Monday, November 22, 2010

You Can Open Your Eyes, Now: Writing Those Difficult Scenes Outside Your Comfort Zone

Too scared to write that scene?
When I joined my first critique group, I was definitely nervous about having my work read For. The. First. Time. Ever. by anyone outside my family. I had written scenes that were not only uncomfortable for me to write, but ones that made me squirm in my seat thinking that other writers were reading them. What if those scenes made them laugh, when in all actuality they were supposed to be serious? What if I sat down to a table full of weird looks? Or even worse, what if they flat out told me I didn't know what I was doing?

Well, to my utter relief, one of the very first comments I received concerning my writing was that I really knew what I was doing when it came to writing violence. What? Me? How did that happen? Surprisingly enough, quite easily.

I've written a mixture of interesting scenes over the course of my writing. Some of it is quite obvious that it took some courage to soldier on through the tough parts, but others not as much. I'll give you a short list of the harder ones I've written (perhaps you're struggling with a similar one):

  • Violations against women -- This includes anything from rape to spousal abuse and everything else in between. This one is tough, considering I've never been through anything quite this difficult myself, so how could I possibly know what to put on the page? As a woman, I believe, in the very core of who we are, these are some of our deepest fears. Just the thought alone of being abused or raped sends a chill down my spine. If you're looking for a visual, then the film The Accused, starring Jodi Foster, contains a very vivid and heartbreaking scene about a woman being raped. (Caution: This is not for the faint of heart!) Or perhaps more recently with Private Practice's portrayal of the rape of Dr. Charlotte King. I think a good visual helps the writer break down what needs to happen in the scene (and often times see how the victim deals with it), even if it might be hard to watch. If you're going to write it, then you need to make it believable.
  • Race-related violence -- A theme that tends to thread through my novels is violence related, in some part, to race. Since my first novel takes place during slavery, I did intense research concerning slaves and plantation life, particularly whippings/beatings and with what sorts of devices (a very dark road of research to travel, my friends). My second novel deals with the 1920s KKK, so again, I did intense research concerning how the Klan tormented/tortured their victims. Depending on what part of the country they were located, the KKK targeted all different types of races, foreigners, religions, etc. Many people don't realize how active the Klan was throughout the lower forty-eight, but interestingly enough, one of the strongest divisions was the Indiana Klan. A good film for this category would be Rosewood. Very tragic and horrific what went on there. (Caution: Again, not for the faint of heart!)
  • Murder -- Again, something with which I have no experience. These scenes get tough to write and I always do a step-by-step visualization (kind of a murder Paint-by-Numbers). When finished writing one, always ask yourself -- "Does it seem believable?", "Does it make sense to the reader?", "Is everyone where they need to be in the scene?" and "Does it flow well?" If if feels herky-jerky, like you glossed parts of it over or just mish-mashed it together, then take a step back and go through the scene in your mind. For a visual, I would suggest just about any movie or tv show that allows the viewer to see how the crime was played out. The Changeling, starring Angelina Jolie, reveals the children's murders through how the young accomplice viewed them.
  • Sex/Love Scenes -- The bane of any non-Romance writer's existence! These, for me anyway, tend to be the toughest of all. I always want some amount of romance, but making it feel real can often times make it feel cheesy to the reader. Unless you're writing a Romance novel, try to avoid as much flowery vocabulary as possible. One thing I try to avoid until it absolutely has to be written into the story is, "I love you". It's so clichéd sounding when it gets used repeatedly in a novel. Every scene is different because every two sets of characters are different. Two teenagers are not going to experience their love the same way as a hardened cop and her murder suspect would. Search out visual representations of your characters together and watch how the actors' scene plays out. Then go from there.
One thing I don't touch upon here (except in making reference to The Changeling) is horrific crimes involving children. I've never had a reason to write one, and quite honestly, I believe that's where I'd draw the line. Although I haven't read it, I've heard that Alice Sebold's, The Lovely Bones, involves rather descriptive scenes of her main protagonist. I haven't been able to bring myself to read it but, well, there you go.

I'm a lot like many of you when it comes to writing my characters into incredibly difficult scenes. I want to do it with one eye closed. In truth, I know I have to face it head-on if this is what I need to put my characters through. Just keep in mind that you can do it and when you've accomplished it, it will be that much easier to write the next one.

Hang in there and you'll
make it through!
How about you? How do you deal with writing those difficult scenes? Is there a process you go through to make it believable and work really well on the page? Or do you avoid them, perhaps gloss them over? Or maybe you just don't write that kind of fiction to begin with?

