Jul 31, 2010

Bodily Fluids and Writing- Where to draw the line

By Christine Thackeray

Last year I went to a writer's conference where a very prominent writer spoke. When I heard of the millions of books she sold, I was dying to read her. I went to the library and found one of her books, sat in the aisle and began reading. Her first scene was a Pagan ritual which turned into a very graphic sex (not love) scene. I put it down, blushing.

Lately, in my own writing I have been working on a screenplay with a rape scene. It's been a challenge to keep it accurate but tasteful. The line is thin when we are portraying important conflicts and how they affect people, which is the foundation of powerful stories.

I've got a historical novel I am also writing. Last chapter I dealt with diarrhea, another a birthing scene, I have a pagan temple that is little more than a brothel, brief nudity and bloody war.

It's part and parcel with the time period I've chosen but does leave me with feeling that I'm a PG or PG-13 woman. I've prayed about whether I've crossed the line, and that's how I've decided to deal with it. Still, the line gets thin.

That line "Seek ye out of the best books" is my goal. I really want to write one of the best books or movies one day. I guess the key is, if you feel that Christ could read it out loud and you wouldn't blush, then you'd be okay. Heck, the Bible gets pretty darn graphic at times, The Rape of Tamar, Songs of Solomon, David and Bathsheba, just to mention a few. And look at the Book of Mormon where a man is scalped, arms go flying and that great sword fight between Gideon and King Noah.

Still they never describe the oozing blood or body parts, that is left to our imagination. The problem is that my imagination is pretty darn graphic.

So what do you think?


  1. I look forward to reading the comments you get Christine. I've been pondering on this lately, in reference to what I read as well as what I write. I found myself in a horrible mood the other day and realized it started when I was in the middle of a very intense murder mystery. No graphic sex, but moderate violence, and towards the end, the language became quite foul. Didn't happen in the first half of the book, before I really wanted to see how the author tied things together. Urgh. Now I feel like I really should have thrown the book out rather than finish it.

  2. I think you do what works for you and make sure that you feel good about what you're putting out there. In the end, that's what's going to be important. Terrible things happen in real life all the time, but the stories of people overcoming those tragedies help all of us.

  3. Interesting how there can be sex in a love scene that's offensive, and love in a sex scene that's beautiful. To me it's about using nuance, implication and insinuation effectively. It doesn't have to be specific. I'm fairly sure there's probably a trashy novel somewhere inside every one of us, but we don't write it because that's not the best manifestation of our talents. We could have a long discussion here about the natural man.

    I have written (and rewritten dozens of times) several intimate scenes and I find they are most successful when presented with a light touch, where the insinuation is enough to communicate the obvious. In situations where violent activity was necessary in a plot line, I discovered that I don't like to write violent action scenes. I have to protect my own spirit by avoiding the graphic details, at the same time telling an exciting story. To me damaging another person's spirit with words is as violent as any of the physical crimes committed by hardened criminals.

    Graphic material is difficult to recover from spiritually, as we all know, but there are issues relating to love and sex that we should all confront so that we can write about it more effectively. One of the best marriage advice books I've ever read is 'Purity and Power' by Wendy Watson. Simply put, she believes that there is a connection between spirituality and sexuality that heightens and intensifies both. Dr. Laura Brotherson, who writes for Meridian Magazine, has some important ideas about this topic as well. I believe these are issues LDS writers should be dealing with because with lives and marriages falling apart around us, readers need a place to go to find a way to cope. Sometimes we have to shine a light in dark corners to alleviate fear. Yes, the line is thin and our great test is to decide how to walk it, maintaining our own integrity at the same time we weave that integrity into our characters and their stories. But don't you love the challenge of being an LDS writer?

  4. Interesting when you said "I believe theirs a trashy novel in all of us." It is a challenge to stay a moral LDS writer and I always worry if I slip, that would be the bestseller.
    My senior prom after party was a gambling casino. I thought at first it was OK because it was only play money but they had great prizes. A lot of my friends who knew my faith were surprised I was playing so I decided to get rid of my ill gotten gains with a long shot and broke the bank.
    I didn't take the money (which made my date furious) but it's good to remember that lesson now and then. Thanks.

