Violence on Screen and In Books (AKA I Didn’t Need to See That)

I’ve got a vivid imagination. Always have, and I suspect I always will. Lately, however, it seems that some authors and screenwriters are doing my job for me – they describe and show everything, leaving little for me to piece together on my own.

For example, the Following, which premiered last fall on Fox, was a gory hour-long show about a serial killer. It held nothing back, and was criticized for being so intensely graphic. Hannibal is another (an NBC creation based on Hannibal Lector before the Silence of the Lambs) with a shocking number of gory, creepy scenes.










In terms of books, an excellent example is the Song of Ice and Fire series, by George R. R. Martin. It is rife with descriptive imagery of human brutality. No rape scene is off-limits, no murder too shocking for Mr. Martin.


I stopped watching both the Following and Hannibal after a few episodes, and I stopped reading the Song of Ice and Fire partway through the third book. My imagination doesn’t need help – all graphic descriptions of violence, murder, and rape do is turn me off.

Now, I understand that TV shows and movies have been on a trend toward showing more and more basically since the beginning of TV shows and movies. But how much is too much to show? I pose this question not in terms of keeping things appropriate (there are plenty of discussions about that), but from a perspective of making our imaginations lazy. Sometimes the scariest things in the world exist only in our minds – and they are different for each person.

Isn’t part of the joy of immersing oneself in a fantasy world the ability to control our experience? When some of the little details are left to the imagination, we can make that story our own. We decide how much violence to focus on, how deep into the mind of the killer to go. When we aren’t given that option, I feel like some of the magic is gone.

Well, that and I have nightmares.

But, in all seriousness, I think about the issue of showing too much all the time as I write, read, and watch TV. I’m not sure I’ll ever know where the line is between too much description and just enough, but I do know that there is one. So, come on, let’s give readers and viewers a little credit: our imaginations aren’t dead – they are just waiting to be put to use.


Talking the Talk: the Social Impact of Storytelling

Last week, I read an article in the Wall Street Journal about how much of our conversations are becoming dominated by discussions about TV shows. The article talks about this change and debates whether spending twenty minutes at a party arguing over the ethics of various characters in Game of Thrones or the sexual couplings in Girls is a good or bad thing.


(amusing picture courtesy of the Wall Street Journal)

And it got me thinking about how storytelling has evolved over time. Now, I’m not talking about the journey from cave paintings to webisodes. I was thinking about the changes in what books people read and what shows they watch – and how they bring the media they’ve digested into social settings.

For instance, many Americans (such as myself) no longer have patience for books that have a slow start-up and then ponderously make their way toward the finish. Many books we consider classics cannot be replicated nowadays because no publisher would take them on. Everything I read about writing stresses the fact that editors and agents judge a manuscript by the first fifteen or so pages. Those same sources reiterate time and time again how important it is for authors to start with a strong hook that delves right into things. Readers – the majority, anyway – want to jump right in to the point where things are getting interesting, to have a fast-paced narrative that hooks them and keeps them at the edge of their seat.


I’m one of them. When I reread The Eye of the World months ago in anticipation of the final book in the Wheel of Time series, A Memory of Light, I kept having to restart because it begins so slowly – in my opinion – that other books kept distracting me. I couldn’t help but wonder: if Robert Jordan had tried to get a publishing contract for this book today, would any editors have taken a chance on him? What about Tolkien? What about any of the “greats”?

Meanwhile, television shows are more accessible than ever, with more variety than ever. As it becomes more and more difficult to get movies into Hollywood, television is beginning to provide a viable alternative. TV shows are starting to trust us to follow complex plots, multifaceted characters, and long story arcs. I, personally, love this transition in television. There are some things that are better as a TV series than a movie, and we are able to see a lot more character growth if we have years of weekly segments rather than two and a half hours.

It’s pretty clear that the types of stories we seek and the way we want them told to us has changed as our culture has changed. Over the past few decades, society has become less patient. We want things as soon as we know we want them – which is now. The number of Attention-Deficit Disorder diagnoses are through the roof, too, which means that it takes more and more to grab our focus and keep it there.

So it actually made sense to me that we are not only watching more TV, but also talking about it. Storytelling is social in nature. We want to share our experiences and reactions with others. Because of this, there will always be a hunger for a good story. How it is told – and in what form – may change, but the very human interest in stories isn’t going anywhere.

Now, who wants to debate the merits of Sherlock versus Elementary with me?