yay for mention of firefighters!

  9. In my writing for adult readers, I do use profanity where it is called for even though in real life it is indicative of a limited vocabulary. However, due to the nature of my plot line, especially in my novels of the three geriatric time travellers, some of my characters are limited in all ways so to make them speak clearly and cleanly all the time would be unrealistic.

  10. Very good points, Sir Wills. In SS there is some violence, a kind-of-sort-of-sex scene, cussing that’s usually cut off with noise, and other course language. It fits the characters doing so. And, I also believe all scenes can be written with taste. Even a sense of humor. I mostly use the later.

  11. I do use swear words as appropriate, I have used the F-bomb, but it’s sparingly, and I think illustrates a point. It’s a much more severe situation if one of my characters says F*** instead of darn, so I’ll use it as needed. I’ve largely grown out of writing out a blow by blow (so to speak) love scene, though I’ve written some pretty steamy stuff over the years. Maybe it’s because I’m getting older, but I find it much harder to do that now. It feels like all the good words have already been used up for those scenes. I mean how many different ways can you describe certain acts? Now I mostly focus on the emotional aspect of sex because that’s different each time with different characters and that’s been working out for me fairly well. I have a less is more approach to violence, mostly because I hate writing action. I think an implied threat can be just as scary if the reader fills in some of the details on their own and I focus on the MC’s anticipation of or reaction to it rather than spell it all out.

  12. Excellent post William. I actually had someone the other day piss me off because, in my entire trilogy, the F-bomb is dropped only once and she asked me if that had been necessary. She didn’t ask me about the extreme violence, the themes of rape, genocide, etc. No, it’s that one F-bomb. WTF!?

    • Mike,
      Wow. I’m cuious abou all those subjects of actions writers can add into their stories of character actions. So, I will ask you, “What is your opinion on adding all of these things into the characters’ actions and storylines? How do you feel about it?”

      • Even in fiction, the idea is to make individual characters as realistic as possible so people can relate to them. People have sex. People swear (especially me). People get violent. As long as it is not ridiculously out of control, it needs to be there to create that real feeling.

      • Yeah. Exactly. I think I may do a post about this. I’ve spoken to a few people who get like this and I’m reminded of South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut.

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