Focused Hues: How Graphic is Too Graphic?

How graphic should one be when writing a battle scene?

When forming a beating or torture scene?

When describing the dark rituals of some fantasy druid?

These, and hundreds of related queries are valid questions. And yet, to answer inquiry with inquiry, there’s one question which can help clear up this confusion. And the answering question is this: where does your focus lie?

As Christians, when we write a story, what are we trying to focus on and portray?focusedhuespinterest

Philippians 4:8 reminds us to think on things that are true, honest, just, pure, lovely, of good report, and are of virtue and praise. This would include what we watch, listen to, read, and, of course, what we write. There’s trouble in every story, as well as darkness, danger, and perhaps violence, but what is your focus on? The good or the bad? The golden hope and light, or black despair and darkness? As Christians, our point shouldn’t be to get a story as dark and gory as we can without stepping over the line. The point is to glorify God though our writing, and as we take up the pen or sit down to type, we need to keep that in mind. Darkness and violence may (and, quite often, do) have their own place, but don’t write dark and gory scenes simply for their own sake or to add shock value to the story.

“Still, as every painter knows, it takes the dark shades to bring out the vividness of the light. Which brings us back to the original question of how much darkness a Christian writer should put in their story.” 

The most common question, and also the broadest, involves how much blood, gore, and violence should be shown in a book or story. Like many things which aren’t really a ‘sin issue’, different writers will have different convictions on this topic, and unfortunately there isn’t a hard line of ‘over here, everything is acceptable and good, but on this side everything is bad and wrong’. Somethings are obviously good, some are obviously unnecessary and over the top, and yet the majority of these red colored queries are tinted with gray and depend on the circumstances. It can make things a pain to figure out sometimes, but here are a few guidelines which will hopefully help.

First, don’t write something that you’d be uncomfortable reading yourself.

Or, perhaps more to the point, don’t write something so gory or dark that’d you’d be embarrassed if a parent or sibling caught you reading it. This is somewhat arbitrary and objective, but it’s a ruler that can at least be helpful considering.

Secondly, though perhaps this should be first, remember where your focus is.

There’s nothing wrong with showing the horrors of war—indeed, it’s preferable to show the true cost of something than to skim over it as if it were some glorious outing. But, at the same time, our focus should be on the light, not on the darkness. For me, my focus is on the characters…their emotions, thoughts and character growth, not on all the horrors surrounding them. Some details are needed, some are not. If a character is looking over a battlefield, for example, you might mention vultures being present. But unless it’s necessary for the plot, I’d not mention them tearing at the face of a dead soldier. The reader’s imagination can fill in gaps quite effectively.

If there’s a murder scene, is the focus on how much blood there is, or on the whole scene and the point of the scene? Once again, I’m not saying these details don’t have their place, but if there’s no reason for them and no point, then they probably don’t need to be there. In such situations, I tend to focus on general details to outline my setting, as well as some some small, very specific details…and, of course, the character’s emotions.

These same general guidelines can work for other violent scenes as well, such as a beating, an execution, or a torture scene.

With darkness in writing, it’s a bit easier to pound out some specifics.

Darkness, by which I am broadly referencing the whole palette of grays and blacks, will always be present in stories simply because what is a story when there is nothing to contest against, be it inner despair or outer danger? In stories, as in the world, there are bad people doing bad things, and there’s nothing wrong with showing the darkness. Just make sure evil is clearly shown as evil and is judged accordingly. And, once again, remember your focus. If someone is planning a robbery or assassination, and if the scene is necessary for the story or builds suspense, I see no problem with having a chapter portraying the scene from the villain’s eyes. But, as the plots and subplots interweave, don’t try to portray the bad as enthralling; show what needs to be shown, and show the results.

But there is darkness, and then there is darkness. All sin is sin, but when it comes to writing there are some things that I think should be handled very carefully, if at all.

First off, cursing.

A bad guy might ‘swear under his breath’ or ‘mutter an oath’ but there’s no need for us, as Christian writers, to actually insert curse words or taking God’s name in vain into our stories. As a Christian, even books sprinkled with minor curse words throw me off, and I don’t want my own books to do that to someone else.

Then there are sensual scenes.

(though I’m not sure if they’d be labeled under ‘darkness’.)
If a book has something like that, I normally end up putting it down, even if it is a Christian book and even if the characters happen to be married. There’s no reason to go into detail about something which, in my opinion, is best left private. Showing a character leaving a bed chamber in the morning, or perhaps slipping into bed at night is as far as I’d go, if even that.

Finally, witchcraft; something that no one would argue isn’t black.

‘Dark’ religions in a fantasy world, or really, almost all kinds of detailed pagan or unchristian rituals would also fall into this category. As Christians, we should keep our mind on that which is true, holy, honest, etc. While a dark or otherwise unchristian religion might be a part of a story, and while some scenes might even be shown involving said religion, I don’t think it’s necessary, or wise, to go into deep details about rituals.

This is especially true when you’re writing about something that is real as opposed to a fantasy. And even more when dealing with satanic cults. Researching such things for accuracy will do little to contribute to keeping your mind on that which is pure and holy, and the same applies to those reading the scenes. Remember your focus in writing: it isn’t to show every detail of the darkness but rather the glories of the light. Yes, darkness will be present. But details of gruesome rituals are not necessary.

