Where to Draw the Line

This past week was Northwestern’s annual Writers’ Festival, featuring a novelist, a poet, and a creative essayist. As part of our curriculum, students in writing classes were required to attend a few events. All of the writers were inspiring, but the novelist’s reading in particular sparked some interesting conversations.

The writer, Nami Mun (who was a great speaker), read from her novel, Miles from Nowhere, about a young Korean runaway in New York City in the 1980s. In the midst of exquisite writing was a scene of the teenager’s boyfriend, high on crack cocaine, asking to cut her open, and the girl, also high, giving him permission. She then graphically describes how he slid a spoon into the cut and tapped on her bone.

It made everyone in the audience cringe.

I didn’t think much of this until a classmate said he wondered if all that description was necessary. We would have gotten the picture without seeing it so vividly, so why go into so many details? Is it the actual act that matters, or the characters’ reactions to it?

There are definitely instances when authors include events that seem unnecessary simply to say that they happened. These are the gratuitous action or sex scenes that plague genre fiction. Another example is in television with all the studios forcing writers to do product placement within the shows; suddenly there are random scenes in cars or drinking Coca Cola just so that they can get ad revenue. When the scene does nothing to move the plot or the characters forward, it is unnecessary.

However, I do not think that this particular scene, though graphic, was unnecessary. In fact, part of the function of the details is to make you understand just how horrifying the action is. The narrator describes the scene sparsely so that all you get is the bare act, leaving the reader to interpret its grotesqueness. It was not a graphic scene for the sake of shocking people but to pull the reader into the narrator’s experience. Furthermore, it gave us an enormous amount of insight into the narrator’s psychology as she reacted to her boyfriend, to the pain, and to her high.

I definitely think that there are times when writers include superfluous scenes for flimsy reasons. Perhaps the mark of a great writer is sliding those scenes in and not letting them be useless.

5 thoughts on “Where to Draw the Line

  1. I was just thinking about this tonight. How far does a writer have to go to get a point, mood, feeling across? Here’s one for discussion: Anais Nin’s “Birth” .. ugh, I can’t even think about it.

    Like your blog.

  2. I think that is something that happens in a lot of work: it’s great writing, but just way too graphic to actually read. I haven’t read Anais Nin, so thanks for recommending her! (Although I think I’ll skip over Birth)

  3. Hm. Maybe the scene wasn’t unnecessary for the book, but I don’t really see the need to bring it up in front of an audience of students. I think it would’ve been better for her to explain some of the “graphicness” of her novel and leave it up to you guys to decide whether to read it or not.

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