Violence in Books: Do We Need the Details?

As part of the ongoing Flashback Friday series, here is a post that was originally published in May 2014

George R. R. Martin, the author of the novels on which the “Game of Thrones” television series is based, fielded some questions via email regarding why he included sexual violence in his works. He stated that his philosophy of writing was one of “show, not tell,” that “[whatever] might be happening in my books, I try to put the reader into the middle of it, rather than summarizing the action. That requires vivid sensory detail. I don’t want distance, I want to put you there.” He adds, “Certain scenes are meant to be uncomfortable, disturbing, hard to read,” and that the “atrocities in ‘A Song of Ice and Fire,’ sexual and otherwise, pale in comparison to what can be found in any good history book.”

While I have not read the scenes in question, the interview raised some interesting questions about one’s philosophy of writing and the importance of the much-mentioned “Show, don’t Tell” mantra.

In general, I agree that showing something is much more interesting than just being told what happens all the time. I like being shown what characters are like, discovering their personality through action and responses rather than a summarized “this is who they are” paragraph.

And what makes scenes memorable are often the details: the description as Bilbo Baggins leaves Gollum behind and races to find a way out of the orc-caverns of the Misty Mountains, for example, or the details in George MacDonald’s Phantastes as his main character explores fairy land. Without the details, we would lose a great deal of insight into these character’s experiences.

However, good authors also “zoom out” from time to time, distancing us from the action. J. R. R. Tolkien does this in The Hobbit when the Battle of the Five Armies takes place, allowing us to receive the details as a summary and not a first-hand, experiential account. This is, of course, a children’s book, but he does the same thing in The Lord of the Rings series, even though those are much darker, more adult books. We receive no details of orc-blood flying as limbs are chopped off or the gruesome complexities of any of the characters’ deaths–where the wounds were, how they convulsed or grimaced or spat blood or any such thing.

And when he describes the battle towards the end of The Return of the King, it is done with poetic distance (the following sentence is but one of many possible examples): “The onslaught of Mordor broke like a wave on the beleaguered hills, voices roaring like a tide amid the wreck and crash of arms.” Even when someone like Boromir dies, we are not put “into the middle of it,” feeling his agony as he dies. This is the paragraph of description in The Two Towers:

A mile, maybe, from Parth Galen in a little glade not far from the lake he found Boromir. He was sitting with his back to a great tree, as if he was resting. But Aragorn saw that he was pierced with many black-feathered arrows; his sword was still in his hand, but it was broken near the hilt; his horn cloven in two was at his side. Many Orcs lay slain, piled all about him and at his feet.

Vivid sensory details aren’t given, and there is no mention of blood, of labored breathing and pain, yet the ensuing dialogue implies all these things, to where we feel what is taking place even though we don’t “see” it. And Tolkiens’ novels are considered excellent books, dealing with the very same genre as Martin and sharing a similar theme: how men are capable of great good or evil.

Martin’s interview also got me thinking about how, according to him, “good history books” would include atrocities. I think such books, written for an adult audience, should inform the reader about what actions took place, but most tell and do not show. History books that put the reader in the middle of it would be works of historical fiction, save for when they can include excerpts from diaries and other first-person accounts. Frequently, such books do mention what happens but without “vivid sensory details.” Thus, it made me wonder if Martin is using history books to excuse his books’ content, or prefers those that feature as detailed a first-person account as they can find.

347h by gratisography

Perhaps he thinks we need vivid sensory details about atrocities to understand one his themes: “that the true horrors of human history derive not from orcs and Dark Lords, but from ourselves.”

What do you think? Are we incapable of relating with people whose pain we do not experience, whose horror we have not witnessed, or can we empathize from a distance, feeling sorrow even if we are only told of what has occurred to them?

© 2017 Andrea Lundgren
Photo courtesy of Gratisography

3 thoughts on “Violence in Books: Do We Need the Details?

  1. That’s an interesting question! I was reading a book called Bloodlands, by Timothy Snyder, about the lands between Russian and Germany during 1933-1945. He describes an awful lot of atrocities – starvation, rape, murder – but he never gives us intimate detail such as Martin evidently does. In such cases, it seems like the mere, bare recital of facts is horrifying enough. Even as Snyder was doing it, the sheer amount of horror can become kind of numbing.

    But I wonder if there is also an element of respect involved in history. Because they are describing atrocities committed against real people – my experience is that historians are careful not to be too voyeuristic and try to leave people their humanity, because atrocities seem like an attempt to strip people of that humanity.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. An interesting question, and a very personal one. I think a lot depends on the intentions of the author. What is interesting about this story?
    I think Tolkien was very interested in the setting itself, and the way in which stories are simplified to almost archetypal roles over time. What captured his imagination was not the details of the battle, but how he felt those events would be passed on through oral traditions to later generations.
    Martin, in contrast, seems very interested in the things that are often left out, the harsh realities and blunt details that are excluded from beautiful scenes that make many look back at the medieval period with a certain wistful fondness.
    I think it all comes back to why. If the meaning of the story is enhanced by more graphic violence, then there’s a purpose behind it. If it’s just added for sensationalism, that’s a mistake.


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