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Violence isn't good story telling

Atlin Merrick

Okay. So.

There's a lot been written about a scene in series four of Sherlock. Including how in "The Lying Detective" it was necessary that John Watson beat Sherlock Holmes—punching and kicking him, brutal and relentless.

The scene was thematically necessary, some say, so that Sherlock would need to forgive John, just as John had to forgive Sherlock for vanishing for two years and la la la blah blah blah no no no NO NO NO.

In storytelling as in real life, in all the all that there bloody well is, tit does not mean tat, balance is not a universal prerequisite, and at no point is horrific physical abuse 'thematically necessary,' a fetching plot point, or a necessary evil. Not as part of ‘pay back’ not as part of a process of mutual forgiveness, not as part of storytelling, not as part of anything.

Here's the thing, here is the absolute unmitigated truth of the thing: Writing that sort of brutal scene is easy.

It.

is.

easy.

When I first started writing I wrote horrific things, I detailed terrors happening to human bodies. Because I wasn’t very good at writing and so I wrote what was easy to write. Abuse is seductively easy because it’s like a runaway train, it goes headlong of its own accord, it carries the momentum of the story all by itself and you don’t have to be a skilled writer to make people feel. They’ll always feel horrible when a character is beaten or used, you don’t have to have good prose, you do not have to be a good writer.

It’s much harder to tell hard stories without the lush set piece of a beating or a rape (because that's how they're so often used, they're gorgeously framed, framed close close close). Hurt may happen to a character, sure yep, but the suffering pornography, the loving detail of it? It's lazy writers like Mofftiss who love suffering porn. Why do you think so many women are raped and children killed in films and books? They're shorthand. Crib notes. No-brainer ways to make us feel, to 'move the story along,' to give the hero pain as motivation. They show us the blood of abuse so we excuse the hero who goes on to abuse.

Lovingly detailing suffering isn't skill. Breathless close-ups on misery are not good story telling. They're lazy. They're what we do when we don't have much else in our writing arsenal.

We must have better arsenals.


This turned into a bit of a conversation on Tumblr. Also, Refinery29 has some thoughts on this, including how rape is used merely as 'a plot device.' Please share your thoughts below.



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  • K. Caine on

    I think I would propose Mad Max as a recent example where this was done well – we have all the information we need to /infer/ what the life of the Wives might have been like… but the movie doesn’t force us to experience it in full Technicolor. It’s quickly established, and there’s continuous discovery of “wow this is awful”, but the focus of the movie is how there is /change/.

    (I mean, the movie is still violent, so it’s not the best example, but it’s a good example of a movie where exploitation of women was part of the cultural background and yet the movie didn’t feed into that or make us experience it.)

  • Atlin Merrick on

    Thank you K. I think that’s the thing for me. We justify brutality on screen for “narrative momentum” or because “a price must be paid” or for a dozen weak reasons that really and truly seem to boil down to: “Hmm. We need a visceral set piece right about here. Something sweeping. Emotive. Let’s really ‘engage’ the viewer. Oh, I know, blood. Bones broken. Babes violated. Something gritty. About an hour in would be good.”

    It happens again and again and again and how can we not tell stories without it? How is it the go-to for film after TV show after film after TV show?

  • K. Caine on

    So this post is super important, and one of the reasons is that we’re totally inundated with these really horrible, really damaging tropes in the media that surrounds us. And because we see these things so much that they’ve become normalized, it’s become natural to reach for them as part of our writing toolkit, because they’re RIGHT THERE. They’re easy, they’re accessible, we’ve seen them six million times before and can isolate out the factors that made them powerful for us – but they’re also damaging. Every time we reach for horrific tropes without examining them, we’re perpetuating a casual acceptance of those tropes in media, and that can be extraordinarily harmful. We owe it to ourselves as writers, and to the people who consume the media we create, to interrogate everything we do to ensure that it is deliberate, intentional, and not causing harm to or poor representation of the characters being represented. It’s so easy to reach for the easy tools, but we have a resoomsibily to push ourselves and be purposeful with the storytelling techniques we use.


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