Six impossible things

Sax and violins

A long time back, a friend of mine (tongue firmly in cheek) told me that when it came to fiction, all the trashy stuff was full of sex and violence, while all the great literature was about love and death.

The truth underneath that bit of word play is that which you have – sex and violence, or love and death – depends a lot on both the way the writer handles them and on the eye of the beholder. There’s not much the writer can do about the eye of the beholder, unfortunately, but the content and tone are all ours. And the first and most important choice in both cases is whether a particular scene is going to be merely explicit, or whether it’s going all the way to graphic.

Explicit covers a lot more ground and is a lot more flexible than graphic, because explicit just means that it’s clear that it happened. You can be very explicit without being at all graphic, but I don’t think it’s possible to be graphic without being explicit. “The battle lasted three days in the rain” is explicit without getting into the details of mud and sweat and blood and who wounded whom how badly. It’s explicit without being graphic. “The knife cut through the muscles of his back and into his kidney” is both graphic and explicit, and it’s hard to see how it could be the one without also being the other.

The real problem is that American society is an awkward combination of prudish and obsessed when it comes to sex, while when it comes to violence, it’s pretty much just obsessed. What this means is that there is a bias in most published fiction toward explicit-but-not-graphic sex on the one hand, and graphic violence on the other. It also means that most readers are sensitized enough to sex that the traditional “stopping at the bedroom door” is considered explicit – think of the old movies where the couple kiss, fade to black, and then there’s a picture of two pairs of shoes next to a bed, and that was plenty enough to let the viewers know what happened. Using a similar technique to avoid a fight scene is problematic, unsatisfying, and rarely done.

The interesting thing is that an awful lot of the time, the writer has no real story-related need to be graphic. All the reader needs to know is that the sex or violence happened, not every tingly or gory detail. And a lot of time, the writer doesn’t get graphic…but the techniques are different. It’s far more common to imply that sex happened and entirely skip any description that goes past a kiss, going straight to both parties looking/feeling happy and smug next morning, than it is to imply a fight scene and make do with a description of the loser’s bruises later on.

“Graphic” for sex scenes starts fairly early in the process of simply describing the actions the characters are taking. When writers go for explicit-not-graphic, they often do so by describing the emotional impact of the characters’ actions, rather than the actions themselves.

On the other hand, fight scenes don’t start being considered “graphic” in most cases until the writer gets into painful or bloody description of the effects of the violence. The actions themselves are fair game. Shooting, stabbing, or punching someone isn’t considered graphic until the writer starts talking about blood spatters, torn flesh, and broken teeth.

There isn’t an exact line between explicit and graphic, of course, but it helps to be aware of the difference…and of the difference between where explicit sex starts and where explicit violence starts. You’ll notice that all the graphic details in this post are from the “violence” side of things. It is supposed to be a family-friendly blog, after all.

  1. Amazing post! It’s a great review of the strange repulsion-obsession that western culture has with sex and violence.

    I’ve always found it strange that we can read and watch someone get raped and decapitated but we can’t watch two (or more?) people have fun, loving sex.

  2. Interesting, too, because from what I understand, it’s the reverse in Britain, at least (I don’t know about other countries) – there they are much more comfortable with graphic sex scenes, and not so much with excessive violence. So not only does one need to be aware of the difference between explicit and graphic descriptions, one also needs to be aware of one’s audience.

  3. And, of course, a little sex/violence goes a long way. If it’s not hitting the three pillars, graphic sex or violence can be the most boring thing ever. At least with violence your MC should be in jeopardy, but if the reader knows he’s going to win, why bother. And it’s the same for the sex, if it’s going to be great and wonderful and fulfilling, end on the kiss. There’s nothing you can describe that will make it any better than what the reader can imagine.

    I did read one scene that was trying to be graphic without being explicit. It came off as muddled. It could be funny to do either a sex or violence scene with only dialogue. That’s what always impressed me about radio plays, that you could evoke all the fear and excitement of a fight with the sound of a sword being drawn and the emotion in the actor’s voice.

  4. It seems to me that the attitude about sex varies hugely with genre. Today’s romance reader wants that explicit and graphic sex, unless you’re limiting yourself to the “sweet romance” subgenre, which is more like your grandmother’s romance. They want the romance, the sweet emotions, the commitment, and even good plot, but they want a nice helping of graphic sex scenes too.

    That attitude seems to be creeping into lots of cross-genre arenas too – the mystery with romantic elements, for example.

    There are a few hold-outs, high fantasy being one of them. Someone in my local crit group brought some chapters of a high-fantasy project which included some graphic, slightly kinky sex between a couple of the major characters. People hated it, in spite of eating up her urban fantasy with bikers that has just as much, if not more, graphic sex.

  5. There’s a qualitative difference between sex and violence that leads into this, though. I think it’s in two parts.

    Firstly, there’s salience. Seeing two strangers kissing and clipping, &c., does not, bluntly, imply that one is apt to be drawn in. One’s reactions therefore are free to be formed on personal or cultural lines: laughter, excitement, indulgence, shame, disgust, rage, whatever. Whereas two strangers thumping and stabbing, &c., may very well be a sign that one is in serious danger of having to run or fight willy-nilly. Sex is by default the participants’ business, violence by default the business of everyone in the area of general effect. This may have something to do with why the narrator can more naturally walk away from the bedroom door than the boxing ring.

    Secondly, there’s spectrum of taste. Levels of tolerance for violence may differ a lot, but a lot of the impact is universal – some of us like to thump and others don’t, but few of us enjoy being struck very much, especially when it’s in earnest. So when the teller tells of violence, they can rely on quite a few constants in the sympathetic hearer’s intepretation. Making somebody thrill, tense up, cringe, or feel pity from the pit of their gut, may not be easy, but the right graphic details can do an awful lot.

    Sex beyond the pure meat-and-potatoes level is very different and intensely personal: a graphic description that will make one person kick a hole through a stained-glass window with sheer lustiness, will make the next person go, “Eh? So? Meh,” and the third kick a hole through the same window to escape the squicky vision as fast as possible. That adds up to another strong reason for preferring, in general, to keep the violence a lot more graphic than the sex. If on the other hand the sex is merely explicit, the reader is free to fill in the particular details the description’s tone evokes – for them. Or, of course, to… not.

    So even in a society far less bent out of shape about sex and violence than any I know of, I still don’t think we’d see this asymmetry go away.

  6. I love the ability of old movies to be explicit without being graphic. I once watched a movie with Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman, where they were having an affair. But, despite the movie being titled Indiscreet, it was all handled very discreetly! Everything stopped in the hallway, and I don’t think there were even any morning-after scenes. But it was all perfectly clear.

    Or Waterloo Bridge, with Vivian Leigh, is my favorite example of saying things without saying them. Vivian Leigh’s character and her roommate are dancers who are trying to scrape along on next to no money. Her roommate has been going out every night, supposedly to dance in a show, and bringing money back. Vivian Leigh finds out she’s not in a show at all, and asks her where she got the money. All her roommate says is, “Where do you THINK I got the money?” And when, a few scenes later, Vivian Leigh gets all dressed up to go to Waterloo Station to greet the soldiers getting off the train, back from WWII, it’s fairly obvious what’s going on then too.

    When you can portray prostitution without ever saying anything, that’s really good writing. I can only imagine how graphic Waterloo Bridge would be if it was made today, and I think that’s too bad. Being subtle, explicit and not graphic requires much more clever writing.

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