pushing the limits

Short blog today, but I’m wondering, how do you draw the limits of how far you push the boundaries in your writing? Do you decide the limits based solely on your characters? Or does the genre / potential audience affect your choices? How, then, do you define gratuitous?

I wonder about this, because I think we’re seeing a change in what’s expected and acceptable in fiction, and simultaneously, we’re also writing for a culture which has become more politically aware, which has narrowed down the definitions of what’s acceptable. There are writers I know (some who comment here regularly) who’ve gotten nasty emails due to language. (Something I thoroughly expected to happen with Bobbie Faye, but which didn’t… and I wonder if that’s because I have other characters reprimand her already?) We see more and more thriller writers including sex scenes (or more descriptive sex scenes instead of merely the suggestion of sex), more detailed crime scene descriptions, and, I think, more elaborate descriptions of violence in the moment instead of just the lead up to and then the repercussions of. I know writers who wouldn’t hesitate to use curse words, but who shy completely away from certain word choices / epithets because they are no longer acceptable by society… even though their character, in that world, would have used them. The writer’s worried about offending a segment of society, (i.e., potential readers), whether they admit to the concern or not.

Trends in fiction are not new, of course, but we cannot ignore the fact that TV, film, and video games (Warcraft, Halo, etc.) have affected what’s now acceptable… or at least, tolerated. There’s a divide, though, between those who grew up with the video world on 24/7 and those who grew up before. When I googled readers median ages, there were several studies which suggested a median age anywhere from 35.8 for one study to 45.3 for another. I look at the generation of the 20-year-olds and the iPods and iPhones and constant community-gaming scenarios (playing Halo with a guy in Japan, another in DC, another in Australia, for example) and I think… that generation doesn’t just accept more violence / directness / explicit language or scenarios… they expect them, and are bored without them. So… if readership is declining, is it because we’re failing the younger reader? Failing to keep up with what they demand from story? And if we aim at that group, do we do so knowing we’ll alienate an older—and more likely to read right now—audience?

It’s a slippery slope, I’ll grant you. If we start writing to an audience, we’re going to prostitute story. Prostitute ourselves in the pursuit of story. Or… aren’t we, already? Because the slippery slope / prostitution theory depends on the a priori notion that adherence to character, being true to the creation and only that, should drive the story. Which begs the questions, who created the character to be true to in the first place and didn’t we tailor the character from his or her inception?

I think about limits when I’m writing because I don’t want to shy away from challenges.  I chose to write a character who breaks rules, who says what she thinks, who pushes the limits of acceptable behavior, but I did so within a caper genre, which allows me to poke fun at her at the same time. I know some who refuse to have any character curse, for example, but I find it hard to believe that no one in their world curses, not even the villains. Other writers avoid sexual tension and descriptions, when sex (having, not having, wanting, desire, lust, love) is a big part of our world. That writer, though, has a limit, they’ve made choices, and maybe it’s due to genre, maybe it’s due to their audience. There is a famous author I respect tremendously whose audience is firmly anti-cursing, anti-taking-the-Lord’s-name-in-vain. She sells well, and I like her—we’ve become friends, and I love her books, though they are so different from my own. I respect her choices, because it works for her audience… but it doesn’t work in my world. We’ve each set limits based both on character and story… and genre.

How about you? How do you set your limits? Do you actively push across a line, pushing what’s “acceptable” or do you rein in? If you’re not a writer, what book shocked you in it’s breaking-of-limits, and did you love it or hate it?

28 thoughts on “pushing the limits

  1. Jacky B.

    If there are any limits to be set, I’ll let my characters set them. After all, it’s their show.

    I write noir, about desperate people, street people, criminals, cheaters, liars, and outlaws. Is language an issue? C’mon you fuckin’ kidding?

    How’s this sound? Bad-ass says, ” I’m gonna beat you up.” (pretty lame, huh?)

    How about, “I’m gonna kick your ass.” (better)

    Or, “I’ll bust your goddamn jaw, motherfucker!” (best)

    I’m not writing cozys, and anyone who reads any of my opening pages finds that out quickly.

