Monday, August 29, 2011

Gritty Realism in Fiction

I survived my first convention!  And it was a LOT of fun.  There weren't as many people in get-up as I expected, but those who were dressed up certainly met all my expectations.  (trust me, they were good expectations)

I met quite a few very awesome people and even finally met my editor!!  She is sooooo hilarious and soooo enthusiastic, she made me fall in love with Spencer Hill Press all over again.

But my favorite part of Pi-Con was the panels.  Some of the discussions that arose from certain topics were so inspired, I couldn't bare the idea of leaving them in Connecticut.


I'm bringing them to you!

One of my favorite panels was headed by my editor, Kate, herself, along with two other very informed panelists.  The title of the panel was True Grit and the description was:

"Gritty realism in genre works: ruins the escapism?  Enhances the detail?  Can there be too little or too much?"

My personal take on gritty realism is this:  rather than simply describing a character breaking a leg (as an example) and the pain associated with it, you describe every minute detail in the process.  Like rather than knowing a character has fallen, broken his leg, and is now in extreme, mind-numbing pain, you see the bone tear through flesh as blood pours out on the floor, the spike of pain that sends tremors up his spine and twists at his stomach until a stream of vomit drips out of his mouth to blend with the blood in a sickening cocktail.

So if the latter is gritty realism, how would you answer the question posed by the panel?

As with all things in writing, I DO believe you can have too much as well as too little.  If every event were described in such minute detail, I believe you would lose the impact on the particularly important events.

For example, let's look at two horror movies: SAW and PARANORMAL ACTIVITY.

SAW is pretty in-your-face gory.  It doesn't hold back and is a good example of a story that uses every opportunity to enhance its gritty realism.  In fact, I think it used it too much.  Rather than scaring me, it ended up making me nauseous.  If I closed my eyes, it wasn't because I was terrified.  It was because I didn't want to throw up.

PARANORMAL ACTIVITY (and yes, there are spoilers, so stop if you haven't seen it), however, was a bit more subdued.  It offered suggestions of horror.  Rather than seeing the demonic beast move down the hall toward the sleeping pair, you saw the door move just a fraction of an inch, or the sheets puff up under his breath.  In reality, that could have been the effect of wind, but we all knew better.  In fact, I think the movie was perfect in its use of gritty realism.  Rather than shocking us from the beginning, it let us get comfortable like a frog in a pot of lukewarm water.  If the video stops fast-forwarding, we know something small and a tad frightening (but ultimately inconsequential) is going to happen.  But the events increase in their danger.  By the time you get to the end and the girl smiles at the camera (and you just KNOW she's possessed), you're certain something truly terrifying is about to happen.  That's when the gritty realism comes out.  And it's not even visual.  All the blood-curdling screams happen off-camera and it's one of the most terrifying things I've ever experienced while watching a movie.  In fact, when the screams stop and all you hear are the steps on the stairs and you know you're finally going to see something, that's true terror that makes you close your eyes.

What do you, dear readers, think about gritty realism?  Have you read perfect examples that used it just right?  How about the opposite?  Do you like to use gritty realism in your works?


  1. congrats on surviving the first convention! :)

    I myself prefer balance in this as in all other things. Many writers use gritty realism today in order to live out their personal issues and to attract the violence loving readers or to just reach their geekgasms. It's OK only if it is really justified, but it usually isn't, and it usually serves to feed the already numb senses of modern society which, surrounded by violent movies and violent scenes on the news channels, wants more and more blood and aggression in their books too :(

  2. I like it, but not overdone because then it just makes me sick like you said. I think, when used sparingly for effect, it can be an excellent way of eliciting a reaction for a reader.

  3. I hadn't thought of gritty realism necessarily meaning gorey details or even lots of details but less idealised characters, settings, action. I see this in what gets called 'low fantasy', and it certainly has its fans (including, sometimes, me).

  4. WORD on Saw. I could barely stand watching it because it just made me feel gross. I am very much for gritty realism in appropriate doses.

  5. So glad you were able to come! It was a blast hanging out with you, and I'm relieved that you still will entrust your manuscript to someone who occasionally has sparkle issues.

  6. i think this is too big a question to come up with a pat answer.

    i think it really comes down to what the story in particular is about- and who the audience is to be.

    reality IS gritty, but that doesn't necessarily mean the path your character is journeying is gritty.

    i'm with margo about gritty being more than just violence and vivid description of blood and such. (though your cocktail line made me laugh out loud. didn't know you had it in you chickadee!)

    currently, i'm reading george r.r. martin's clash of kings (second book in song of fire and ice series). and the world he creates is definitely gritty. whilst sometimes it is violence, or illness, or starvation and the like that is touched upon, the grittiness also comes in the facets of sexual relations and dicey morality. insest, abuse, mental-illness, lust, greed, hate, revenge, brutal honor... the world is a hard thing to look at... but it feels true. the characters seem like real people. their motivations feel real. and i believe that's what the author itended.

    however, if you are writing a story that takes place somewhere relatively safe- grittiness is not necessary and would even disrupt the reality of the universe you are creating.

    what i really love to read are stories that marry beauty and grit. where the worlds have joy and heartache. it's kind of like music, who wants to listen to a song comprised of just one note- on either side of the issue.

    so, i guess i could have just said, "whatever is appropriate for the story." no holds-barred. even if that means you have to include sunshine and rainbows to be genuine to the reality of the story.

