Although I am a crime novelist, I recently taught a class on horror fiction, as part of a creative writing course I was running.
The session threw up an old chestnut, one that is often debated by crime writers as well. How graphic do you allow your writing to become? Do you leave it to the reader’s imagination or soak them in blood and gore at every opportunity?
It was an interesting debate and we never really came to a definitive answer. However, there was a leaning towards leaving as much as possible to the reader’s imagination because they can probably imagine things much worse than appears on the page.
Me? I tend to go for the first option, giving the reader enough clues to imagine things for themselves but not being too graphic. Of course, I freely acknowledge that, in the hands of a master or mistress of the craft, graphic writing can be a thing of sheer power which has a profound impact on the reader.
Why do I opt for my approach? Take my novel Strange Little Girl (The Book Folks) as an example. It featured a police investigation into a child sex ring. Not a subject I wanted to write about, being a Dad of young kids at the time, but a real-life case encountered in my life as a newspaper crime reporter had so affected me that the idea for a novel would not go away.
In one scene, police uncover a basement where children were being kept and I opted for the non-graphic approach; a folded up sleeping bag and child’s clothing. Nothing else. Readers have told me that those images alone were enough to make the scene powerful.
Having said all that, sometimes there really is no alternative to the graphic approach. My latest novel Thou Shalt Kill (The Book Folks) features crucifixion and the scenes are graphic because there really is no other way of depicting such a crime.
All of which shows that there is no right or wrong here, there rarely is in writing but… oh, hang on, there is wrong sometimes. A few years ago, I ran a creative writing session and the aspiring writer said he wanted to set a horror story featuring vampires in the trenches of the Great War. I, and everyone else in the room, argued that, surely, the conflict provided horror enough. We never saw him again!
This article first appeared in Red Herrings, the magazine of the Crime Writers’ Association
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