Web dev at the end of the world, from Hveragerði, Iceland

Sex, violence, and stílbrot

(This is the fifth Stumbling into Publishing post.)

One flaw (out of many) that’s endemic in my writing is that I tend to introduce detail that’s either irrelevant, too early, or too late. Like describing the cut and pattern of somebody’s clothes before the cultural origin of said design becomes important or adding superfluous technical detail to a post when you only need the general idea. A lot of the time adding detail detracted and obfuscated the effect I was driving for.

This tendency of mine was exacerbated in the stories by my decision to have an objective third person narrator and not quite doing it properly.

The perspective I used in the stories was modelled after the Icelandic Sagas. All of the sagas have in common a narrator who can see almost everything that happens but cannot read minds. Or, more specifically, what is described is whatever could plausibly have been relayed by a third party witness because the sagas were pretending to be historical documents of actual events—stories about real people relayed down a couple of generations. E.g. if a murder happens in the story where there aren’t any witnesses likely to blab about it (like in Gíslasaga Súrssonar) you can’t describe the murder, nor can you say for sure who did it. When somebody dies alone you can’t describe their final moments. And clearly, you shouldn’t be able to have any scenes at all featuring a character alone unless you can be sure they told somebody about it afterwards. So, anything that can be witnessed is fair game but you can’t dip into character’s minds or be sure of their motivations.

So, it’s a saga-specific twist on the common objective third person narrator pattern.

I bent and broke this rule several times in the stories in minor ways, but in each case I figured that the character’s motives or actions would be so obvious that stylistic consistency would take care of itself. Of course, that meant the end result was closer to a quirky style of my own than intended, which was probably for the best.

A corollary of this stylistic approach is that you don’t shy away from describing what happens. If, as happens in Gíslasaga (my favourite saga), a character has to tighten his belt to keep his innards from flopping out of a belly wound, you describe that. If another character gets his head and torso split in two down to the navel, you describe that.

And that’s where my self-censorship kicked in again.

Which is a statement I know surprises a lot of those who provided feedback on the stories while I was writing them. It’s plain that if I hadn’t dialled back the violence in places some of the stories would have been intolerable to read to those who were kind enough to be beta readers.

But to assume that the problem lay in the detail of the descriptions is to mistake a symptom for the actual problem. The real issue with these stories is simply that they were much too oriented on, well, fights, which was a consequence of too faithfully following the tropes of the sword and sorcery genre. Fighting people, monsters, undead, whatever, it was all too much. Violence should be disquieting and discomfiting. Reading about violence should make you feel bad—at the very least unnerve you. And if violence takes over the story that’s because there’s too little story, not because the action is described in too much detail.

(At least, in this specific case. Different things apply to different stories and styles, I’m sure.)

I can forgive myself for that. I chose to fall into the generic sword and sorcery crap trap. Beating things into oblivion is part and parcel of that particular snake pit. It wasn’t what we call in Icelandic Stílbrot or a break in style. (Breaking style is one of bigger writing sins a writer can commit according to Icelandic literary tradition.)

Shying away from depicting sex, however, definitely was a break in style. Which embarrasses me as an Icelander because, as I said above, not committing stílbrot is one of the Icelandic literary commandments.

Thou shalt not break style.

Instead of plainly and pragmatically describing what was going on, almost every time something sex-related happened I chose to, in filmic terms, fade to black or pan away as if I were a 1950s prude trying to adhere to the Hays Code. Or, which is worse, when the story would have benefited from it, I often avoided it completely.

The stories definitely suffered because of this omission. A sex scene between Cadence and her husband in the first story would have told the reader so much about how they managed to navigate their admittedly now loveless relationship with at least some care and emotional investment. It would have given their relationship an added dimension, made them less like caricatures, and transformed their fate into a proper tragedy. They had been in love once.

A sex scene between Cutter and Parell in the fourth story would have provided a much needed contrast to the violence and highlighted how unfair Cera’s situation was.

The sex doesn’t have to be pornographic for it to work. The love life is an important dimension to a love affair or a relationship and omitting it completely flattens the relationship’s depiction.

Say you have two characters whose marriage is one of convenience. You present them as almost strangers, a certain distance in their every conversation—their coexistence nothing more than a necessary formality. But if you manage to add a sex scene between them where they engage with each other as peers—a scene that is full of compassion, tenderness, and negotiation—that changes how people see their relationship. They are clearly not in love. They may not even be friends. That still doesn’t mean they don’t share something flavoured with arousal and tender feelings.

Or, to be even more crass, you can have a couple who are loving and affectionate in all other scenes but where the sex scene is one-sided and almost brutal where one partner dominates the other, that changes how readers see their relationship in ways that you can’t with any other kind of scene.

A sex scene lets you add a series of sensations and an emotional dimension to the relationship that you couldn’t have otherwise depicted.

I gained nothing by omitting sex—prudes are never going to be reading sword and sorcery stories nor are they likely to enjoy anything I write, not even the blog posts—but by avoiding sex I diminished the stories’ capacity for emotion and sensation.

Which were two things the stories could have done with a lot more of.

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