Mary Mary
♥   ♥   ♥
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Everyone have a great Thanksgiving! Treat yourself to some holiday cheer and laughter and go watch Planes, Trains and Automobiles, the best Thanksgiving movie ever!


  1. Planes, Trains, and Automobiles is a riot! Just thinking about that movie makes me want to laugh.

    About those sensitive scenes...I personally don't like for books to Go There too much. There's so much reality on tv, in the media, even in the newspaper, I don't want graphic details in a book I've bought because, for me, the book relates more to the overriding issue that evolves from the murder, rape, theft.... I flat don't buy or read books that exploit children.

    Big applause for you for handling these topics so well. And Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours!

  2. I'm with you, Kittie. Not fond of the gritty scenes be it in film, literature or 'Al Jaffy's Snappy Comebacks.' Having said that, it's a comfort to know that those who choose to pen them do so thoughtfully.

  3. Kitty and Aurora,

    I agree with you on the whole idea of not writing for shock value and that the end result of your scenes needs to evolve the storyline and the characters. However, too many times I've heard other writers say, or I've read scenes in novels where it is obvious that the author(s) just gloss over the scene or refuses to write it and believes dancing around it will make them feel better. In the end, we're writing for our audience and not for how happy or sad a scene makes us feel. If you're going to bring danger into your characters' lives, make it believable.

    And, I'm with you on the child exploitation issue. I can't stomach the idea of going there.

    And, yes, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles is an absolute hoot! Everyone needs to see it around Thanksgiving time!

    ♥ Mary Mary

  4. I am one of the ones who doesn't really go with the hard-hitting stuff in my writing - and the sex/love scenes come very easily as that was my first interest, but I do take on the challenge of avoiding making them schmaltzy!

    I think my tolerance for violence and gritty stuff dropped radically when I started a family. My whole emotional outlook changed, and I don't even really like the noisy 'action' movies I used to watch with DH anymore.

    So I do *kind of* gloss over some aspects of any scenes which might be violent, or allude to violence which has occurred rather than describing it in loving detail. I really hope readers don't lynch me in the future for doing too much 'dancing around the issue'!

  5. okay I write light romance so hardly any murders rape or exploitation.
    Sex I can advice you about, if you do not feel comfortable writing it, it will show so if you like you can close the door on your couple.

  6. Interesting subject, Mary. It is very difficult to write these kinds of scenes. There is a really good book that gives excellent advice on how to handle them: "Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint" by Nancy Kress.

    According to Ms. Kress, the hardest scenes to write are four:

    1. Love: they can get cliche and cheesy very easily;
    2. Sex: they can get pornographic/distasteful;
    3. Fights: the use of weapons and their effects can be inaccurate--it's very easy to fall in this trap if we only base the scenes on what we see in movies or tv;
    4. Death: they can easily become overdramatic or satirical.

    I think it all comes down to what genre you write. You can't have a thriller or horror novel without fights or murder, and if you have high family drama, you may end up having to write a death scene. If you're writing a romance, you obviously have to have plenty of love scenes. Now, with sex, Ms Kress (and I agree with her) recommends not to use them unless your genre needs it (for example, erotica.) Likewise, if you're writing historical fiction you may have to write some of the harsh scenes Mary talks about in order to accurately portray the times. Of course, if you're writing a romantic comedy, or a young adult book, you may not need any of these and you're off the hook! :)

  7. It depends on the writer, and I am sure Sister Mary is one that can handle delicate subjects. But many of us don´t know how to handle it, and tend to go overboard, especially when it comes to “too much sex” or “too graphic”. Having grown up with bodice-rippers, and I am talking the rough kind, those written before the PC era (Rosemary Rogers, Kathleen Woodside and those of their ilk), I felt I was entitled to write anything. My first novel began with necrophilia, by the second chapter the hero was violated by a succubus; the heroine´s wedding night merited five pages of descriptive lovemaking… I pity poor Sister Lorena who was a very patient Beta Reader.
    I eventually realized that unless it is absolutely necessary, one can stay clear off unsavory details, and even too much sex is too much. Some people can get away with it, I can´t. So it´s a matter of learning who you are as a writer, and what is your range. Many of us should stick with Thackeray´s advice and write nothing that could bring blush to a maiden (a Victorian maiden)’s cheeks.

