Friday, March 17, 2017

Sax and Violins

And Brian Eno production values
I have no small amount of violence in my books, particularly the last one where a Werewolf carves a bloody trail through Nazi-occupied Poland.  While its satisfying to read about Nazis being mangled, its pretty violent stuff and he doesn't restrict himself to just bad guys.

There's not much sex.  Life Unworthy has one scene but its one of those old-style "fade to black" scenes rather than a detailed account.  There's some kissing in Snowberry's Veil but its pretty chaste, as I was following a Louis L'Amour template, and tying to write a fantasy version of one of his books.  Old Habits the main character is pretty misogynistic and distrusting of women.

Every so often, someone will bring up the old charge of why its okay to portray violence and not sex.  Europeans tend to sneer at Americans for being "prudish" about sex but comfortable with sometimes gruesome violence.  You can show a man being shot to death but not a naked breast on television!  How prudish!

And there's something to that in terms of ratings systems; its PG to show killing, but PG-13 or R to show nudity.  Why is a naked breast more offensive and damaging to youth than a sword stabbing someone?

Like cheese to a mouse
At the same time, there's something from a storytelling perspective that some do not grasp here.  Sex is pleasurable and necessary human activity, it is a valuable part of a committed relationship, a bonding experience that demonstrates love and brings closeness.  Sex is good, if sometimes used in bad ways.  But its just sex.

Violence is by its very nature conflict resolution.  It is an explosion of activity, but the activity is to a goal or an end, not random and meaningless: it is someone attempting to resolve a situation, even if poorly and misguidedly.

Almost all of fiction writing is conflict resolution, or confrontation.  Conflicts are what builds drama; if everything works out exactly as planned and everyone goes along, there's no story.  Conflict at any level, whether in a relationship, or surviving nature's hazards, or with one's own nature, or against a physical foe, is the basis of fiction.

Sex isn't conflict resolution.  Its not even dramatic.  It is enticing and titillating, it is exciting and engaging, but it has no conflict.  You can have conflict with sex, but that's an addition, not the primary focus.  Adding conflict into a situation is what creates drama, but sex is just a depiction of physical activity no more laden with conflict than tying shoes or gardening.

What makes sex exciting or interesting to read is not its innate conflict, the way it advances the story, or how it reveals character, but rather a visceral pleasure and arousal that we feel.  Its like a joke that isn't so much funny in and of its self, but makes you laugh out of discomfort or shock.  You're not supposed to laugh at that, which makes you giggle.

Frankly, its often kind of boring
In terms of telling a story, violence makes more sense than sex, it fulfills one of the basic tasks of writing: it moves the story, it resolves conflict, and it develops plot.  Like sex, it can reveal much about the characters by how they behave in the process, but that's not integral to violence or sex its self.  But violence is conflict resolution, while sex is just people doing things.

For me, sex is a cheap device, its a way of filling the story out with physical descriptions of activities that are arousing and titillating, but they're still just filler.  It holds reader attention, but not by telling the story.  Its like having a video of two trains colliding in the middle of a play; its not the play at all but wow look at that crash!

I tend to skim past sex scenes, mostly because I find them kind of boring and a little frustrating for me personally.  And they add words and pages without story, which is a waste of time.  Put too many in (or too clinically exact and descriptive in) and you lose me entirely as a reader.  I'm probably not alone in this.

Who, me?
You can do the same thing with violence of course.  One need not know the exact scientific and medical effect of a gunshot, punch, or dagger wound.  Spending paragraphs describing specific and exact accounts of bloody, gruesome violent activity stops being conflict resolution and becomes simply pornographic in a different sense. 

Having characters do what they do in life doesn't always have to be conflict resolution or fulfill the requirements of a book: your character can put on their shoes, kiss a girl, or punch a clown without it needing to resolve conflict.  It sets the scene, and helps build character to see how they do things and why.  But if you get too much detail and description, it stops being useful and starts being padding.

And while that can be true about both sex and violence, it is almost always true about sexual descriptions whereas violence serves the story more fully.