Don't mind the short post... I adapted this from something I wrote for a writer's forum about a month ago. I'm super busy right now, and thought of this as an easy and (hopefully) worthwhile post for my blog. Without further ado...
Here’s the deal: last month, I watched Saving Private Ryan. For those of you who’ve never heard of it, it’s a movie set in World War 2, during the Normandy Invasions/D-Day and the days after. To sum up, a unit of men is dispatched through the French countryside to find one Private James Ryan, whose three brothers were killed in action. They’re bringing him home, because the top folks in the Gov’m’nt want his mother to have a child come home (it’s more compelling and there’s actual good motivation when it’s actually told the way it’s supposed to, and not summed up).
Now, most of you have probably heard of this movie. Many of you have probably seen it.
If you’ve heard of it, it’s probably for the opening 20-30 minutes. Why? Because it was (I doubt it still is, with all the stupidity being released nowadays) once of the most gruesome and visceral depictions of violence on the big-screen when it was released (1998). In some ways, it’s been considered the bar by which violent battle scenes are judged.
Basically, it’s an accurate depiction of what the D-Day landings looked like. It was bloody and harsh and gruesome. The movie is rated R, most especially for this extended scene. There’s a lot of blood and gunfire and explosions and people die a lot. They lose limbs or are shot or blown up by mines. It’s hard to watch.
Now, I’m a violence-immune person. Very, very little grosses me out, very little violence is “too much” for me. But this scene was hard.
Because back when my great-grandfather was alive, he’d tell stories about his experiences in WW2. He served as a radio technician in the Pacific, and was involved in several of the island landings (including, I believe, Iwo Jima). When he saw this movie, this is what he told my dad (and my dad told me):
“That begins to give you a picture of what those landings looked like.”
If that’s just a picture of the intensity and emotion and violence, then what in the world are we doing as writers?
I know a lot of us write stories about soldiers. I know a lot of us write stories about fighting, about battles. Sure, some of them aren’t set in World War 2, some of them aren’t even set in this world.
But I’ve read a lot of stories both published and not. I’ve seen the movies; I’ve read the stories with battles in them.
What do those stories do, most of the time?
They glorify battle.
Now, they don’t do it completely on purpose. They’re just copying those who came before, who were just attempting to create something the audience would enjoy. The thing is… we’re not supposed to enjoy battles and fighting and violence. Those things aren’t just -entertainment-. When battles are fought, people are hurt. They are wounded and they are killed. Have you, as a writer and as a human, ever really stopped to think about that?
Those people had lives. They had hopes and dreams and fears and loves and hates and relationships and they saw beauty and ugliness in the world. They were bundles of emotions and feelings and thoughts and desires.
Gone, wiped out.
And it wasn’t pretty.
Authors often talk here about “too much gore” or describing things to give the reader an “idea without painting it gruesomely”. But the thing is… there is no way to gloss over those things without cheapening them. There are some things that we should never cheapen, that we should never just gloss over.
Am I saying we need to make our books viscerally violent? That they all need to be equivalent of a hard-R rating for violence?
At the same time, however, we can’t just smooth over the ugly and just describe a bit of pain and move on. If we want to be honest, Saving Private Ryan does a better job than any other movie or book I’ve ever watched/read in showing that violence is disgusting and painful. It shows reality for what it is. It shows the baby-faced young man, lying on the beach, weakly crying out for his mother while his blood soaks into the sad. It shows the brutal and stark reality that battle. Isn’t. Glorious.
It’s so painfully hard that we can never imagine it fully or describe it accurately.
We’re not here to tell stories that make readers feel faint, but we’re not here to tell stories that gloss over reality.
Years and years ago, when I was just starting writing, I thought fighting was pretty cool. I was that one nerd who loved the medieval ages and knights and swords. The whole cliché nine yards. When I wrote, I wrote with this idea that battles were pretty fascinating and epic.
I know better. I know so much more, I understand what death and life are, I understand that battle isn’t pretty. It isn’t glorious.
It’s hard. Pure, raw, hardness. I’m doing my best to show it for what it is, in my writing.
What about you?