So that brings us to "Successfully Writing About Horrible Things," which I moderated. This has been recorded and will be going up on YouTube, but here are some highlights for people who prefer text to audio/video. As always with panels I'm on, I usually have only the sketchiest notes and it's easiest to remember what I did as opposed to anyone else; no slight to the other panelists, who I'm glad to say were all awesome this year, is intended. I offered to moderate this as a non-writer who thought the topic was really interesting and would be glad to facilitate the discussion.
Edit: and now the video is up, thanks Scott Edelman!
If you're not writing horror but your plot calls for something horrific to happen to a character, how do you handle it? You might go overboard and be detailed to the point of undermining or derailing the narrative, or might be so vague that the horrific event has little effect on the reader or the story. A reader who's been through a similar experience might be offended or distressed by a description of awfulness that's lurid, gratuitous, clichéd, or bland. What strategies can writers use to help readers empathize with the characters' suffering and build stories that respectfully handle the consequences of terrible events, without falling into these traps?
Mike Allen, Catt Kingsgrave, Shira Lipkin, Kate Nepveu (leader), Patty Templeton
I started by saying that I thought that it unlikely that people would need to give details about the horrible things in question, but that if they really really were sure they needed to, please give a "in a moment I am going to talk about the details of X thing," and people could step out or do whatever they needed to. Also my standard notes about if-you-can't-hear-us (which got our mics re-leveled, so that was good), and taking questions at intervals, and so forth.
I asked the panelists to step back from the description and talk about why to write about horrible things, because it seemed likely to be important to the how.
(Also, often I'm unsure exactly who said something, so if I don't attribute comments it's fear of misattributing.)
I remember that Mike said he was distrustful of stories where horrible things didn't happen--this was not in a "it's realistic to have sexual assault but not bad teeth" way, but in a way that now I cannot remember the phrasing, unfortunately. (He mostly writes horror.) Shira pointed out the stats on sexual assaults and said that it was therefore realistic to have survivors as characters, but writers should be cautious about what elements of sexual assault histories they include. Catt (per Gillian Daniels' tweet, which I am using to refresh my memory) followed up about "fully developing the survivor side of sexual violence in fiction not just the dark content." [*] I believe it was Catt who also said that (a) violence and other horrible things are in her works for the same reasons sex scenes are, to advance plot and character; (b) if you could exchange the event with a baseball game, reconsider your choices.
[*] As I said then: see the Hydra Trash Party (which I think I called Pile), which arose post-Captain America: The Winter Soldier and is a subgenre of fic about the terrible things Hydra may have done to Bucky Barnes while he was the Winter Soldier, which some people have said they do because they know he gets out in the end, which is relevant to them as survivors.
We moved to technique. There was a lot of discussion of negative space: starting after the event (particularly the time when the realization of trauma manifests), or having it happen in-between what's shown (if it was a comic, in the gutter).
I pushed for more writing techniques that involved acts themselves: I'd looked at The Queen of Attolia beforehand, as an example, and found that its keystone act of violence actually shifts between the two major characters on a paragraph-by-paragraph level: the instant of the violence is in the POV of the watcher/instigator; the next, in the victim's, and so forth. Someone pointed out this sounded like privileging the aggressor's POV, and I said that's a reasonable reaction to the book, sure, but I was struck by it as a way of avoiding a level of graphicness that might be too much.
I know people talked about controlling pace by the length of the sentences--changing either to very short or to very long can be effective--and about focusing on emotions not the external events. Patty, I'm pretty sure, talked about zooming in on a very small telling detail; someone mentioned focusing on a witness. I think people may have talked about varying the concreteness/abstractness of the language. I think there was more that I'm not remembering.
Audience questions prompted some discussion of trigger warnings (or my preferred concept, content notes, which are broader). The genre and venue matters: Mike, I think, talked about publishing a story from a horror writer in a not-exclusively-horror genre that started immediately with something horrible, so they put it behind a warning, possibly two layers of warnings. Tor.com (I didn't get a chance to mention) has started putting very general "we publish disturbing stuff, and this is one of them" notes on some stories. Either Patty or Catt imagined an "alert" page at the back of anthologies and books, with content notes, that can be ignored or looked at in the reader's discretion. We also talked about how fanfic, in the absence of cover art particularly, and in the presence of much closer reader-author interactions, has developed norms of expected warnings (e.g., AO3's "Archive Warnings"; authors can choose not to use these, which amounts to "proceed at your own risk") and additional information (e.g., AO3's "Additional Tags," which can be warnings or enticements, depending on your POV).
Audience question about writing from the POV of someone doing horrible things but who we're meant to sympathize with to a degree because they are damaged. Possibly this is where Severus Snape came up? I'm not sure.
Audience statement that fridging women in bad; I worry that in trying to move on from that, I seemed to be making light of the audience member; I assured them that we all agreed absolutely, but I need to practice encouraging people to wrap up or cutting them off in the interests of time. Readercon runs on 50 minute panels, I've always got an eye on the clock, and during this particular comment we were very low on time.
Audience question about how to ask betas to read something horrible: just ask.
(Hmm, I see I had a question in my notes about whether different kinds of horrible things needed different techniques, but I think I abandoned it as effectively asked by prior discussion.)
I thought this worked pretty well, all in all: it covered a range of stuff and people were thoughtfully circumspect about the details of horribleness, which was the major failure mode I feared. People said nice things about it, too, which is super-appreciated. However! If you were there, or if you see the video, and you have constructive criticism about my moderation, I would very much like to hear it: I take the job of moderator very seriously and I want to improve. Also, substantive discussion welcome, on the same groundrules as the panel, of course.