I recently received a review for Believe No One which was favourable overall, but the reviewer described ‘harrowing and graphic descriptions’ of the violence perpetrated on the victims. I have used graphic descriptions in my novels on occasions, but I didn’t think this was one of them so, curious, I read through those scenes to look for the offending material. I couldn’t find it.
There is a disregard for the victims, whom the killers treat as things – mere objects – because that’s what psychopathic killers do. But the violence is suggested, it is inferred from the fear of the victims, or is there as the implied threat which the Spanish Inquisitors called ‘showing the instruments’.
But despite an absence of detailed descriptions, it is true that those scenes are harrowing.
How is that? Here’s a clue: I did a guest spot on BBC Radio some years ago, just after I’d published a novel about teenage boys being targeted by serial killer. The interviewer said that as he read the novel to prepare for the interview, he balked at the graphic detail in one of the scenes. He made a note to take me to task me on it, then he read it again, to find the specifics, and couldn’t find the details he was looking for. ‘It was just my dirty mind,’ was how he put it, but it highlights one of the most powerful tools the writer can deploy when writing a scene: the reader’s imagination.
The more explicit and graphic the writing, the more likely it is to leave readers unmoved. Why? Well, it’s certainly not because readers are callous – hardened by exposure to explicit texts. No – the fault lies in the writing. Reading is an active process – it requires imagination, empathy, thought, and too much description leaves the reader with nothing to do. Just as a heightened description of a sunset can make readers’ lips curl in contempt, or a love scene can excite hilarity, a lavish description of the appalling details of an attack or a sadistic episode will cause readers to shrug; with nothing for them to do, they disengage, become passive – even bored.
Those scenes that were described by the radio interviewer and the reviewer as ‘graphic’ actually left much unsaid. Instead, the victims’ sense of bewilderment and terror is conveyed by inviting readers to imagine themselves in that situation. When the reader becomes an active participant in the reading process, they are not just reading words – they are experiencing the moment, empathizing with the victim – and that is why the writing appears to be graphic. Because what can be more immediate (or more painful) than experiencing such horrors at first hand?
I was a victim of sadistic violence from my early-mid twenties, so I don’t write about violence lightly. In fact, I promised myself when I first set out to write crime fiction that I would never use my fictional victims as a what serial killer Ted Bundy called ‘throwaways’ – things to juice up the plot, or to get the action going.
I want my readers to feel for the victims, to care about them, to pity them, to will them to break free, to survive. Which is why, when I write a ‘graphic’ scene, it probably won’t include a point-by-point enactment of sadistic acts; instead, I will write it from the victim’s point of view. Because seeing the action from the victim’s point of view not only puts the reader in the room with the victim: they’re inside the victim’s head. Imagination will do the rest.