  8. Well, well, I can see we've a few different lines of thought going on here. ☺
    Adina, I understand where you're coming from when you say having a family definitely influences the way you write. I know I find myself thinking, "What if this happened to so and so in my family." I've had to learn to remove some of my emotion from the equation.
    Joanna and Violante, I agree that you need to know your comfort zone as a writer. I've read my fair share of light romance and "bodice-rippers" and as a writer you have to know not only where you fall in all of that, but also understand your genre and what is required of you as the writer. If you want to write a thriller or a cop story, you better be ready to write those gritty scenes. If you want to write historical romance, then you better want to write a few hot bedroom scenes. It's all about understanding your genre and writing what's expected of you.

    Thank you everyone for your input. I love seeing where everyone falls when it comes to topics like these.


  9. Hey Mary Mary, this is a great post and I'm glad you've had some excellent feedback for your writing when you were unsure.

    My NaNo novel begins with a rape. Of course we have to write about a lot of things we've never experienced, but I want to trace what happens afterwards...I get really angry with the 'justice' system's treatment of rape victims.

    Anyhow, whateve we write it must be authentic. I went onto a lot of rape forums, got true stories and tried to find out the legal response in different countries. Wasn't easy but I hope my research will be obvious when I'm published!

    Happy tapping! :D

  10. L'Aussie, thank you for your input. I think it's great that you've done the research you have. Since my stories both take place during time periods when victims really didn't have a voice, I knew the end 'justice' just wouldn't be there, especially with the one involving a slave. But I knew that this horrific experience would in some way define my characters and who they would become by the end of the novel.

    I believe every writer needs to be as authentic as they possibly can in their chosen genre. Kudos to you for going where you needed to in order for your character to come out on the page!

    ♥ Mary Mary

  11. Great post, Mary Mary, and something I've been grappling with in my own writing. I have a very dark bent to my writing, and even in the "lighter" stuff I used to write, nasty things always happened. My writing flows so much more easily and "naturally" now I've accepted I write Horror. Having said that, I've taken on an additional challenge of writing YA Horror. I don't personally believe in glossing over too much stuff in my writing (interestingly, I can write a murder scene must more easily than a sex scene, go figure!), and I'm having to tiptoe that invisible and ever-changing line of "genre/age appropriate". But that's ok, I'm really happy tap-dancing away (*grins*).


  12. I hear you Rach, when it comes to finally being able to put what you really want to on the page. I think it takes a certain amount of courage to write a scene the way you really envision it. But once you do, it's rather amazing, isnt' it? You now know that this is what you can do, and it's actually not so terribly hard after all. Horror isn't exactly my cup of tea, but then that's why there are writers like you. It's what you enjoy and you know you can do it well!

    ♥ Mary Mary

  13. That's a great list; those are also some of the hardest scenes for me. I'll add one more kind of scene, which is the humorous or comic relief scene. These are FUN to write, but I always worry, what if the reader doesn't find it as funny as I do? If I have a beta reader in person, I anxiously watch them read, waiting to see if they laugh, and if they do, I call out, "What part are you at?!" to see if it's a part that was INTENDED to be funny. (If they answer, "Haha, you used 'two' instead of 'too' it's pretty disheartening.)

  14. Tara -- I've always heard that comedic scenes are some of the harder ones to write. I've never had much opportunity to write comedy, since my work generally tends to more literary. I agree, though. It's such a downer when your reader laughs at something so mundane or something that's intended to to be serious. Thanks for your input!

  15. Tara-

    Take heart that one man's clever is another man's 'say what?' Hit your readers with your wittiest, girl. The right ones will smile in recognition or even better- squirt Dr. Pepper out their nose. ;)

  16. I found I had to write some romance in my latest project and I'm so conscious of trying to avoid the cheesiness...and then I wonder if I'm getting it across enough. lol
    I can't write crime. I don't like to think about it so much to be able to write it with any authenticity. I don't mind reading it though.

  17. Lynda, I am definitely not a crime writer, but with what I write, some of those scenes crop up. As for romance, I agree. Cheesiness is so easy to produce and I am always conscious of what I'm putting on the page. I don't want it to seem like insincere, angry love coming across to the reader, so I really have to rework it at times.

    I don't mind reading a good crime novel either!

