In our earlier post, we outlined the three methods for handling violence in books—close exposure, offstage, and retelling. Some readers like all the detail (and excitement) of experiencing the action first hand, while others prefer to glance the other way while dreadful, gruesome happenings are taking place.
Here, we’ll examine real-life examples from novels, starting with an Omniscient narration version of close exposure.
The girl was lying, half-dressed, upon [the bed]. He had roused her from her sleep, for she raised herself with a hurried and startled look.
“Get up!” said the man.
“It is you, Bill!” said the girl, with an expression of pleasure at his return.
“It is,” was the reply. “Get up.”
There was a candle burning, but the man hastily drew it from the candlestick, and hurled it under the grate. Seeing the faint light of early day without, the girl rose to un-draw the curtain.
“Let it be,” said Sikes, thrusting his hand before her. “There’s enough light for wot I’ve got to do.
“Bill,” said the girl, in the low voice of alarm, “why do you look like that at me!”
The robber sat regarding her, for a few seconds, with dilated nostrils and heaving breast; and then, grasping her by the head and throat, dragged her into the middle of the room, and looking once towards the door, placed his heavy hand upon her mouth.
“Bill, Bill!” gasped the girl, wrestling with the strength of mortal fear,–“I—I won’t scream or cry—not once—hear me—speak to me—tell me what I have done!”
“You know, you she devil!” returned the robber, suppressing his breath. “You were watched to-night; every word you said was heard.”
“Then spare my life for the love of Heaven, as I spared yours,” rejoined the girl, clinging to him. “Bill, dear Bill, you cannot have the heart to kill me. Oh! Think of all I have given up, only this one night, for you. You shall have time to think, and save yourself this crime; I will not loose my hold, you cannot throw me off. Bill, Bill, for dear God’s sake, for your own, for mine, stop before you spill my blood! I have been true to you, upon my guilty soul I have!”
The man struggled violently, to release his arms; but those of the girl were clasped round him, and tear her as he would, he could not tear them away.
“Bill,” cried the girl, striving to lay her head upon his breast, “the gentleman and that dear lady, told me tonight of a home in some foreign country where I could end my days in solitude and peace. Let me see them again, and beg them, on my knees, to show the same mercy and goodness to you; and let us both leave this dreadful place, and far apart lead better lives, and forget how we have lived, except in prayers, and never see each other more. It is never too late to repent. They told me so—I feel it now—but we must have time—a little, little time!”
The housebreaker freed one arm, and grasped his pistol. The certainty of immediate detection if he fired, flashed across his mind even in the midst of his fury; and he beat it twice with all the force he could summon, upon the upturned face that almost touched his own.
This is from Oliver Twist, and is about as gruesome, in what is happening, as one can find in some modern novels. All the action takes place onstage (on the page), and though the characters talk a bit more than they probably would now—at least, they are allowed longer, uninterrupted speech—the violence is still unmistakably there. But it could be worse. This is Omniscient narration, so we aren’t getting the sensory details as the characters would see this scene: the smell of her blood, the feeling of the gun in Sikes’ hand (or on Nancy’s head), and how she looks, half dressed, are all overlooked in the narration.
So, just for fun, here is what the scene might look like in third person, close narration.
She was lying on the bed, her clothes negligently draped about her thin, vicious frame. He could see her bare shoulders and her temptingly-exposed neck as she sat up to watch him with a hurried and startled look.
“Get up,” he said.
“It is you, Bill,” said the girl. Her voice had the old tones of pleasure in it; it disgusted him. Deceitful thing.
“It is. Get up.”
He turned away from her to where the candle was burning, and, venting the tithe of his fury, he threw the candle below the grate of the empty fireplace. A thin plume of ash was tossed into the air, like the last words of the flame, and the girl rose and moved towards the window to un-draw the curtain.
“Let it be,” said Sikes, thrusting his hand to stop her. “There’s enough light for wot I’ve got to do.
“Bill, why do you look like that at me?” Her voice was low. She knew what was coming. And long she’d had it coming, too, the sneak. How long had she been telling other, rich people about him and his doings? How long had she been planning for his capture?
Without answering her, he grabbed her by the head and throat—the home of the voice that had once pleased him—and dragged her into the middle of the room. He glanced towards the door, more out of reflex than for any good reason. No one was there. Then he placed his hand over her mouth. Memories of how her lips felt on his skin rose up, but he strangled them, too.
“Bill, Bill!” the girl gasped behind his fingers, wrestling with his strength.“I—I won’t scream or cry—not once—“
He shifted his position to stop that mouth, but it kept forming words, saying more than he wanted to hear.
“Hear me—speak to me—tell me what I have done!”
“You know, you she devil!” returned the robber, suppressing his breath. His threw his words from him spit after a foul drink. “You were watched to-night; every word you said was heard.”
“Then spare my life for the love of Heaven, as I spared yours,” she said, clinging to him.
He tried to pry her off, but she wormed her way closer to him as she prattled on with breathless speed.
“Bill, dear Bill, you cannot have the heart to kill me. Oh! Think of all I have given up, only this one night, for you. You shall have time to think, and save yourself this crime; I will not loose my hold, you cannot throw me off.”
He grasped at her clothes to force her from him, but his hand slipped and slid off her bare, grimy skin into empty space as she continued.
“Bill, Bill, for dear God’s sake, for your own, for mine, stop before you spill my blood! I have been true to you, upon my guilty soul I have!”
By now, her arms were around his neck, and he was caught in her embrace too tightly to harm her, try as he would.
“Bill, the gentleman and that dear lady, told me tonight of a home in some foreign country where I could end my days in solitude and peace. Let me see them again, and beg them, on my knees, to show the same mercy and goodness to you.”
