There And Draft Again

A Fellowship of Fantasy Writers

Getting Down & Dirty June 22, 2013

Filed under: Writing — thereanddraftagain @ 5:30 am
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~ K. L. Schwengel

Every writer out there is familiar with the concept of Show, Don’t Tell. You all know how it works.

Tell: Frederick was wet and miserable.

Show: The rain plastered Frederick’s hair to his head and soaked through his heavy cloak making it hang across his shoulders like a giant’s arm. Cold rivulets of water trickled under his tunic, slithering down his back and sending a shiver through him. With every step his feet squished in his sodden boots. If he were meant to be this wet, he’d have been born a duck.

That may not be the most masterful writing, but you get the idea. Showing raises the level of intensity by putting the reader in our character’s skin, making them feel, smell, hear, see everything our character is.

But where do you draw the line? When does it become too overwhelming?

There’s no right answer to that question, by the way. It becomes a matter of personal preference. But it’s something that’s been on my mind for a while. Personally, I like gritty — or what I’ve recently seen referred to as “grimdark”. I want to read stuff that makes me squirm if it’s making the characters squirm. Not everyone does. Some fantasy authors take that to the extreme and then get dinged for it in reviews. I got dinged for it in First of Her Kind and I didn’t think I was even being all that gritty.

Art must be fearless. That’s the tagline of friend and fellow author Devin O’Branagan and it’s something I tell myself anytime I feel like skimping on the details. If my character is a prisoner in a damp, dark cell, telling my readers the straw strewn on the floor smells bad is . . . well . . . weak. Bad like what? If, as a reader, I wrinkle my nose at the author’s description of what that straw smells like, I’m going to really empathize with that character a whole lot more. As a writer, I want my readers empathizing because that leads to caring.

Fantasy is definitely a genre with several camps. On one side we have the light-hearted, sometimes humorous, epic romp that has the Happy Ever After ending and doesn’t make us squirm in our seats. On the other is the brutally honest, face in the dirt, bugs in your teeth, hard-hitting, pulls no punches type. In between, a mix of the two. As a reader, I definitely lean toward the hard-hitting side. As a writer, I try to find a balance. I don’t want the violence, sex, or realism to ever be termed gratuitous but I realize that is also in the eye of the beholder reader. As long as it is essential to the plot and the character, and happens naturally, then I don’t consider it to be gratuitous

So how far do you go to sink the reader into your character’s skin? As a reader, how uncomfortable are you willing to get? Are there any particular authors you think handle this well, or not so well?



5 Responses to “Getting Down & Dirty”

  1. I think I fall into the middle, but mainly because I fear I neglect the other senses a bit. I prefer the grimdark to the light-hearted as a reader, though. Being in the character’s shoes is very important to me when I’m reading a book. If I can’t relate to the character or feel what they are feeling, I probably won’t keep reading.

  2. joshlangston Says:

    I write to entertain, and I realize that I’m competing with Hollywood studios and gigantic publishing companies. So what I produce has to be *at least* as compelling as what the factories are churning out. That leaves timid readers with the option of reading my stuff or finding something less demanding. I can’t take a chance on dialing back my work to satisfy a few folks who’d rather not acknowledge that when cut, most folks bleed.

  3. Great post Raewyn. I love reading something that makes me squirm and hope that at times my writing had that affect too.

  4. Scott Kaelen Says:

    ‘Gritty’ can be a tough call. That’s something I recently learned on a certain writer’s forum when I asked fellow fantasy writers for their opinion on a certain topic. Boy, did I get their opinions. Having never even heard of a (trigger warning), I didn’t use one on my thread title, and in short order I was strung up to dry by about 300 responses and 9000 views. Harmful to a prospective author? Maybe, but I’ll take it on the chin and move on.
    The scene I had drafted, which I was asking about, was somewhere in between showing and telling because it was purely in dialogue, with a femal character ‘telling’ my male MC about something that had happened to her a year earlier. It was only a few sentences, mostly said in the heat of the moment, and it was over and done with quickly. The dialogue was graphic and emotional, but given the topic I think I did the right thing by not showing the event AS IT OCCURRED.
    Sure, there’s a limit to gritty, and my thread found it.
    Take my word for it: Fantasy readers are totally cool with reading about slavery, war, genocide, walking corpses, et al, but when it comes to one particular topic they’ll string you up by the stones just for mentioning it.
    Because the response from my fellow writers was so strong in its negativity, I opted to remove not only the dialogue scene, but also to alter the backstory so that it never happened at all.
    I don’t think there’s a point where you can over-do the ‘showing’, but I do think you can get away with throwing in a bit of ‘telling’ — enough that the reader doesn’t even notice it. Certain fantasy authors ought to do this, in fact, rather than release a thousand pages of mostly utter drivel that could be chopped down to less than half the size and would read much better.


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