    That’s not to say I use rough language, violence, or sex, gratuitously. As I’ve said before, less can be more, when striving for impact. You’ve got to pick your spot, before taking your shot.

    While I certainly don’t intend to offend anybody, I don’t lose any sleep over it either. My rule of thumb is, if I feel uncomfortable writing it, well, then it’s probably too over the top, and won’t read well, so I scrap it. If it doesn’t feel right to you, then most likely it isn’t.

    Novels are unlike other media in the sense that it’s highly unlikely that someone is going to pick up, and read, something cover to cover when they find it offensive. It’s not like you were channel-surfing and stumbled on something by accident, were so mortified that you dropped your remote, and before you could retrive it, were subjected something vile enough to make you lose your dinner.As a reader, you make a new, and conscious, choice every time you turn the page. Offended? Stop turning pages.

    Or, as some of my characters would say, “Fuck ’em, if they can’t take a joke.”

    It’s not like Sue Grafton’s readers are going to go out of their way to check out the works of Boston Teran.

    Jacky B

  2. toni mcgee causey

    Guyot, that may be true of you and your genre. But I wonder, if you had a villain who raped a child, for example, would you describe the rape on the page in glaring detail? And how the villain felt while raping? The satisfaction there? Would you explain the act? Or would you imply enough to get the point across, instead?

  3. toni mcgee causey

    Jacky, that “what feels right” is exactly the question, really. I’m assuming you meant “you” in the generic sense in your answer, not me directly, because my character curses and does a helluva lot that would surprise others and not be considered acceptable behavior. I chose that path on purpose. I’m wondering how you, for example, guage that “feels right” part. Feels right strictly for the character? the story? the potential recepion by an agent / editor? To you use today’s socitey’s norms? Would you have someone call someone else the n-word if that’s what that type of character would do? (Would you use it in the old fashioned bigoted sense, not the more street language used by blacks today, if you’d set a story then and that’s what your character would do?)

  4. pari

    Toni,I’m writing about limits tomorrow, too.

    I respectfully disagree with Paul. I think you can write within some conventions (limits) of genre and NOT kill your work. My books fall under the rubric of traditional mysteries — as defined by the Malice Domestic organization. I often push the farthest edges of this definition, but usually stay within them.

    This gets back to whether a writer is focussion primarily on audience when crafting the story. I find myself writing the story I want AND THEN judging it against what my main audience will accept/want.

    Take cussing for example — if my characters use profanity, it’s got to be for a reason, not simply because I’m being lazy. So, when a word or phrase comes up, it has an impact.

    Same for graphic violence, sex etc.

    As any parent knows, not all limits are bad.

  5. JT Ellison

    Someone once told me, write first, apologize later.

    It makes sense. Just like with sex, violence and language must be appropriate to the genre. I can’t tame my stuff down because I might offend a reader, it kills the reality of what I write. But that’s my choice, and I have to live with the consequences.

    Nice analysis, Toni.

  6. Guyot

    It always baffles me when people equate the writing-without-limits thing with cursing or graphic detail… do you really think that’s what it means? Aren’t writers’ minds supposed to be the most open and perceptive of all?

    Toni’s argument in her comment uses this narrow thinking. If I had a villain who raped a child, the scene/story would be written in the exact same tone, feeling, graphic detail (or lack of it), description, language, etc., as the rest of the story. My story. Without thought of “Will this make a reader uncomfortable?” If I’m choosing to write about such a dark subject, chances are pretty good the tone of the whole thing will be a bit dark. If I alter my writing in even one scene – go darker OR lighter – because I’m wondering how a reader will react, then I’m not doing my best work.

    What I meant in my first comment – and what I thought was obvious – is that when you stop what you’re doing to consider how something should be written – how much detail, how far do I go? What will my audience think? – then you are dead. Because you’ve stopped being a writer and started being a salesman.

    You may disagree, but you’re wrong. Sales people aren’t writers. Yeah, I include Nick Sparks in that.

