Saturday, December 17, 2005

Writing Evil - Writing Disturbing Scenes

I guess I should first define disturbing, but even that is difficult because different people might consider different things as disturbing so I can only give you what I think is a general definition.

A disturbing scene is any scene where something 'really bad' happens.

Personally, 'disturbing' is confined to actions performed by characters (protagonist, antagonist, minor player), as opposed to natural disasters for example. By actions I mean torture, murder, rape, beating, abuse and the list goes on.

Sometimes writing these scenes affects me in the manner expected from the action. I get sick to my stomach.
Sometimes writing these scenes can be a cathartic experience where I'm happy with my writing capabilities and my abilities to convincingly convey gruesome events, perversions and abnormalities. (Which, of course, leaves me disturbed for being able to express it in the first place :).

I have written such scenes from both POVs.
I find that it is by far easier to describe the horrors from the "recipient's" POV. It is also by far easier to describe the recipient's feelings. It hurts, stop, the horror.
Yet, it is when I write from the POV of the person inflicting the pain that I find the writing experience to be rewarding.

Now, from the reader's perspective I also find that readers love to be introduced to dark thoughts and feeling and to be pushed to the brim of the evil abyss so as to stare it right in the face.

How does it affect you? Does it affect you at all? As a writer? A reader?

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Anne Merril said...

the most difficult scene I have written so far occured when my protagonist attempted to rape someone. It was difficult to write and still keep the protagonist as a sympathetic character. (He didn't make it, he's impotent, but that's another story).

Georganna Hancock said...

I don't think something bad has to happen in order for a scene to be disturbing. Did you watch any variety of "Twin Peaks". I thought everything that went on behind the red curtains was "disturbing", especially the dwarf who spoke in a warped reverse that sounded like a sick Swede!

melly said...

Anne, was it difficult to write and keep it realistic as well?
That's one of the most difficult things, I find.

melly said...

Georganna, you're so right. Disturbing doesn't have to necessarily be evil or bad, it can a warped sense of reality or something like that.
I totally understand what you mean about the dwarf in twin peaks, he was definitely disturbing.
I'll have to redefine disturbing :)

Deborah said...

Recently, I've been having my good characters doing bad things. How they deal with their actions adds more depth to their personality, IMHO.

I've never watched Twin Peaks but heard that people loved it. One NCIS episode had a woman receiving a human eyeball in the mail.

Anne Merril said...

I would love to see Twin Peaks; it's on my list-to-buy.

Melly: Yes, keeping it realistic was hard, especially writing with no experience of rape, and being a woman. I hope I've achieved my goal; I guess I'll find out when my crit group gets to play with it.

Cavan said...

I think there are a number of ways to go about writing a disturbing scene.

1) Be entirely objective about it and fully describe the scene. Leave out emotions. This tends to heighten the "ick" factor, but it can also get you accused of simply going for the shock value. Personally, though, I think it works best in certain situations - particularly if you have to deal with flashbacks - because the character remembering is more likely to have numbed his or her feelings about the event.

2) The "emotional" scene. I tend to take issue with these when it comes from the POV of the victim. Why? Well, it seems to me that anyone whose being tortured, raped, etc, is not going to be thinking clearly enough to express emotions. That comes afterward. During the scene, I'd imagine that there's nothing but panic and fear, and generally enough of it to blot out everything else. If you're writing from the perpetrator's POV, then things get interesting. Lots of opportunity for insight into character there. I find this works better if your character is sympathetic and his mindset is sympathetic while they're committing these atrocities. That might sound disturbing, but I think it makes a character more compelling - besides, it's harder to buy someone who's totally evil.

3) The abstract way. I wish I could quote a rape scene from Fall On Your Knees to indicate what I mean, but that might not go over well. Anyhow, this way avoids both emotion and a realistic portrayal of the event. You get no guts, no gore, no horror. Yet, these can be the most disturbing of all, provided you're employing the right style to do it.

If you are interested in seeing what I'm talking about, follow this link and then follow the link to page 495:

Well, that was awfully long-winded of me. Maybe I should just send an email next time :)

Anonymous said...

There are a few scenes in my novel that I am sure will induce cringing in my readers. I am kind of jaded toward that sort of stuff so it doesn't usually bother me. There are still a few action scenes in my book that when I read them, I usually stop and say, "Holy Crap!" to myself because I forget what I wrote, lol.

kate said...

I read with interest your post, and it is really disturbing to put your mind either in the perpetrator's or the victim's.
You have on the one hand to be a profiler and on the other hand a therapist.
I assume that's a hard task to apply.

ME Strauss said...

As a reader, I find it interesting to see how both the victim and the attacker think, particularly if they have that kind of "Christopher Walken" appeal that makes you see their point of view as realistic. All of the flawed characters in "Sex, Lies, and Videotapes," were somewhat like that (ok not the husband, but the other three).

When I write about them I tend to take on the persona of the character much like an actor would. But maybe that's my background in theater. It helps a lot to have one. I'm just now finding out how much.