He feed one of his arm, but the movement made him lose his balance. He twisted and took an awkward step, holding his liberated hand out in case she knocked them both to the ground in her desperation.
“Let us both leave this dreadful place, and far apart lead better lives, and forget how we have lived, except in prayers, and never see each other more. It is never too late to repent. They told me so—I feel it now—but we must have time—a little, little time!”
Now his feet were planted. He reached into his pocket for his pistol. It’d be effective, but noisy…too noisy. He’d be caught before he had a chance. Then, he turned back to the pathetic figure wrapped about his body and brought the base of the gun down on that face, which even now was pleading with him, protesting that she cared. Instantly, a gash appeared, and he could smell her blood as she fell, so slowly, to the ground, her hands uplifted as if in prayer. As if that could save her guilty soul.
Offstage violence can be found in most mystery stories, since we can’t be present at the scene of the crime or we’ll already know what happened (unless, of course, the joy is in seeing the detective solve the mystery, like in Colombo). One such example would be in The Sign of the Four. Holmes and Watson are on their way to visit Bartholomew, a man who has discovered a treasure of which their client is the heiress. When the two of them, along with their client and her “trustee” of sorts (Bartholomew’s brother), arrive at the house, they are delayed by first one thing and then another. When they finally reach Bartholomew’s room, this is what they find:
By the table, in a wooden arm-chair, the master of the house was seated all in a heap, with his head sunk upon his left shoulder, and that ghastly, inscrutable smile upon his face. He was stiff and cold, and had clearly been dead many hours. It seemed to me that not only his features but all his limbs were twisted and turned in the most fantastic fashion. By his hand upon the table there lay a peculiar instrument,–a brown, close-grained stick, with a stone head like a hammer, rudely lashed on with coarse twine. Beside it was a torn sheet of note –paper with some words scrawled upon it. Holmes glanced at it, and then handed it to me.
“You see,” he said, with a significant raising of the eyebrows.
In the light of the lantern I read, with a thrill of horror, “The sign of the four.”
“In God’s name, what does it all mean?” I asked.
“It means murder, said he, stooping over the dead man. “A, I expected it. Look here!” He pointed to what looked like a long, dark thorn stuck in the skin just above the ear.
“It looks like a thorn,” said I.
“It is a thorn. You may pick it out. But be careful, for it is poisoned.”
It takes us some time to figure out what exactly happened to Bartholomew—whether his brother killed him the night before or someone else harmed him—but this brief scene is the only immediate access we have the crime. After this point, all is conjecture and observation until one of the criminals admits to what happened, but even then, it is very matter-of-fact and hardly designed to help the reader experience the agony of the dying man. We know what happened, and we learn how it happened, but all the immediacy of the violence is gone. This is typical of the offstage method. There can be immediacy in discovering the crime, and in tracking down the criminal, but the crime itself remains a distant event that the reader never lives through.
And here is an example of retelling, from Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Once again, we are dealing with a murder, but our point-of-view character wasn’t there when the murder took place. Thus, the action is filtered through the eyewitness to him, and then on to us.
Although a fog rolled over the city in the small hours, the early part of the night was cloudless, and the lane, which the maid’s window overlooked, was brilliantly lit by the full moon. It seems she was romantically given, for she sat down upon her box, which stood immediately under the window, and fell into a dream of musing. Never (she used to say, with streaming tears, when she narrated that experience), never had she felt more at peace with all men or thought more kindly of the world.
And as she so sat she became aware of an aged beautiful gentlemen with white hair, drawing near along the lane; and advancing to meet him, another and very small gentleman, to whom at first she paid less attention. When they had come within speech (which was just under the maid’s eyes) the older man bowed and accosted the other with a very pretty manner of politeness. It did not seem as if the subject of his address were of great importance; indeed, from his pointing, it some times appeared as if he were only inquiring his way; but the moon shone on his face as he spoke, and the girl was pleased to watch it, it seemed to breathe such an innocent and old-world kindness of disposition, yet with something high, too, as of a well-founded self-content. Presently her eye wandered to the other, and she was surprised to recognise in him a certain Mr. Hyde, who had once visited her master and from whom she had conceived a dislike. He had in his hand a heavy cane, with which he was trifling; but he answered never a word, and seemed to listen with an ill-contained impatience. And then all of a sudden he broke out in a great flame of anger, stamping with his foot, brandishing the cane, and carrying on (as the maid described it) like a madman. The old gentleman took a step back, with the air of one very much surprised and a trifle hurt; and at that Mr. Hyde broke out of all bounds and clubbed him to the earth. And next moment, with ape-like fury, he was trampling his victim under foot and hailing down a storm of blows, under which the bones where audibly shattered and the body jumped upon the roadway. At the horror of these sights and sounds, the maid fainted.
Again, we have the general description, and even a few sensory details (sounds, mostly) but most of the graphic details aren’t there. There are no smells; we don’t know which bones were being broken, which part of the gentleman was hit first, and how.
So, as we’ve seen, each of the three methods—Omniscient and third person close exposure, offstage, and retelling—can give the reader a full, complete sense of what happened. We don’t have to skimp on exact particulars, even in the offstage method, but what readers are told and how they’re told varies. We can have the close up, with the moment-by-moment commentary; we can have a distant discovery; or we can have the story of the violent crime told to us. Either way, the narrative can contain enough details to where we know exactly what happened.
And the level of gore can vary, too. Offstage and retelling can be just as full of blood and guts as close exposure. It all depends on the author’s intention, their own personal taste, and the genre they write in.
So which is your favorite? Were you surprised by how the authors of the above examples handled their method? Was one of them “too much information”? Too little?
Copyright 2015 Andrea Lundgren Photo by Jamierodriguez37, Creative Commons