  5. I think you bring up important issues. I think a lot of what is acceptable to me varies depending on how things are packaged, meaning what is experienced by the main characters and the viewpoint character in particular. What their reaction is. For example two YA fantasies I read. In both the MC learns her mother was involved in murder. In one book the MC is horrified and chooses to do things she thinks will save her people even if she might lose personally. Other book girl is shocked but is friends with people that convince MC to use magic power for trivial things when they have life changing problems that might be helped by magic. Then the friends decide to sacrifice an animal to gain magic power such as the MC had naturally. Yet she keeps them as friends! Also the capture of the animal was unrealistic. The amount of graphic violence and the desired but not experienced romance/sex is about the same in both novels but the packaging of both is different. The first book the romantic interest is a better person and expressed nicer. Second book while nothing happens it just is not presented in a way I would prefer if I were a parent. There are some much more explicit books I would like better.
    In another book I would not endorse the male lead tries to comfort the female lead he just met after her mother's death; everyone remains dressed and all touches are "innocent" but his magical tie to her makes her O (can I say that here?) and her mother just died and the body was in the room. EEEk! Then they say they are going to bury the body in the back yard and run because evil things are coming. Now what daughter would do that? Also the author has obviously not buried anything bigger than a cat or lost a family member to come up with such ------ you fill in the blanks. While the book had some good things I would never recommend it. There were other objectionable things that were more graphic but to me the most objectionable while not graphic and in the case of the burial not even on stage just given a sentence or two; to me these were much worse than something many times more graphic. I could read something where a loving couple had sex at home or in a hotel etc. after a funeral that is different.
    I also have trouble with the MC not being rescued from rape if it happens in the present. If it is in the past and they now have to cope I can deal with it better. If it happens to a side character and the MC counsels or investigates; that is comfortable. I think a key for me is I identify with the MC and their behavior and experiences. I hope this comment wasn't over the top but it is something that is both a personal concern and a pet peeve.

  6. Susan brings up some important issues that have always bothered me about YA fantasies. Above all else, the fantasy world created by the author must be internally consistent and contain some touchstones readers can identify with, based on common values - respect, honor, loyalty, love, integrity, etc., all the worthwhile themes of great literature. To bring readers into the willing suspension of disbelief, an author must write believable characters who react in believable ways. Star Trek fans always knew that Spock was a Vulcan and would consistently act and react according to Vulcan cultural norms. When characters violate the rules of acceptable social or cultural behavior, readers want to toss the book across the room, and well they should. Authors who manipulate readers that way are not worthy of the paper they're printed on. As LDS writers, we have to reject the phonies as unacceptable examples and go the other direction, striving for excellence even if it doesn't make the best seller list. At least we can answer with heads held high that we've respected our talents and done the best we could. I hope that doesn't sound officious and uppity but I believe we owe it to our readers to take the high road even when we're writing about the gritty and bleak experiences in our characters' lives. Didn't Anne Frank say she still believed that people are good? To write a character who has a tragic flaw is one thing, but to use it to manipulate readers is exploitation. All great writing should have an element of catharsis, leading readers through dark moments but bringing them ultimately again to the light.

  7. It's a very thin line and frankly where you are in the country can make a big difference in that line. Many studies have been researched where violence is considered worse or sex or language. So part of it depends on your projected readership. I personally find that violence doesn't bother me all that much, but teetering sex bothers me and language is a BIG issue with me. But I live in the Deep South and that's about right for my area. That said, the best thing is to err on the conservative side, why take the chance on "bothering" anyone?

  8. It's a very thin line and frankly where you are in the country can make a big difference in that line. Many studies have been researched where violence is considered worse or sex or language. So part of it depends on your projected readership. I personally find that violence doesn't bother me all that much, but teetering sex bothers me and language is a BIG issue with me. But I live in the Deep South and that's about right for my area. That said, the best thing is to err on the conservative side, why take the chance on "bothering" anyone?


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