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Graphic violence in crime fiction: a necessary evil?


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.

Hinting at violence creates powerful emotions

Hinting at violence creates powerful emotions

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.

Graphic - or are we led by our imagination?

Graphic – or are we led by our imagination?

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.

My aim: that readers will empathize with the victims

I want readers to feel for the victims

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.

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  • Laurence O'Bryan on

    Great post, Margaret! I totally agree with you on all aspects of this. I too write with violence and I think hard each time I do it. Thanks for your post.

    • Margaret Murphy on

      Thanks, Laurence – glad you enjoyed this – I’ll be blogging more about the choices I make in my novels over the coming weeks and months. Violence in fiction is a hot topic just now, and people on both sides of the debate have strong views on the subject.

  • William on

    One major flaw of your 1st person POV is that it’s either a giveaway or a bit of a cheat.

    If it’s not the cheat, the reader will rightly expect the character to survive. Goodbye to suspense in a thriller or mystery.

    If it is the cheat, your edit of any death scene will have to be be precise and clumsy at the same time. Precise in that it must (just) avoid the moment of murder. Clumsy in that it can do nothing other but this forced and obvious choice.

    I suppose you could bury the murder in plain sight using summary narrative, and so avoid the 1st person scene altogether. But in a thriller or mystery. I think not.

    You could have the victim active in 1st up to the minute, hour, or day of the murder, and then depict the act in following dialog. Better, yet again, a disappointment to most readers of these genres

    Most clumsy would be to use a 1st POV (victim) scene which has the last moment of the murder omitted – followed instantly by the same scene from the point of view of the murderer (whether his identity is given up or not). Perhaps either could be done as a flashback with strong separation, which would help but still, I think, be scaffold-plot obvious.

    • Margaret Murphy on

      Hi William,
      You raise some interesting points, but I fear you have misunderstood what I mean by making the reader empathise with the victim. I agree that it would be difficult to sustain a novel in 1st person narrative, told from the murder victim’s POV – although Alice Sebold did this quite successfully with Lovely Bones. It’s true that a story written from the 1st person POV of the victim would be unconventional – even controversial, in the way that Agatha Christie’s unreliable narrator in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was considered controversial in its time. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a cheat, though – perhaps pushing the boundaries? I didn’t, in fact, suggest a 1st person narrative in the blog – and frankly, I can’t remember ever using a first person narrative in any of my stories. But it doesn’t take a first person narrative to make the reader feel, it takes imagination and empathy – and one of the joys of writing is that readers have both in spades.

  • Mildred Hanrahan on

    Just finished Everyone Lies Great story,compared writing to P.D.James and Ian Rankin.Cant’t wait for Believe No One.Thanks for a two night loss of sleep!! M.Hanrahan

    • Margaret Murphy on

      Thanks so much for your kind comments, Mildred. I hope you’ve caught up on your lost sleep!

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