Melly said...

Deborah, I believe you can rent Twin Peaks. It certainly is weird and has more than one disturbing moment, although it was a bit drawn out.

Anne, me too, I find that keeping it real is the hardest.

Cavan, that was awesome. Thanks. Really good points. I guess the first two points were teh obvious, but the third I'll definitely have to investigate.
Oh, and never worry about being long-winded here.

Oh, Fred, that's funny. But it's great. Usually it's the best writing when I forget what I had written.

Mom, you got it! Exactly what I meant.

Liz, you're not the first writer I've heard who is using acting techniques to get into the persona of a character. That's very interesting. I wouldn't know the first thing about it, but it sounds really cool and helpful.

Pat Kirby said...

I like writing the "disturbing" bits, probably because they have a built-in sense of conflict. Since I grew up on a steady diet of Stephen King and other horror writers, I'm rather jaded and warped.

Melly said...

Pat, I thought you'd say that about being warped ;)
Built-in sense of conflict - beautifully put.
Yes, I like writing them too. And I usually feel that if a disturbing scene comes out good, then it is _really_ good.

Carter said...

"Disturbing", to me, means any scene that attacks my sense of safety. The dwarf certainly did that.

I don't "like" writing disturbing scenes. Sometimes, they hurt or disturb me so badly I cry. On the other hand, that's where the real gold is in my writing. Without puching myself over the limits that I consider safe, it would just be words lounging around on the page.

I have a couple of scenes early on in my novel that I really don't want to have to read again. Editing is going to be hard. There are others coming. That's one thing that's slowing me down so much: dread of what is going to happen.

I'm close to these people. I care about most of them, and I don't want to see them hurt. If I don't write the truth of the story, though, what's the purpose in writing it at all?

Melly said...

"I don't "like" writing disturbing scenes. Sometimes, they hurt or disturb me so badly I cry. On the other hand, that's where the real gold is in my writing. Without puching myself over the limits that I consider safe, it would just be words lounging around on the page." - Carter, you described exactly how I feel about this. It can be some of the most rewarding writing I do.

Anonymous said...

I loved Twim Peaks! That was a truly disturbing show with a dark sense of humor. I agree that it was drawn out but it really didn't start to go downhill until late in the series. I wish that they would release a packed DVD set!

Melly said...

I was sure they did, Fred, didn't they?
No, you're right, only the first season and the movie are out on DVD.

Eric Mutta said...

Hmmm, as a reader, I don't mind reading about disturbing scenes though I don't dwell too much on them because it does affect the mind and emotions rather negatively.

As a writer, I avoid writing disturbing scenes because it's so easy for people to misunderstand the author's intent.

It also puts immense pressure on the author because they have to justify the events of the scene or risk appearing callous through trivialisation (This is especially risky if one of your readers has experienced the event in real-life, e.g rape).

Melly said...

Ahh, Eric, but that's where it becomes interesting. That's where we stretch realities and break the boundaries of the safe.

I love to both read and write these scenes, knowing that no two people are alike, no two villains are alike, no two victims are alike.

Exploring what we don't understand _is_ what we do, isn't it?

Benjamin Solah said...

It is weird for me because I love to write disturbing scenes. It is the kind of writing that I live for. I can do it both from POVs, it's just there's an element of 'is this normal?' when I get too in depth.

Melly said...

My thought exactly - am I normal? How can I write this kind of stuff?
And yet it is also my favourite stuff to write.
Well, we seem to feel the same about this Benjamin :)

uninterlaced said...

this is one of the main causes of writer's block for me, hence the lack of anything substantial in my portfolio. :-(

Melly said...

uninterlaced, that's actually a very interesting comment, whether you were laughing or not, because it happened often that I either had to stop writing before or after such a scene for quite a while. Thanks :)

Steven Sweet said...

Your writing is going to fail if you can't expand your imagination. How many times have you stopped writting a piece/scene because you were worried about the believabilty factor? You're worried that the rape scene you are writing wont be accurate enough compared to reality. What does it feel to kill someone? Neither scenerio is one I want to do, but it does make a good read. It stirs up emotion and get's people talking. As writers, we should all be worried about ourselves. You'd have to be crazy to be a writer, yet there isn't anything I'd rather do!

Melly said...

LOL, Steven. Indeed, we are all a bit crazy to be writers :)

As for the subject of real and believability, I guess that this would be subjective as well. Even when authors write sci-fi and fantasy they still want it to feel real, be believable. So if I want to feel a certain disturbing scene I'm writing is real, it's from a writer's point of view. Obviously, I haven't killed anybody so I can't tell if it's real or not, and I'm not going to contact Paul Bernardo to find out if it is, but I still want it to feel real, at least to me. And when it does it's a great (but disturbing) feeling.

Anonymous said...

I know that this was posted way back in 2005, but as a new writer and fellow crazed person this was the best "Don't feel guilty for writing it" blog I've found yet! Thanks to all of you for sharing. It's helped me break through my mental hesitation.