    Pari: you don’t realize that you are basically doing what I’m saying. You use “cussing” when it’s right for the writing. You don’t put it in OR leave it out for some market purpose, do you? If you do, then I stand by my statement – you’re dead. Meaning, you’re not writing as well as you could be.

    Setting limits is a whole different animal than doing what’s right for a story. You sound like you’re talking about the latter.

    IF you (meaning anyone) are altering your gut instinct and feeling as an artist in any way because you say to yourself, “Oh, I better not do this because someone may not like it…” then, sure you may sell books, but you’re not doing your best work. Not by a long shot.

    If one writes Malice type cozies, then that’s what one writes, and obviously they wouldn’t put Blood Meridian description in it. But is anyone really that idiotic to think that’s even worthy of a discussion?

    Now here’s something that will piss people off even more than what I’ve already written:

    I have never once in my life heard a writer of any acclaim – and I mean major accalim, not just some con award winner, I’m talking the greats of our profession, past AND present – ever say anything about self-censoring, but rather they all say just the opposite.

    In fact, the only writers I’ve ever heard make an argument for altering your writing this way, are writers who…. well, don ‘t have that acclaim.

  7. Louise Ure

    I don’t have have any reader/audience considerations in mind when I write. I write for myself, and hope that some readers have the same world view/mind set/taste that I do.

  8. Lorraine.

    I really ought to stop reading Murderati. I started when it was founded and at that time I read the work of many of the contributors.Now the only writer here whose books I read is Pari. So, I also don’t feel entitled to comment, but do anyway. If you only want reactions of readers who read your books, scroll on past.As Jackie B. said, readers are not going to pick up something they find offensive. That’s true. I belong to the group that has the largest # of readers — older women, and I don’t buy books with graphic violent, sex, or serial killers. I wish I knew what demographic does buy those books.Anyway, I wish more of you writers would learn to tell the story without the too vivid descriptions and the foul language. It would broaden my choice of books to read.Once an author visited my mystery reading group who was very fond of the “f” word. I counted – 27 times in the book we read, avg. of once every 10 pgs. and after the discussion I rudely told him about it. I sort of wish I hadn’t because he’s a lovely man and I still read his work, but now he writes books w/o using the “f” word at all.

  9. Jacky B.


    “Feels right.” = The character rules. When I write ‘Joe,’ I AM Joe. When I write ‘Mary,’ I AM Mary. I MUST give these people their freedom. What ever it takes, wherever it leads.

    Up to the point of:

    “What doesn’t feel right, or, over the top.” = Your example, rape/molestation is a good example of that, for me. I would imply the horror, ( He left her in the alley, broken, whimpering, half dead.For her, half wasn’t good enough. She wished he had killed her.) without resorting to graphic detail.

    Racial slang? Maybe you can answer that question yourself. How does this sound? (brutal bigot to black man) “Boy you ain’t nothin but a negro, and that’s all you ever will be, a fuckin negro.” And, the other use,(young black man greeting friend) “What’s happenin, dog. How’s my negro?)

    As for writing to/for an agent, editor or even an audience, Guyot’s post rings true, at least for me.

    My agent loved my second novel, except for the final 90 pages. He suggested a rewrite. I complied, (euphemism for putting on trick clothes, walking the stroll, and making like a crack whore) The book had been a brooding and savage noir. The new ending turned it into a slam-bang, shoot em up. Agent fucking loved it. But, he couldn’t sell it.

    I learned something: If I’m destined to fail, I’ll fail behind my own work, not with what someone else thinks it should be.

    Not saying that I don’t take editing, or refuse to accept constructive criticism, I do so, gladly. It’s just that these days, I’m not as quick to drop trou and bend over to make a sale.

    Jacky B

  10. pari

    Wow, Paul, you understood my comment in spite of the typos.

    I think we’re on the same page here.

