Gratuitous violent sex scenes in books


I was recently browsing through author Chuck Wendig’s blog, terribleminds (if you haven’t seen it yet, go take a look. He serves up a mix of funny, smart and really good advice to would-be writers) when an interview with crime fiction writer Jay Stringer caught my eye.

In this interview, Stringer talks about his latest book Runaway Town. The protagonist of the book is a Romani detective hunting down a rapist who preys on immigrants. And as I read further down, something Stringer says catches my eye – and pretty much ends up selling Runaway Town to me.

A few things came together to get me started on Runaway Town. I’m uncomfortable with the way violence against women is used in a lot of fiction. I think we see a lot of people declare that they want to write about how women are objectified, but then it just seems to become an excuse to write graphic scenes. They’re then also used to set up revenge scenes, as if that is the way to balance things out. And revenge in fiction is a slippery slope. For instance, I’ve never been entirely comfortable with the “getting medieval” scene in Pulp Fiction, and the way the audience is primed to cheer for what’s about to happen. It feels like the joke is on us for laughing.

I set out to walk the tightrope myself and write about them. I wanted to try and tell a story that treated victims of violence (both woman and men) as more than a punch line or plot device.

That, ladies and gentlemen, had me cheering and getting my credit card out to buy Runaway Town.

I’m definitely not squeamish when it comes to sex and violence but I have come across more than one book where it feels like the author is just acting his/her violence/sex fantasies out on the page – and quite often they’re pretty mediocre fantasies too. Gratuitous violent sex scenes can really turn me off a book – because it’s poor writing.

Quite often, the excuse an author gives for such scenes is because they want the reader to understand just what kind of world their characters live in. A dangerous, Mad Max-type world where every woman is subject to man’s cruel whim! Fair enough, these worlds do exist… but when you start churning out scene after scene where the women sound like they hopped out of a really bad romance book or some teen male’s fantasy of Medieval Europe where women are raped as a matter of course every two pages or so by Conan the  Barbarian type dudes, just because, you  know, that was what life was like back in the day, well… um, sorry, no. It makes me cringe – not at those evil deeds but at the evil deed of really bad, obvious writing. It gets boring. It doesn’t help me care more about these characters. I see no sense in it. It doesn’t move the plot forward. Sometimes, it makes the plot even more unrealistic. (Peter V Brett, I’m looking at you here.)

I think that in today’s world, where everyone is so eager to over-saturate movies, TV shows and books with lots of violence and sex in the hopes of appearing ‘authentic’, writers really need to lift their game and do more than that to stand out in a crowd of hot, sweaty, grisly rape/bashing scenes. You want to be able to convey the sense of your world, your characters and their dilemmas to the reader with better writing than that, a more elegant, refined, subtle kind of prose. Everyone is pretty much desensitized by the grisly gory scenes; you want to be able to chill their blood and get under their skin and make them remember this for years to come instead of doing the writer equivalent of bashing your reader on the head over and over again and going, ‘It’s violent! It’s dangerous! Oh, the brutality of it! Do you get it? Do you get it?’ – and the only way to do it is through good writing that doesn’t put in more than it needs. In other words, to become a better writer. To challenge yourself to convey to others this world you’ve created in your mind in the best possible way. (And to do that, you had better make sure you’ve worked at your world-building too). Tell it in a way that hasn’t been told before, that would make your reader check themselves and go back and re-read the passage and enthuse, ‘I’ve never thought of it this way before! What an eye-opener!’ To be creative. To be original. To be the best damn writer you can be.


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