A Useful Moment From a Mentor
(Warning for those who need it: discussion of rape scenes in storytelling)
So, many years ago, when I was still a very young writer, I made the acquaintance of Pamela Wallace, and she and I became friends. At the time I was a film critic, and she was a screenwriter — and not just a screenwriter, but one who had won an Oscar, for her work on Witness. She also wrote novels, which were at the time something I was thinking about doing at some point. So she and I talked a lot about movies and stories and the writing life. She was a very cool mentor for a young writer to have.
One day I was over at her house and I was talking to her about a story idea I had; I can’t specifically remember what the story idea was, but I vaguely recall it being some sort Silence of the Lambs-esque thriller, in which an investigator and a serial killer matched wits, you know, as they do. And at some point, I dragged the investigator’s wife into the story, because, as I was, like, 24 years old and didn’t know a whole hell of a lot, I thought it would be an interesting character note for the investigator, and a good plot development for the book, for the serial killer to basically rape and torture the wife —
— at which point Pamela immediately went from interested to disgusted, threw up her hands, and had them make motions that I immediately interpreted as oh God Oh God this horrible idea of yours get it off me right now.
Aaaaand that was really the last time I ever considered rape as an interesting character note or plot device. Because, I don’t know. If you’re a 24-year-old wannabe fiction writer and an Oscar-winning storyteller is physically repelled by your casual insertion of rape and violence against women in your story, mightn’t that be a sign of something? That maybe you should pay attention to? Perhaps?
Now, as I got older and became a more accomplished storyteller (and human), there turned out to be many other reasons for me to decide not to put those sorts of scenes willy-nilly into my books aside from “dude, you just disgusted your successful writer friend with your plot twist.” But I’m not going to lie and pretend that this very significant clue, dropped by my friend, did not in fact make a long-lasting impression.
Which continues to this day. I’ve written eleven novels now, most with lots of action, adventure, peril and danger to characters of several genders, and lots of tough scenes that show loss and violence (see: most of The Ghost Brigades). No rape scenes. They weren’t necessary for the narrative — and more concretely, as narratives to stories don’t just magically happen but are the result of the author’s intention, I chose not to make circumstances in my novels where they would be necessary.
Sadly, not every young male novice storyteller has a woman friend who is also an Oscar winner to set him straight on the errors of his shallow narrative ways. Would that they did! So for everyone else I would just say (and here I tip my hat to Robert Jackson Bennett, who wrote in more detail about this today) that while you can put these sorts of scenes into your work, maybe before you do, you should ask yourself why. Ask yourself what actual value they will bring to your work. Ask yourself if you are entirely sure about that value.
And while you’re asking yourself that, keep my friend Pamela’s reaction to my proposed rape scene in your head. She’s not alone in that reaction these scenes, nor was she wrong to have it. Neither are other people.