    Did I ever tell you about when my first book was bought? I’d gotten so many rejections of Sasha, the character herself, that I had a mini crisis of faith. For two or three days, I cried and wondered if I should just abandon her. Then one morning, I had a screw-you response.

    “Even if no one ever buys Sasha, I’m going to write her the way I want to write her and f*ck the market!” I thought.

    The very next day, I was offered the contract from UNM Press.

    True story.

    I’m glad you elaborated in your second comment, because the first one was, indeed, easily misinterpreted (at least by this fuzzy mind).

    The characters and story always have to come first. Period. If they don’t, the insincerity or conniving (perhaps for marketing purposes) will be detected by readers.

    I know I’ve read books where this happened. It’s kind of like seeing a gorgeous woman in a designer gown and then getting a whiff of the dog shit she stepped in before coming to the ball.

  11. toni mcgee causey

    Guyot, I’m not sure where you think I’m advocating writing *for* an audience or *to* an audience. Because I’m not. I’m asking how do you find the limits you, as a writer, feel work for your book. Your second answer was clearer about the how–you look at your story / character.

    And no, I don’t think cursing and graphic detail are the only ways to describe this… examples tend to be quick and the extreme in order to get the conversation going. They indicate a far point on a range of points. (I’m not writing a dissertation here.)

    (Basically, I’m poking you with a stick. Glad it worked.)

    I actually wasn’t talking about altering the work to ratchet it down (though I don’t think that came across in the blog)… I was talking about pushing limits, seeing that sometimes *more* is acceptable because the mores of today are changing with a new generation’s acceptance.

    What you choose (generic you) to write from your heart is a function of limits you’re already putting on yourself. Altering them afterward for market purposes? Might as well go take dictation, because predicting what will and won’t sell is not something anyone’s mastered yet. I, personally, try to push the limits because that’s the type of characters I want to write.

    (I don’t think I’m getting at the point sufficiently, and I’ve got to go to a film shoot this afternoon.)

    Who we are as a society and as a member of society is framing what we write, no? yes? Is this changing the limits people feel they can go to in their stories?

  12. toni mcgee causey

    Pari, that’s the exact same response I had to writing Bobbie Faye. I had tons of people tell me no one would buy a book about a woman that strong or kick ass and I hit a point where I thought, fuck it, I’m writing her the way I want to write her for my own enjoyment. Sold it on sample chapters and synopsis, so going with the gut is what I advise.

  13. JT Ellison

    Let me ask this.

    Paul, do you write a pitch for a rough, realistic cop show that you want to get on the networks differently than you’d write one for HBO? Or do you go into the meetings with the possible network shows with the scripts and pitch laden with curse words and bondage?

    I’m assuming a writer in that position would tone things down for the network. Is that any different?

    Also, I think Toni was trying to examine a deeper issue, like why people like me and Louise find it easy to write violence and difficult to write intimacy more so than altering your heart work to meet audience expectations. But that’s just the way I read it.

  14. toni mcgee causey

    Jacky, that’s it, exactly what I was asking.

    I failed in screenwriting every time I let my agent force me to make the characters “nicer” and not so blunt on the page (etc.) and I succeeded at the novel when I thought, screw it, I’m doing it the way I want, whether it sells or not.

    But who we are as a society does affect our choices.

    I remember in Rob and Brett and Bill Cameron’s LCC panel on foul language and we all mused that “fuck” had gotten so common, not as many people were shocked by its use when a writer’s goal may have been to try to find a word that would be shocking in the moment (for character purposes)… and we wondered what would that next word be. Someone shouted out, “you childfucker” and the entire room sort of froze and then laughed and said, “well, yep, that would work.”

    A few years ago, the former would have been enough. Now, the landscape has changed. We’re all pushing the envelope more.

  15. Fran

    Two cents here. As a bookseller, when someone comes up to me and says, “Recommend something”, I ask what they like. We explore that, and then we can go on.

    It is a neverending source of joy and pleasure to me that I have such a broad range of well-written choices. You want cozies? I got cozies from here to there! You want puzzles to keep you guessing? Man, have I got some lovelies for you. You want thriller action? Step this way. You want something that’s brutal and bloody and tinged with despair? Well now, let’s talk!

