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?

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.