Cullen’s Whiplash Writing Recommendations: The Gory Details

And I’m back! I know it took a while, and I’m very sorry for that. Swapping out a single computer component is, apparently, a deeply involved task if your warranty hasn’t expired yet. But lo- I thought of a thing! A entire additional thing! And boy, does this one give you a lot to scrub out of the walls.

If you’ve read a book, odds are good that someone, somewhere, died in it at some point. Death is just too much a part of our lives not to show up from time to time. But what kind of death was it, exactly? I don’t mean ‘Did Miharu’s death follow the traditional Samurai ideal of a good death?’ because that’s a lengthy philosophical question and honestly, if I wanted to study philosophy I’d have just dropped out of college and bought a bunch of books. You don’t need a professor to teach you a field in which there are no wrong answers, now do you? And don’t make that face. Since I am a college student, it’s my sworn duty to give endless bullcrap to anyone who dared to study a major other than my own, even though those people the ones I’m not competing with for jobs.

Blood for the blood- right, had to bring us back on-topic there, and Warhammer 40K seemed like a good starting point. We’ve all seen a bit of gore from time to time in media. If you watch crime dramas, you’ll get a pretty healthy serving of giblets, misaligned necks, exposed tissue and all their visceral accomplices, and all those quasi-biographical series on HBO absolutely splatter the ceilings with it. Warhammer 40K is an extreme example of media violence, given its slogan- There is Only War– and that’s precisely why I’m starting there. I haven’t read the books, though I assume they’re similarly blood-soaked, but the games based around the tabletop franchise, particularly the two Dawn of Wars and Space Marine, aren’t particularly shy about getting gutsy. Dawn of War’s intro has gatling cannons shredding Orks, flamethrowers and a disembowelment with a chainsword. Needless to say, every major character in this universe is either a total hardass or a corpse. You think I’m joking? The Imperium of Man is literally headed by a skeleton strapped to a chair!

But the series works just fine for its adherents. No one ever questions the oceans of bodily fluids and dislodged internal organs through which their grimdark space Nazis wage an eternal war against a bunch of other totalitarian species. It’s a fantasy that manages to be vastly more violent and disturbing than the world we actually live in (and isn’t that a great accomplishment to put on the box?) Yet no one minds, because it’s consistent about it. Well, that and I don’t hear many people openly criticizing aspects of a hobby into which they sink thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours, which is dedication even the Ruinous Powers of Chaos could admire. Tabletop is for nerds far wealthier than myself, you see.

Here’s the point I’m getting at: you can have a book in which there’s a ton of violence and almost no description of gore. You can have a book which goes into disturbing, gut-clenchingly creepy fits of ecstasy about the pure redness of a crush’s nosebleed, but otherwise features no blood or injuries at all. What you cannot do under any circumstances whatsoever is have deep, involved descriptions of blood and death purely for shock value. Let’s make a distinction here: if, say, you have a duelist kind of character, you can easily get away with ignoring the disgusting ways that duelist carves up every minor grunt in the story, and then choose to spend a paragraph describing the way his final opponent bleeds to death after a stab to the neck. That’s fine because those grunts weren’t significant, and this duelist kills a lot of people by definition. What you can’t afford to do is go into the deep specifics on the death of an insignificant grunt character killed by the duelist, and then fail to do that for everyone else. If you’re going to include a lovingly crafted depiction of a man ‘burbling like an oversize child, red foam trickling from his mouth as he clutched feebly against the blood pooling at his belly,’ or anything equally horrifying, you need to do it for a reason.

Yep, you’re reading that right. Even when you want to write senseless violence, you can’t actually write senselessly. Terribly sorry to tell you that. Your readers need some damn background on why you felt it was necessary to include all this crap. Are you writing about someone’s first experience with bloodshed, lent significance by that alone? Is the dying person a former friend killed in vengeance, or a current one killed by the protagonist’s nemesis? Why did you need to devote three sentences to describing the death of a man who has no story importance whatsoever? You can’t just include that crap for shock value. If your readers want shock, they’ll imagine that for themselves when they read about the killing.

As always, there are a few caveats- a single line of specifics is fine and can help give a clearer image. Saying someone was shot in the head, or yes, had her brains blown out, will present a starker image to your readers than just saying ‘shot and killed.’ That’s fine. But as soon as you start going past the most basic mechanics of the death, you’re milking it. You can do that for otherwise unimportant characters if there aren’t many deaths in the book. At the same time, if you have a character in the story just to get killed, that character shouldn’t have a name or a huge backstory- that character isn’t actually a character, just set dressing for the battle, be up front about it. You have leading characters to tug on heartstrings, so don’t try using cardboard cutouts for it.

Regardless what genre you’re writing in, don’t include bloody messes just to appeal to the over-40 Chaos Space Marine demographic. They’ll just betray you in some dark occult ceremony anyway.

Say something, darn it!

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