This is the first of three Highly Commended entries to the This Itch of Writing 500th Postiversary Competition. I liked this because it tackles a subject which we all have to deal with - how much is Too Much Information, how little is cowardice? - in a calm and thoughtful way, unpicking the issues without issuing a "rule".
Is it Wrong to Describe a Fart?
Have you winced? A lot of people do, even at the mention of it. Why would you want to read a story where the author tells us a character farts, or a blog post which discusses whether there's ever a good reason to tell readers such things?
When I was young, I loved Enid Blyton books. I remember being puzzled about why, when the Famous Five were locked in a room all night, there was no mention of whether they needed to pee. What did they do? How did they manage? Were they uncomfortable?
My husband is always telling me I am far too literal. Probably I am, but what happened to realism? To plausibility? Most adults books and films are the same - bodily functions are rarely mentioned. So when should we, and when should we not?
This also applies to sex and violence. How much detail does the reader want? How much of the mechanics?
One of my stories included a scene where the main character, a teacher, walked into his empty classroom and farted. It was meant to show how comfortable he was in there; he was more relaxed there than in his home. But one of my readers hated this. She decided the character was disgusting. Did I mean to give this impression? No. So we need to handle such things with care.
In a friend's novel, the main character is anally raped by her husband. She stopped the chapter at just the right moment, in my view. She "showed" us something of the vaginal rape, in terms of the character's feelings rather than mechanics. Then he turned her over, and we were left in no doubt, but she didn't need to show it. Most readers don't want to know the details of such events. It's enough, as reader, to know that it happened.
Two films spring to mind which went a bit far: Alive, the story of the plane crash where those who survived ended up eating the dead. After the crash, there were people trapped and injured, but the other survivors had neither the equipment nor the expertise to help them. My memory is that the screaming lasted for about ten minutes of the film, and I found it intolerable. I had to walk out. Who wants to be reminded quite how awful reality can be when watching a film or reading a story?
Another film I felt went too far was The Accused, where Jodie Foster played a young woman who was gang raped in a bar. They wanted to show how awful gang rape is, but did we want to see it happening? Did we want to be there, with her? I'm sure I speak for many when I say no, not really.
So yes, realism is important. But deciding where to draw the line is important, so take that decision with care.
Debbie Ash-Clarke studied Physics at Birmingham University, has worked for a Public Analyst and as a writer and sub-editor for computer magazines PC Support Advisor and PC Network Advisor. Her story, "No Longer Home", will appear in the Stories For Homes anthology in aid of Shelter, and she has just completed her first novel. Debbie lives with her husband and cat in Buckinghamshire.