  18. I've always heard it said that it is best to "write what you know." In writing a memoir, I can personally tell of each of these difficult subjects, except murder, firsthand. I think as chilling as rape, child sexual abuse, and domestic violence is, it isn't necessary to offer every detail because, ironically, it would simply become drudgery. It's easier for me, a survivor, to write fiction based on experience. I struggle with writing about these subjects without exposing the violators, so giving the experiences to a fictional character removes to onus from me and allows a character who is stronger than me deal with the pain and the anger and the retaliation. I've wondered who would really care, anyway. Are these subjects that would appeal to a reader? Yet, I also know there is no shortage of reading material covering any of these issues. What about the memoir? Any advice from more experienced writers?

  19. It's nice to see you back Roni! I agree, yet disagree with "write what you know". Getting stuck in a box isn't any good to anyone. That's why I write historical fiction. I love history, but what do I know about the 1920s? Nothing! But that's the fun of it. I get to delve into a time and place I know nothing about and create a story with my voice and my ideas.

    Memoirs are a big thing right now, but that's kind of where the problem lies. It's a saturated genre. My advice to you is to write a great story with all your personal elements, but make it fiction. Memoirs can often fail where a fictional account does not. Real life doesn't always make sense -- it just happens. But fiction, on the other hand, has to make sense. I have a critique partner at the moment who is transferring her college journals into a fictional story and she's running into some issues. Our advice to her is to let the story take shape how it wants to take shape and not force the real accounts into a story. I think it's been kind of liberating for her. You might have the same feeling if you try to write your memoir in the same style. Let the story come alive how it wants to. Forcing it onto the page will only frustrate you, and in the end, make you give up and that's not something any writer wants to feel or have happen.

    Happy writing, Roni!

  20. Combat scenes are hard. Hard to plan and hard to implement. Lots going on very quickly. Not least because I've never been in combat. Had to watch many documentaries about war and such recently, which then are often contrary to how popular media, like films and games, like to present violence.

    A BBC documentary about the psychological effect killing had on soldiers was very interesting. Three things stuck out which I'll share:

    Firstly, if someone is hit by a grenade or large ordinance, they don't explode or get blown back; they are vaporised.

    Secondly, is that when someone is killed by gunfire, they do not get tossed about like a rag-doll; they immediately crumple into a pile or just fall down.

    Thirdly, killing someone with a bayonet or so is physically very difficult. In training soldiers are used to stabbing bags of animal guts, but in real life, and as was most surprising to a British Army veteran in the Falklands war... the target does not die with just one deep, thrusting stab. It takes multiple attempts; which they will try and stop, and most surprising and potentially disturbing of all, they are quite prone to pleading for their life in English, even if on the battle field with a British soldier charging at them with a bayonet, and even if Spanish is their first language.

  21. Nodgene, Those are some great pointers! I've never really written a battle scene, but I plan on starting on a sequel to one of my novels where one of the protagonists has nightmares about the Civil War. These tips will definitely come in handy (especially the bayonetting). Thanks for the input!

  22. "It takes multiple attempts; which they will try and stop..." This made me LOL. "Pardon me, dear boy, but do please stop shoving that sharp thing into my intestines, there's a good lad, thanks." :)

    In preparation for one combat scene (set in the 19th c), I read a number of medical logs kept by physicians from that time. Google books is such a treasure trove of info.

  23. Glad it's somewhat helpful (and amusing :P) Medics notes are no doubt a good source as well.

    I read something else a while back; it was an excerpt of a speech given my a medic-general from the US marines. He served as a practising doctor in the Korean war, and they ran out of medical supplies a few weeks into the conflict. So they had to improvise. It was funny, half the things they got up to. Funny and horrific...

    Oh, the other thing I forgot to mention which is perhaps more important, is the psychological effect.
    From British soldier's perspectives, who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan and the Falklands, it seemed to be the case that the younger a man was when he made the first skill; the less trouble he had with it.

    One soldier who was in his 40s, and made his first kill in Afghanistan however was deeply troubled by it. He had a wife and children, and so kept on thinking about the act in regards to family; the dead man's family, what his own family would think about him, and so on. Really cut him up.

    Completely opposite was a famous Falklands war veteran who bayoneted many Argentines, and he had no bad feelings about it. He said frankly he did what he did and would do it again if he had to.

    Another young man without wife or children (at the time) served in Iraq as a sniper. He apparently killed about 20 people, but thought nothing of it.

  24. The whole psychological aspect is fascinating. I could see why a younger individual wouldn't have much of an issue with killing. They are, in a sense, a blank slate. Later on in life, the conscience seems to be stronger, especially if one has a wife and kids. Maybe that's why when we hear of rebels in African and S. American nations using child soldiers it's so they can get to them and use them before they develop too much history circling in their brains. Really sad when you think about it.


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