“Disturbing” Writing

Last week, two of the stories that Daily Science Fiction sent out were labeled with a warning label that the content of the stories was potentially disturbing.

More specifically, To Be Undone of Such Small Things was preceded by the statement “The story that follows is disturbing. Use your discretion in choosing to continue”

And Innocence, Rearranged was preceded by the statement: “This story includes mature and potentially disturbing themes. It is not for all readers”

I find it interesting that the first story was labeled as definitely disturbing (it touches on rape, terminal illness, and losing a child), while the second story which touches on child sexual abuse was listed as only potentially disturbing.  Depending on the individual, I could easily see those descriptions being reversed.

I think both stories were very well written and, if you’re not triggered by those issues, are worth a look.

What I wanted to explore in this post is the idea of “triggers” for readers and where we each draw our lines.  I forget where I read it now, but somewhere along the line I read an interesting discussion that said that writers can get away with much more detailed or protracted depictions of violence than they can of sex, at least in America.  (I started to say Western writing, but I really think that’s an American trait.)

The theory is that readers are so inured to the idea of violence that it takes a lot more to trigger a negative reaction in them.

And, as mentioned here before, and as evident from reading comments pretty much anywhere, every reader is going to react to a story differently based upon their own perceptions or experience.  Someone who has been raped is going to react very differently to a story that depicts a rape or hints at a rape than someone who has not.  Someone who was sexually abused as a child will react to even hints of sexual inappropriateness in a story whereas someone who was not may not even notice them.

This is another reason that I believe that you can’t try to write for everyone.  Chances are that if you’re something with emotional depth and challenges that you’ll trigger at least one reader.

For me, hospitals and terminal illness strike hard.  It reminds me of watching my father die, which was not a pleasant experience.  Would I want to read stories that pretend that people don’t die or that they die surrounded by love and peace and butterflies every time?  No.  Does it mean that I occasionally run across a story that affects me in a more negative way than the author probably intended?  Yeah, absolutely.

Fortunately, (knock wood) I haven’t been the victim of sexual or physical violence that could be triggered by stories like the ones above and I haven’t had someone close to me who was.  I imagine it has to be a difficult landscape to navigate for someone who has, like daily life is full of potential landmines.

Especially in certain genres that seem to be more open to covering those topics.  At the same time that I think a writer shouldn’t refrain from exploring an issue just because individual readers will find it disturbing, I also think that each writer should know the potential impact their words might have on a reader and should treat such issues with respect.

I’ve seen complaints about the use of rape as some sort of uncreative plot device.  As in, “huh, I don’t know how to take my female character from here to where I need her to go…maybe someone should rape her.  That’ll make her (angry, motivated, broken, withdrawn, weaker,…).”

In my opinion that’s cheap theatrics and it should never be done.  It shows a lack of respect for your readers (not to mention women in general when it’s an issue like rape).

Bad shit happens in life and it should happen in stories as well.  But it shouldn’t happen because a writer gets stuck or wants to shock people.  It should happen because it needs to happen to tell the story.

And remember, what you consider disturbing may not even register for someone else and what doesn’t affect you at all may cause someone to burst into tears. But I think if you’re writing from a “true” place, then even someone who dislikes what you chose to write about will understand why you chose to write it.

About M. H. Lee

M.H. Lee is a speculative fiction writer currently residing in Colorado whose stories are sometimes dark, sometimes funny, sometimes darkly funny, but hopefully always thought-provoking and entertaining.
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One Response to “Disturbing” Writing

  1. erinlizzie says:

    Interesting post. I’ve always had a hard time reading the sexually explicit in books where it is not necessary. I read “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” last year and actually had to take a break because the rape scenes were intense for me; however, I did go back to it because in this case, it was actually important to the plot. When it’s not, though, it can be not only uncomfortable for the reader, but also distracting from the main plot.

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