  7. Let's see...gritty realism appeals to a specific audience. I read Chuck Palahniuk's novel Haunted that is jam-packed with gritty realism. There were moments when I found myself ready to run to the bathroom. Then there are other moments when the gritty realism is not quite as gory, but descriptive that places the reader directly in the scene.

    Now, holding back. When I watched the movie Signs (spoiler alert), I was disappointed when the aliens actually appeared in the end. It took away from the heightened fear of the unknown that Paranormal Activity delivered.

    I think it all depends on the writer's intentions and the affect they hope to create for the reader. The story the writer is telling also determines the amount of description and realism to be included.

  8. oh yeah! i meant to say HOORAY for your convention going well!

  9. Vic--Yay!! Discussion!! That's what I was hoping for!

    I completely agree with you until...we get to splatterpunk. And perhaps I should have described myself a little better, but I also don't think gritty stays with horror. I DO, however, think things like SAW are a perfect example of taking it too far. Yes, blood does tend to spew when a person gets his/her head cut off, but the amount they showed and the frequency with which they showed it put them at the level of splatterpunk. I.e. it wasn't meant to be just real anymore, it was meant to shock.

    In fact, I was thinking about this in the middle of the night last night! The thought came to me of two different types of instances of varying degrees of gritty realism.

    1. Old war movies vs. war movies of today (or actually, even some war movies of today can be classified with old war movies with where I'm going with it)

    ---Old war movies showed the horror and reality of war very effectively without also having to show body parts being blown off or the path of a bullet through a man's chest and out his back. New war movies (for the most part--some aren't as bad as what I'm describing), however, think that in order for the audience to feel a part of the scene, they need to see those body parts flying and the blood flowing in very clear detail. Is the latter any more effective in showing the reality of war? I don't think so. And it's because a human's imagination can fill in the details. It doesn't necessarily NEED to be shown to us.

    2. Camelot or Game of Thrones vs. Seinfeld.

    ---Both are very gritty in showing the reality of a highly-sexual lifestyle. The cable shows, however, take it too far I think. Seinfeld got the point across that its characters liked sex a lot and had it all the time (even talked about it quite a bit), and really thought very little of the people they were having sex with. We got the gritty realism. The cable shows, however, feel the need to shock us with practically every other scene of boobies and hip on hip action. Basically, they're trying to get across what Seinfeld got across very effectively without actually showing us nakedness. Personally, I think Seinfeld was the better story because I got a chance to really LIKE the story (you know, the story that happened between the sexual escapades). The cable shows are so in-your-face with the details that I can't get into the story at all.

    HOWEVER, I completely agree with you that gritty realism happens without vivid description. In fact, the examples I gave of things I liked were still VERY gritty, but they didn't have the vividness the other ones had. My point in the blog post was (and obviously, I must have not gotten there well enough) was that modern writers tend to think that in order to be gritty, you HAVE to be vivid.

    I think we need to get to the heart of matters in our writing, but I also think we can risk losing our purpose when we focus on making something what WE think is more realistic. And that's what I think a lot of movie makers do (more so than fiction writers, I think). Their media is visual, so they think that in order to be more realistic, they have to show EVERYTHING. Luckily, as writers, we don't necessarily have to fall into that trap because our media is imaginative. We understand the importance of the reader's imagination and are able to stay realistic without delving into the "shock and awe merely for the sake of shock and awe" territory.

  10. Thanks, Laura! Yeah, I think there can be vast ranges in the gritty realism spectrum. I, personally, tend to fall in the "I like a little bit for reality's sake, but not so much it comes to the point where it's only intended to shock." There are a lot of readers, however, who really like gritty realism to go above and beyond what is reality because they enjoy the "grandiosity" of the grit. I think splatterpunk falls perfectly into that. It's basically grit+. I.e: if you CAN go that extra step with the pain, the sex, the violence, etc. then you must.

    So basically what I'm saying is you're right! It is all about the audience and the author's intent. :)

    Oh, and I completely agree with you about SIGNS. They definitely should have kept the aliens off-screen. However, the ending with the water wouldn't have come up and you wouldn't have seen how everything was connected together. Hmmm...maybe if they didn't make them look so cheesy, it would have been better.

  11. There's a difference between gritty realism and sensationalism, and SAW fell into the latter category! Writing can do the same. :)

    Welcome back!

  12. So glad you enjoyed the Pi! and that you got to meet your editor. How cool is THAT? :)

    Me, I don't like too much gritty realism as far as violence. Sure, it makes it more real, but I get the images burned into my mind. Not sure I like that.

  13. I'm glad you enjoyed the con :-)

    I can go both ways on this topic. I like gritty realism and I don't like extreme moments in fiction being watered down to avoid the gritty grossness. When attacked by a monster, I expect there to be some blood, some gore, some in your face terror, you know? When that stuff gets glossed over, I feel frustrated. If I'm going to read a book about horrible monsters, I kind of go in expecting some gore, you know?

    On the other hand, I love books that do subtle work on a horrible topic. These are not books that are glossed over for their gritty realism though, they attack in a different way. They attack through psychological horror. And I love that too. Those are usually the books that keep me up all night long with a nightlight.


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