    Write what makes you feel proud. Believe me, there’s a market for it.

  16. pari

    You know, I think Fran brings the discussion back to where it needs to be. Toni, correct me if I’m wrong here:

    It’s not a question of what genre (or whatever you want to call our different styles), it’s a question of remaining true to the characters and story. To have Jack Reacher say “poo-poo” or Hercule Poirot say “f*ck” would be preposterous.

    But that’s not the point. The real clencher is whether the characters/story ring true. If they don’t, why bother?

    I think that’s what you’re getting at Lorraine. Right?

  17. Dana King

    While my characters define their own language and tone of conversation, my limits are set by a simple premise: would I want to read this? Not, “is it unpleasant,” or, “is this too graphic?” but, “Is this a book I’d want to read?”

    I read Chandler, Leonard, McBain, and their descendants. Without trying to be derivative of those masters, the coarseness of language and graphic level of the violence is similar. Not because I think they’re “right;” because that’s what I like to read. I’m going to have read anything I write more often than anyone else will ever read it. It shouldn’t be too unpleasant a task, nor offend my personal sensibilities.

    Besides, I believe if I give the reader just a taste or the sex or violence, their own imaginations will fill in things sexier (to them) and more gruesome (to them) than I could come up with.

  18. Candace Salima

    I tend not to read books that have exceedingly graphic scenes and language in them, although I do still read some.

    Because of who I am as a person, the characters I create are basically good. My bad guys are really, really bad but I use different ways to convey their language, thoughts and actions with actually describing them graphically.

    I know this is not a popular stance, but I personally am tired of being assailed with the constant graphic violence and sex in books. Books are my refuge and I read and enjoy just about every genre except for horror. But there is a way to convey the thought without the graphic description.

  19. billie

    Interesting topic and comments – I’m plugging in late.

    For me, the limits are mostly my own. I tend to write dark but then try valiantly to protect the characters, protect the readers, and probably underneath all that, I’m trying to protect some aspect of my own self.

    But when I decide to push past those limits, the story gets more real, more raw, and much better. It goes deeper and it has more power in the end.

    This week my writing/editing struggle is all about letting the characters live with the stuff they gave me when I pushed beyond the limits rather than me (the therapist) trying to find the “lesson” and sum it all up so everyone learns/grows/progresses. The characters have to come to that on their own.

    It’s funny – I don’t worry so much about offending people as possibly traumatizing them! On some level I have to remind myself that readers have responsibility and competence to pick and choose the books that work for them. That part is not my job nor is it my responsibility.

  20. toni mcgee causey

    Pari (sorry, back late here)… that’s part of it, definitely. Staying true to the voice, the characters and story.

    I was thinking about how what’s acceptable for fiction and how it’s changed over the years–we’re way more graphic now in general (not just in niche literary or crime fiction), I think, than we were fifty years ago. (Crime novelists being the ones who are probably on the outer edge of pushing graphic language and violence limits.) How we think about story and the context of that process interests me. (Then again, I did the MA in philosophy of film, so I like analyzing the phenomenon of the thing.) I think it’s interesting to say “I write for my tastes” but then, I become interested in why those are your tastes? (you, being generic)

    I think it’s interesting how we come to those choices, how we set our own limits, and how that world of limits is changing around us.

  21. Elaine Flinn

    I have to agree there shouldn’t be ‘limit’s’ to creativity – no matter what the medium might be. However,there is always good taste and common sense. Of course, that’s subjective also…

  22. Allison Brennan

    Hi Toni, sorry I missed this Sunday, work you know . . .

    I push the envelope, but I also write commercial fiction and understand that there is an invisible barrier. The thing is, it’s different for everyone, so I have to write what I’m comfortable with writing. Some people will think I’m too graphic, some people won’t. Some will think I have too much sex, some people not enough. But as long as I’m happy with my story–and my editor is happy–then all is well 🙂


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