Writing fears 101: Of grandmothers and brick walls


Amazing thing, social media. Allows you to connect with people around the world. And, depending on how you search and filter and interact, you can move beyond family and friends into virtually any type of group.

As you might imagine, I tend to look for writers in some of my adventures on such sites. It’s a way of sharing experiences, thoughts, suggestions and more. It’s a way to offer support.

Today, I came across a simple question. It was so simple, at least initially, that I raised an eyebrow toward it and then scrolled away. And because I scrolled away without deeply paying attention, I have zero clue who posted it. I doubt I’ll find it again.

But it wasn’t truly gone. It stayed with me. It hung around and kept popping up again and again. I found myself repeatedly attempting to work out an answer for it.

The question on this day was based upon incidents of violence. The person posting it explained that there were a couple of instances in an effort being written, and there was some concern about how readers might react. But there was a bit of a trick to the presentation. There was little explanation beyond what I’ve already shared. Simply put, it was whether or not to include violence in a book. That’s it. No additional details to help navigate a response.

At this point, I don’t recall the person that asked and I’m fairly certain I won’t find it again… at least not the specific post that got me thinking. So here, offered in a generic response to the base issue as I recall it, is a bit of an answer…

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Now hours since I first saw it, the exact wording eludes me. But the basic premise is there, knocking about in my head…

A person had a question about the existence of two incidents of violence in what I interpreted to be a manuscript they were writing. Concerns about how the audience would react. Nothing more offered. Simple and clean version: should a writer include scenes of violence or not.

I have been thinking about the idea off and on since I first read it. I’ve been trying to apply additional conditions and circumstances to the question, and then pulling those conditions and circumstances back since nothing additional was ever stated to validate applying them.

Two thoughts have emerged as the dominant parts of any response I develop for the question:

First – Quite quickly, my initial reaction was the grandmother scenario. The basic idea being when a writer wonders “How will my grandmother react if she reads this?” about an effort.

Second – The more the concept kept creeping back into my thoughts, the more I began thinking about my Brick Wall Writing Theory.

Those two set into place… let’s explore a bit…

The grandmother scenario is truly so straightforward it defies deep thought. If you wrote out a scene, would it be something your grandmother would be embarrassed or upset to read. Done. There it is.

Usually, we’d be discussing themes of an adult nature. Still, the foundation it puts in place works for us here, and builds as we transition the concept from the thoughts of a grandmother to the reactions of an audience.

Now, that Brick Wall Writing Theory.

I have a firm belief about writing that transcends the rules of grammar and style and so on. It uses the pure joy of reading it as the standard or quality, and how a work can completely absorb you. It’s about reaching a state where you don’t even notice that you’re flipping pages.

In such a context, to me brilliant writing becomes about being able to create a situation where a reader is fully immersed in what they’re experiencing. Toward that end, it simply doesn’t matter which words are being used in what order with this punctuation mark or that. Grammar rules disappear. (Sort of. For one thing, spelling still counts. But let’s not digress.)

The problem comes when you are jolted out of that blissful reading haze. When a word or sentence or situation seems to come out of nowhere, completely unexpected or seemingly out of place. It shakes you, often making you think less and less about the story in hand and more about that specific incident.

It’s like—yup—walking into a brick wall.

Let’s head back to the question… what to do with violence in our works and the possible reaction of readers.

And the answer is… nothing.

(Settle down. Settle down. I’ll explain…)

As a writer, there’s a level of comfort that involves content. It floats between conscious and subconscious. It’s always there. Most of the time, a writer won’t even notice it though, usually because whatever is being worked on doesn’t test the boundaries and limits of what the writer is comfortable presenting.

A specific example? Ok… remember that grandmother scenario? If you’re writing about Christmas songs and mugs of hot cocoa, chances are pretty good that your grandmother would be just fine reading the story. You might very well be designing a new structure or presentation or whatever, and perhaps testing boundaries of some kind. But there is no issue involving a writer’s comfort with the material. That comfort level is never tested.

The thing is, each and every one of us feels a bit differently about certain subjects and material. There are things some families and friends discuss openly and often, while other families and friends never take up the same conversation themes because they feel wrong. Some writers will be comfortable going to the adult end of the pool, some would prefer to have cocoa and cookies.

The end result is, in my opinion, that the subject of violence in a manuscript is more a question the writer should be addresses on a personal level, and not one to be asked with regard to the audience. Or, to sum it up slightly differently, if a writer is wondering how a reader might react, that writer isn’t thinking about the story. See…

The real question here isn’t about how the audience will react. At least not obviously… at least not initially. The primary concern should be… should ALWAYS be… telling the story. During the production of a first draft, or even in initial revisions of a manuscript, the rest is background noise and distraction.

And yet… there is absolutely something to the idea that a part of it doesn’t seem right. Something to the idea that the writer is bothered by it. Which in turn is where our brick wall considerations come in to play.

Once a writer has decided what moments are needed in order to tell a story, the presentation of those moments becomes important. And it is here where the action-reaction process begins.

For me, this question isn’t about whether or not violence belongs in any writing. There are cute stories. There are horror stories. There are fun stories… adult stories… and we really don’t need to list all of the scenarios and genres stories.

There are violent stories. Violence is possible. And, depending on the author involved and the story being told, it may just be that a scene of violence is a necessary element to the storytelling. It doesn’t mean that every writer will write chapters or stories with violence involved. In fact, a good chunk of writers will never even be aware of the idea that violence could be an issue because they never write scenarios where violence occurs.

Instead, it’s a flow-chart type of situation. A writer needs to decide if that violence is needed for that story. If the answer is yes, then the next decision is about how to present it. It is at this point that the writer might begin wondering about the audience… about the reactions… about the words to use and where to raise a curtain and perhaps where to leave things unsaid.

I suppose you could shrug the question off by deciding more details are needed, and that probably would be fair enough. It’s a decent stand to take. A yes or no to potentially include violence really doesn’t create a debate. That answer is yes, and for no variation of the question or additional details it should always be yes.

But I find that every writer is going to approach material in the hopes of presenting it in the best ways possible. That includes knowing what to write, and perhaps what not to write. It includes understanding when to knowingly and specifically tell a reader exactly what is happening, and when to step aside and let the reader use their own imagination to fill in the details.

It includes deciding what the audience will find comfortable, and when they’re being led full speed into a brick wall.


If you have any comments or questions, please e-mail me at Bob@inmybackpack.com