I often find myself reading novels that are well written and psychologically astute, but devolve into violence that is out of scale, graphically described where it need not be, or both.
I'm the father of a 13-year-old boy and a five-year-old girl, both readers, both attuned to their age-appropriate popular culture. My day job is at a research institute that studies family violence and crimes against children. Not surprisingly, then, I'm constantly thinking about the images and values my children are picking up in the world around them and seeing evidence that we live in a society where there is an alarming amount of violence, both physical and psychological, with tangible individual and societal consequences. Violence does not have to be delivered on an enormous scale or infused with crazed pathology to trouble readers.
My first novel, The Vaults, is set in a fictional city in the 1930s (the city being to Chicago what Gotham is to New York) following a gang war. While I wouldn't describe it as an especially violent book, it does have its share of violence, and a real issue I faced was how I was going to use and depict that aspect of the book. While the books I read generally have some violence in them, I wanted in my own writing to avoid what Marilyn Stasio has called the "practice of writing for maximum horror."
What's "maximum horror"? Take The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Say what you will about the rest of the book, but the "reveal" is horrifying—indeed, to me, more horrifying than you are led to expect from the measured tone of the rest of the book. The violent ending just seems out of scale. Compare this to Val McDermid's A Place of Execution, where the "reveal" is also ghastly, but on a scale that's better suited to the story. Moreover, the latter seems all the more troubling because it is entirely conceivable, in a way that the extraordinary violence of Larsson's villain simply is not. Why is it necessary for authors to depict appallingly violent acts in their books? Again and again, I find myself reading novels that are well written and psychologically astute, but devolve into violence that is out of scale, graphically described where it need not be, or both.
With all of this in mind, I tried to hew to three rules in regards to writing violent scenes or descriptions in The Vaults. First, violence should be crucial to the plot or the understanding of a character or setting; second, the focus should be on the consequence of violence, rather than on the act itself; and third, violence should never be used for shock value or amusement.
Part of the plot of The Vaults hinges on a past event of sickening violence. My challenge was to make the horror of this incident palpable without sinking into graphic descriptions or the portrayal of sadism. I accomplished this (I hope) by relating the events third-hand: a protagonist's memories of the photographs and accounts he saw of the crime. By focusing on the facts of the crime and the protagonist's reaction to it, I tried to convey the horror without being lurid.
Actually, most of the violence in The Vaults takes place offscreen, either in the past or within the story's time frame, but not described as it is happening. I explicitly chose exceptions when the violent acts were of premium importance to the plot. And in these instances, I described the violent acts, but did not linger on them.
I don't mean to be unduly harsh to Stieg Larsson, who is a wonderful writer. His example is most telling because he is such a good writer, not needing to fall prey to the temptation of the lurid. As I continue to write novels, I hope to provoke readers through theme and plot, not graphic or extreme violence. In the end, I need to write books that are consistent with the morals I try to instill in my children for when they read them (once they are old enough).
Arguably the most famous "scary" scene from the movies is the shower scene from Psycho, where the violence takes place just off screen. But the juxtaposition of the shot of Norman Bates with the blood mixing with water as it runs down the shower drain stays in the mind, suggesting something that actual viewing would diminish. This seems like the craftsmanship we should seek to emulate.
St. Martin’s published Toby Ball’s The Vaults in September.