Friday, July 3, 2009

How Much is Too Much?

I just finished Charlaine Harris' most recent Sookie Stackhouse novel, Dead and Gone. These are the novels on which the HBO series, TrueBlood, is based. My friend, Amanda, is a huge fan of the series, but I have to admit I haven't seen it. I've been a fan of the Sookie books for several years, though. I borrowed Amanda's copy of the book, and when she dropped it off, she told me she didn't like this one as much as some of the previous books. I actually liked the book a lot, but I was bothered a little by the end, and that's my topic for today.

How much graphic violence is too much? When is it not enough?

This book contained some intense violence, and I've been thinking about Harris' approach to those scenes since I finished it. She chose to avoid explicit details of what was happening in favor of more broad impressions. The books are told from Sookie's point of view, and Sookie is a good southern girl. She believes in manners and tries very hard to be a lady and "a good Christian" even though she is pragmatic when she has to be. From that perspective, I can see why Sookie wouldn't be explicit in describing the violence. (I'm trying very hard to avoid spoilers.) In one particularly awful scene, she tells us her mind didn't disconnect even though she wanted it to, but her description of what is happening is extremely disconnected, so disconnected in fact, I felt removed from the scene as a reader.

I'm not a fan of extremely graphic violence. Nothing makes me turn off a movie faster than intense, in-your-face violence. I'm not talking about the cartoonish stuff of most action movies. The scale of that kind of violence is so large that it's hard to feel personally connected to it. Usually it's the up close and personal violence that I abhor. Strangely, that's what was lacking in Dead and Gone.

In a first person POV book, I don't want to be disconnected from what the protagonist is feeling. The last several chapters were action-packed, and Harris kills off some recurring characters and puts several very important characters in mortal danger. One of the anchor characters in the series comes within a hair's breadth of death. I actually had an "Oh crap" moment. She convinced me she was gonna kill him off, and yet Sookie seemed like she was having an out-of-body experience.

Maybe I was supposed to feel disconnected because Sookie did, but Sookie explicitly said she couldn't disconnect from the pain and the horror. Maybe Sookie couldn't be trusted as a narrator because of the traumatic nature of what she was experiencing. I know Harris can write those scenes. Several books back in the series, there is an explosion in which a building blows up and lots of people die. Sookie's horror was palpable in that book.

I really did like the book as a whole. I love Sookie's voice. When she talked about her friend's husband having a limited capacity for entertaining conversation, I cracked up. Southern folks are so good at saying something completely insulting in a polite way. I also like the way Sookie's relationship with Eric is progressing. I've always found him more attractive than Bill, so it should be interesting to see where Harris takes it.

I've been mulling over the violence question because in my writing I tend to be more explicit in the action, probably because I enjoy being completely pulled into the world of the book. I know inferred violence can be very effective, and to be fair there is a scene in Dead and Gone in which the inferred violence is horrifyingly appropriate. The werepanthers take care of a murderer, and we hear the action without seeing it. Very creepy. Charlaine Harris is a great writer, so I respect her decision to let us infer the violence. I would have made a different choice, but then she is the published writer, and I'm still a wannabe.


  1. I think it has to work for the comfort level of the writer first. Putting in any graphic detail means that the reader doesn't have to use their imagination at all.

    If I imply something, anything from a wild night of debauchery to torture, I'm letting the reader fill in the details to their level of comfort. And I get to keep my comfort level intact.

    If I have to describe something in detail... it may not work. Someone will consider my erotic scene too humdrum, or my violence too horrific. There's a lack of balance in graphic detail that doesn't always work.

    Personally, I like to give the reader enough to get the rough sketch and then let them fill in the fine details on their own.

  2. I'm in complete agreement about writing to your comfort level and letting the reader fill in the blanks. I've struggled to put my finger on exactly what bothered me so much in those final scenes. Maybe it wasn't the lack of detail in the action, but the lack of detail in Sookie's reaction. Something disconnected me from the story at the end, and regardless of the level of detail, a writer needs to keep the reader engaged.