Being too graphic

by Marissa
(Cincinnati)

Question: In my book a few of my characters get kidnapped and tortured and I want to be pretty detailed about it so you can really feel what they're going through but I don't know if that will be too graphic. My book idea is more for teens and is about people that hunt supernatural creatures.


Answer: Sometimes less is more. More specifically, sometimes leaving some things up to the reader's imagination (and just including enough detail to stimulate the imagination) can have a bigger emotional impact than lurid details that make the reader want to put the book down. "Too much information," can be counterproductive.

An example that comes to mind... in one of the James Bond films there's a scene where Bond is captured and bound. The villain pulls out a tray of exotic tools and informs Bond that he is about to be tortured with these tools. The detailed look of these instruments and the seriousness of the threat is enough to evoke fear in the audience as they imagine what horrors are about to be inflicted on Bond's body - as well as empathy for Bond and hatred of the villain.

However, what the audience did not need to see (and was thankfully not included in the film) was a 10 minute scene in which these torture tools were put to use, full of close-ups and screaming. That would have crossed the line.

If you really feel some detail of the torture is necessary, I suggest try to find one particular detail that will be enough to convey the horror and let the reader imagine the rest. On the other hand, you may find that just the set-up and aftermath of the violence are enough and you can skip the actual doing of the torture.

Curiously, the same guideline is true for sexual content in young adult books. If sex is important to the story, it can be more effective to give the reader "before and after," but skip the "during." A few details and suggestions may be far more effective and emotionally impactful than lengthy, detailed, pornographic description that turns off your readers and gets your book banned from school libraries.

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