There’s an art to writing about violence and gore.

 

Scene from the Texas Chainsaw Massacre
Scene from the Texas Chainsaw Massacre

IF YOUR NOVEL’S PLOT includes violent scenes, then some pain and gore is needed to create realism. However, it does not have to be much. Choose carefully how much gore you want to include, based on on your personal taste, your genre, and your readers’ expectations.

Personal Taste

Do you enjoy reading gory fiction, with graphic descriptions of violence, with chainsaw massacres and disembowellings? Then write it, and include detailed descriptions of the injuries.

Does the mere mention of violence repulse you? Do you get sick at the sight of blood? When watching a horror movie, do you fast-forward through the gory bits? Then keep descriptions of violence brief and leave out the gruesome detail. Instead, focus on the psychological aspects.

Genre

Some genres – especially thrillers and full-length horror fiction – practically demand violence, because this is what readers expect, so you need to provide it, although not in every scene.

In a thriller, few scenes contain violence, but the violence is graphic. Descriptions of murder victims are graphic, too, often with details intended to shock.

The horror genre spans a wide range. On one end, psychological horror may show no violence at all, although the threat of it is present; the readers know something terrible is going to happen but they don’t witness it on the page. At the other end is slash & gore horror, filled with brutal murders and mutilations, chainsaw massacres and mounds of gore.

In children’s fiction and romance, there is little violence and no gore. Urban fantasy often has some gory bits, but they tend to be brief.

Reader Expectations

Readers expect a certain amount of violence – a lot, a little or none – depending on the genre, on other books by the same author, the book description and the cover picture. If you give them too much for their taste, they’ll be grossed out; if you give them too little, they’ll be disappointed.

While you can’t get it right for everyone, you need to get it right for your average reader. Visualise the typical person buying your book, and consider what other books she has read and who her favourite authors are. Use those as a yardstick for the violence level in your own writing.

In the age of the eBook, readers download sample pages before buying. Try to include in your first pages a hint of the level of violence to come.

The book’s blurb (short description on the back cover or the product page) can also give readers a clue. Use phrases such as extreme horror, violent, not recommended for young readers to warn potential buyers that this may not be the right book for them.

Scene from Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho
Scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho

Striking a Balance

While violence can create many different kinds of fear, gore creates horror, shock and revulsion.

If you choose to write gory fiction, take care not to create a non-stop gore-fest. Mutilated corpses piling up in scene after scene soon become boring. The impact of gore soon wears off. Also remember that the mental states of horror and shock don’t last long; they may give way to indifference. Revulsion is stimulating only if it is brief; continued revulsion puts readers off and sends them in search of something more pleasant.

The trick is to use violence and gore only in some scenes, not all the time. Give the reader the chance to recover between each slaughter, so they’re able to experience the horror afresh.

Think of gore as spice: it enhances the flavour of the dish, but is not a dish in itself. Sprinkling black pepper on a dish makes the food more exciting, but you wouldn’t enjoy a dish consisting mostly of black pepper and not much else.

Using Gore to Create Horror

If you want some shock, horror or revulsion, but not too much, make the descriptions graphic but keep them short, perhaps just a sentence or two.

To create horror, describe the colours, textures, shapes and movements of the corpses, injuries and horrible things. Describe one or two details rather than the whole thing. Show the white maggots wiggling in the wound, the blood spurting in a wide arc from the shoulder where the limb has been severed, the eyeball hanging by a thread from its socket.

You can increase the horror further by mentioning something innocuous in the same sentence as the gory detail: Blood drips from the ceiling and forms dark patches on the baby blanket. Intestines spill across the lace tablecloth.

A related technique is to use similes, comparing the terrible thing to something innocuous: Blood stains her lace shawl with pink and scarlet like a garden of roses. Guts spill from his abdomen like strings of undigested sausages.

My advice: Make the gore graphic and intense, but use it sparingly and keep it short.

Questions?

If you want feedback for an idea or have questions, leave a comment and I’ll reply. I’ll be around for a week and I enjoy answering questions.

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Please click the book cover image to read more about author/editor Rayne Hall and her books.

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