In Fiction You Don’t Have to Show Everything

Years ago, I watched Laura, a film noir that came out in the 1940s. At the start of the movie, you learn that a young woman has been found murdered in an apartment. The police assume that she’s the apartment’s tenant, Laura Hunt. It’s a reasonable assumption, based on the information they have.

This information doesn’t include facial recognition. Why? Because the murderer fired a shotgun at her face.

It’s a chilling detail. Even though the murder happens entirely offscreen, we don’t need to be told explicitly why a shotgun blast to the face would render someone unrecognizable. We understand why, and we understand how gruesome the scene must have been.

When contemporary novels, movies, and T.V. shows depict graphic violence or sex, explicit portrayals are common. These days, it’s much more likely that the murder or at least its aftermath would be shown onscreen. We’d see the bits of brain and bone and the splashes of blood, maybe a closeup of the ruined head. Would that make the story better in some way?  

What are your preferences when it comes to graphic portrayals? My own, especially for movies and shows, is to not show everything. I have more tolerance for graphic descriptions in text, but even then, I think there can be immense power in hinting at things or at least being more careful about what to depict and what to conceal. There’s power in letting people strain with their imagination towards the shadowed corners, the dark rooms where a horror is unseen but still very much present.

I’m reminded of a scene from Ivanhoe, a novel published in 1819 and set in the days of Robin Hood and Richard I. One of the main characters, Rebecca of York, gets captured by a rapacious knight and brought to a castle. There, Rebecca meets an older captive, Ulrica, a Saxon princess who has been enslaved for years. None of the horrific crimes against Ulrica are described explicitly, but what she tells Rebecca is still dreadful:

Thou wilt have owls for thy neighbours, fair one; and their screams will be heard as far, and as much regarded, as thine own.

What would a contemporary adaptation of Ivanhoe look like? Would it show flashbacks of Ulrica’s captivity with explicit portrayals of her abuse, with her body positioned in a way that an audience might find more titillating than terrifying? It would likely be desensitizing and gratuitous. Nothing like the excerpt from the book.

I won’t say that there’s no room ever for explicit descriptions. They can be done well; they can have a place in a story. I just see so much that isn’t thoughtful. Explicit portrayals are often a knee-jerk choice, included because they’re expected, not because they’re the best way to tell the story.

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