By day I work 60 hour weeks. At night I am a devoted father and husband to the world's greatest family. Somewhere in the non-existent time between the two, I am a writer. Join me from the beginning as I chronicle my adventures to become a successful published author.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Day 19 - The Role of Morals in Writing - Part III: Graphic Realism

Graphic Realism

Graphic Realism is the term I apply to descriptions of people, places, events, or objects that goes beyond standard realism in writing. Often, too much graphic realism is found in loose, unpolished, writing wherein the author feels the need to describe everything in minute detail, usually all up front. Nothing is implied, no holes are left to be filled.

It would be wrong to believe that graphic realism is actually the same thing as a higher level of realism. In real life, we do not stop and study every minutia of a vase, we would not observe every detail of a body we just happened upon, etc. Certainly some characters might observe more than others, such as the person performing an autopsy on the aforementioned body, but these are the exceptions, not the rule.

So what are the pro's and cons?


  • Useful for describing certain artwork in relation to the story
  • Easier to evoke extreme revulsion or sexual urge 
  • For fantasy worlds, may be necessary at times to convey certain landscapes, creatures, or customs

  • Slows down the pace of the writing
  • Information Overload
  • Leaves nothing to the imagination, making it harder for the reader to personalize/relate to the story and characters
  • When used in sex or violence, it becomes a major turn-off for a large swatch of the market, equating to lower sales. Mundane controversy over sex and violence in literature rarely equates to more sales, but rather the opposite. 
Viewing the pros, it should be noted that tight writing generally dictates that you don't do your descriptions on a massive block, but rather slowly paint the picture through character thoughts, conversation, and observation. Further, a skilled writer can evoke extreme emotion without extreme detail. Thus, I do not see many instances where graphic realism is good for your craft.

A few examples:

Setting: Tom Clancy, world renowned action-thriller author, was on the top of his game with books such as Patriot Games, the Hunt for the Red October, and other Jack Ryan books from that period. More and more however his books have declined in popularity. Where once he would give moderate detail (ie, they carried a Kalashnikov), he is now so technical that he can spend a whole page or more describing ultra-technical data about how the Kalashnikov functions, each of its parts, and more, while flooding the description with acronyms and swearing. Clancy used to be one of my favorite authors, and for his early work still is. How I and many others long for the days when his writing was a little sparser in the description arena.

Good: Johnson saw movement from the corner of his eye, a brief shadow. Without a second thought, he whipped his rifle around and fired a burst without verifying. He heard a scream, a thud, and the blood bubbling from his mouth. He didn't have time to look, he had to move.

Bad: Johnson saw movement from the corner of his eye, a brief shadow. Without a second thought, he whipped his rifle around and fired a burst without verifying. He heard the scream, turned and saw the body riddled with holes. He got him. Sections of his flesh were ripped open, exposing his organs, pulsing as the
blood gushed out. The man started convulsing violently, his head banging repeatedly into the cabinet next to him, blood curdling from his mouth and nose as his head... yada yada yada.

One is descriptive and real, making the point of death and success. The second is obsessed with the gory details. There is a grey moral line about whether you are obsessing or glorifying over the brutality, or are you being judicious in your use? Want a great horror flick without excessive gore and graphic realism, but plenty of normal realism? The film The Others is a prime example fo how to create atmosphere, mood, and more through judicious use of scene cuts.

I won't offer an example of this. Instead, I will leave it at a very basic test: If it were portrayed exactly as you describe it word for word, would it be considered pornography, hard or soft? If so, I would like to say that any half-literate boy or girl can write that. all you are doing is describing physical body parts and basic actions. Can you become technical or even wax poetic? Sure. But does it add anything to the story other than porn and word count? Does it meaningfully move the plot or characters forward in a way that could not have been done the same as or better through allusion, selective scene cuts, and lead-up? Most likely it does not. 

So in summary:

Graphic Realism creates a detailed graphical situation in the mind of the reader, such that it allows little interpretation, While it may have a few uses, in general it's purely for cheap shocks and sexual thrills and indicates a lack of writing skills or effort and indicates a loose manuscript.

What are other instances you know of where graphic realism ruined or slowed down the story? What about where it really helped?

Writing update:

I was busy with family nearly all weekend. As you saw, I did not blog in any depth yesterday, but I kept my commitment. I have written more in the novel every day, including today. Still going strong. 

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