How much is too much?


Since I haven’t had any furniture or anything, I’ve been getting some writing done, which is good.  I understand Victor Hugo used to have a similar process; he’d lock himself nude in a room, instructing the servants not to bother him or let him out.  With no clothes, and nothing else to do, he forced himself to write.  As a tactic it leaves something to be desired.  Anyway, I’ve been working on a novel and also looking over some of my past stories, to see if I can clean them up for publishing.

I recently revisited a story I wrote about six months ago called, "The Final Wife."  The story includes a rather graphic and brutal sex scene that isn’t particularly titillating or erotic – and I say this as a standard guy, who finds a stiff breeze erotic.  After rereading it, I sat back and wondered.  Was it too much?

Graphic sex and violence is pretty commonplace is writing nowadays.  I don’t think there is any reason to shy away from it per se, but neither should we go about tossing in those scenes without any purpose other than to try and draw people in.

As authors, we are sometimes called upon to do terrible things to our characters, even the ones we love.  "Forged in the fires of tragedy," is a pretty standard method of shaping a character and building empathy between the character and the reader.  But boy oh boy, you can can overdo it.  You can emotionally shell-shock the reader with just so much unrelenting abuse that it becomes counterproductive.

So when do we cross that line?

I think we have to ask ourselves two questions:
1) Can the plot get there without this?  This is pretty straightforward.  If you drop the questionable material and the plot can still get from Point A to Point B without substantial change, then maybe it doesn’t need to be in there.  Of course, that can be said of any element in the plot but crazy sex and violence is less likely to add background to the story than random anecdotes and scenes from the society.
2) Is this critical for the character’s development?  This is both easier and harder than the previous question.  Easier, because if it is truly gratuitous, then the character probably won’t be changed by non-inclusion.  Harder, because sexual or violent experiences can run the gamut of emotions and can fundamentally change a person.

As I read over "The Final Wife," I realized the answer to both questions – from my POV – is "Yes."  It was required for both plot and character development to advance.  It certainly wasn’t the most descriptive scene I’ve ever read and I’ve seen worse thrown in for more salacious purposes.  Hell, I read a story where the entire point of the plot was examining a woman’s thoughts while she was locked in an unending fuck session with an alien resembling a giant amoeba, as they lay in a ship’s escape pod.  The responding commentary was universally positive; I failed to see the genius of it, I guess, because at the end, I wanted my ten minutes back.

My story was nothing quite that abstract.  It’s cause and effect.  So why did I feel so guilty writing it?  Were I ever to meet the main character of the story in person, I would not be able to look her in the eye.  So maybe it is too much.  I’ll probably never know.

But that doesn’t mean I’ll stop writing those scenes.  After all, if that is what happened, then that is what happened (and that is a debate for another day).


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