In the end, as frustrating as it can be to someone like me who wants everything in bold, orderly lines, the topic of how much violence and darkness should be in your story is a little blurred. Some of it will be a matter of personal conviction, such as my own stand on swearing and dark religions. Some things will depend on circumstances of the book and the age range of the readers. Consider what you’d be comfortable reading out loud—or having your mother read.

Use the Bible as your standard, write what is holy and good and, through it all, remember where your focus lies.

Profile photo of Hope Ann
Hope Ann is a speculative fiction writer who lives on a small farm in northern Indiana. She has self-published three Legend of Light novellas and is the Kingdom Pen Writing Team Captain. Reading since the age of five, and introducing herself to writing at age eight, she never had a question that the author’s life was the life for her. Her goal is to write thrilling Christian fantasy and futuristic fiction — stories she longed for while growing up. After graduating from homeschool, Hope now teaches writing to several of her eight younger siblings. She loves climbing trees, archery, photography, Lord of the Rings, chocolate, and collecting shiny things she claims are useful for story inspiration. You can find out more about her at: http://writinginthelightpublishing.com/
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Comments

  1. Oh wow. This is a FANTASTIC article, Hope. Everything is laid out clearly and concisely, and you were bold about addressing topics I would only reference in my journal. You were brave enough to say what needed saying without beating about the bush, and I really admire and appreciate that.

    Thanks so much.

  2. Montezuma twern’t no good guy.

  3. Tatiana Hromyk says:

    One question: The main character in the book that I’ll be working on for NaNo was accused of being a witch. She obviously isn’t, but I’m just wondering if that’s an OK thing for her to be accused of. My dad thought it was alright (better than my other option :{ ). What is your guys opinion?

    • The Bible mentions witches. Is the Bible wrong for doing so? I think not! Haha! While the Bible talks about witchcraft, it clearly is not advocating it. On the contrary, it condemns it. So I think it would be perfectly fine to have that negative accusation made against your main character, provided it fits with your story.

      – Reagan

    • I agree with Reagan. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a mention or accusation like that as long as it’s handled well and what is evil is clearly portrayed as evil.

  4. Thank you for this article! It’s a great reminder for me. And I completely agree with everything you said. 🙂

  5. Little Brown Dog says:

    Howdy y’all!

    This may be a bit of a dumb question, but I’m currently co-authoring a dystopian novel with several minor torture scenes.
    I just wanted to know, how many of you think that extreme interrogations should /only/ be done by true out-and-out villains? Like would it put you off if a supposed “good guy” (not an MC) roughed up or (sorry) gave another character a few knife cuts for information?

    Opinions wanted!!!

    -Little Brown Dog

    • That’s hardly a dumb question…it’s one I’ve considered before and still don’t have a black and white answer for. It wouldn’t put me off, depending on the character and the reason. If it were a brother trying to find his sister for example. Or the secret service of a good country trying to find terrorist who were going to kill a bunch of people. I’d be careful with it and make sure there was a good reason and it fit, of course, but I think it would be fine…by which I mean, as a reader it would put me off. As a writer, I might do something like that mightself someday. (And as a person…I really don’t know).

      Someone should start a thread on the forum to discuss this topic…

      • Anna Gorski says:

        Isn’t that hypocritical, though? If something is WRONG then it is wrong regardless of circumstances. You can’t say that it is right to torture one person and not the other. It doesn’t matter that you agree with the main character or not. Torture is torture and you either condone it or do not. You can’t decide to practice immoral behavior whenever it suits you and shame others for doing so when it suits them. Personally, torture in a book does not put me off because in many cases immoral actions tell the truth about what humans actually do- it’s the ramifications, choices, and lessons learned by the characters in the fallout of such immoral actions that justify the adding of such a scene including things like torture in it.

        • It’s not hypocritical at all. There are many things which are right in one situation, but wrong in another situation. It’s good to yell “fire” when there is a fire. It’s not good to do so in a crowded movie theater when there is no fire.

          Physical violence is another example. It would be wrong for me to, say, hit an innocent woman. But that same action, hitting, is suddenly the correct response when another person is attacking said woman. Hitting, or otherwise physically trying to stop her attacker, would be moral.

          So it’s not wrong to say things can be right in one case, and wrong in another. Torture could fall into this same category. It could be wrong to torture in some situations, but right to torture in others, like torturing terrorists perhaps. You just have to prove how/why torture is ALWAYS wrong.

          Regardless, like you pointed out, it can be appropriate to depict torture to a degree in a story because stories often contain aspects that are bad or negative for the very purpose of making a point about how evil bad is, and how good is better.

        • The real question is is torture really wrong; as in, is it a moral sin. If something is sin, then it’s always sin…immorality for example. Even if someone were using it to gain vital information, that wouldn’t make it right. Other things, like killing, could be murder, which is wrong, or it could be self-defense, which is permitted. It depends on the situation. And we did end up having a whole conversation on the Kingdom Pen Forum about if torture was a sin or permitable in some circumstances. I’m not sure if we ever reached a complete agreement or not, but you can check it out here: http://kingdompen.org/forums/topic/when-good-guys-act-like-villains/

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