I Don’t Want to Know*

One of the decisions authors make as they write is how much detail – especially explicit detail – to include in their stories. It’s not an easy choice, either. For one thing, there’s a balance to strike between including so much explicitness that it puts readers off, and including so little that the characters don’t feel realistic. For another, authors have to consider their target audiences. Some readers like a lot of explicit detail. Others don’t. And then there’s the story itself. If explicitness serves the story, then it makes sense to include it. If it doesn’t, then including it takes away from the story. There are no hard-and-fast rules about what to include, and there are very successful authors who include all sorts of different amounts of explicitness.

Agatha Christie made vague mention of sex in some of her stories, but she didn’t include details. In Five Little Pigs, for instance, Hercule Poirot solves the murder of famous painter Amyas Crale. His wife, Caroline, was arrested, tried and convicted in the matter, but their daughter, Carla, is convinced that her mother was innocent. As Poirot looks into the matter, he finds that Crale was serially unfaithful, and in fact, was having an affair at the time of his murder. One of the suspects, Philip Blake, was a friend of Crale’s, but tried to seduce his wife. All of this could make for a very explicit story, but Christie’s focus was on the murder plot and the interactions among the characters. Explicitness wasn’t necessary to tell the story and, in fact, might have distracted from the real main plot: Who killed Amyas Crale, how, and why?  Like most traditional and traditional-style mysteries, the plot is the main focus of the story.

Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me is quite different. In that novel, we are introduced to Lou Ford, a deputy sheriff in Central City, Texas. Ford has a reputation of being a hardworking, but rather dull and not overly bright, man. But he’s ‘upstanding.’ Then, a prostitute named Joyce Langley is brutally beaten. And there’s a murder. We learn that Ford is hiding a secret – something he calls ‘the sickness.’ And it could spell real disaster. This is a noir story of psychological suspense. And Thompson is explicit in his writing. It isn’t a book for everyone, but it was innovative at the time, and there’s an argument that the explicitness falls out from the story. It’s not contrived just to sell books. A similar thing might be said of James Hadley Chase’s No Orchids for Miss Blandish. There are other noir stories, too, in which we see a lot of explicitness.

Many authors of cosy mysteries choose not to include explicitness in their novels. For instance, one of M.C. Beaton’s series features Lochdubh (Scotland) Constable Hamish Macbeth. He investigates murders, and sometimes other crimes as well. People die in those stories. There’s sometimes real sadness, and Beaton doesn’t make light of it. At the same time, we aren’t privy to all of the violent details of the murders. And even though Macbeth has a (somewhat rocky) love life, we don’t follow him into the bedroom, so to speak. Nor are readers privy to the other characters’ intimate lives, either.

The same might be said of Alexander McCall Smith’s series. His Precious Ramotswe, for example, is the owner of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective agency. It’s the only female-run private investigation agency in Botswana, and Mma Ramotswe is proud of her work. She’s had a wide variety of cases, including infidelity, sudden death, stolen property, and more. And of course, her own life has had its ups and downs, too. And yet, McCall Smith has chosen not to use explicitness in his novels. He makes clear that someone’s had an affair, or has been abused, or has committed a crime. But there are no explicit descriptions. He prefers to focus on character development and on evoking a particular part of Botswana. And there’s a good argument that explicitness would take away from the stories.

It’s a different situation with Leigh Readhead’s Simone Kirsch. She’s a Melbourne-based former stripper-turned PI. Originally, she wanted to be a police officer, but her background precluded that. So, she’s trying to get her investigation business going, and supporting herself by stripping for bachelor parties and working part-time at a peepshow place. The cases she investigates take her into gentlemen’s clubs, escort services, and other businesses in the sex industry. As you can imagine, these novels are explicit. They’re not gory or even particularly violent. But a premise like this might not seem realistic if the stories weren’t sexually explicit.

By way of sharp contrast, Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce novels would not lend themselves to explicitness. As the series begins, Flavia is eleven years old. She lives with her father and two older sisters in an old house in the English village of Bishops Lacey. Flavia’s a child, but she has a remarkable knowledge of chemistry, and an interest in detection. The novels are murder mysteries, so there is violence; people die. But the violence isn’t brutal, and there’s no other explicitness, either. It wouldn’t fall out naturally from the stories, so it makes sense not to include it.

And that’s the thing. It can be a challenge to decide just how explicit to be in a crime novel. Readers differ greatly in their tastes, and authors have to consider how much explicitness falls out naturally from the story. If it serves the story and is important to it, that’s one thing. If not, the story is probably better without it. What’s your view? How do you feel about that balance between realism and ‘TMI’ as the expression goes? If you’re a writer, how do you strike that balance?

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Fleetwood Mac.

 


8 thoughts on “I Don’t Want to Know*

  1. Margot: Your post set me to thinking of the mysteries of Jill Edmondson featuring Sasha Jackson, a hard boiled female P.I. in Toronto, with a foul mouth to rival any male tough guy. Her four mysteries all involve the business of sex. Sasha gets involved as a telephone sex operator, then goes undercover pretending to be a street sex worker, then attending S & M events and then watching porn movies. Edmondson is direct but not usually explicit and is discreet about Sasha’s personal life.

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    1. Thanks, Bill, for mentioning Jill Edmondson’s work. Her Sasha Jackson mysteries,, to me, represent a very solid balance between being realistic (one of the stories, as you know, involves a brothel and its owner/manager), and being too explicit. It’s clear from the stories what’s happening (porno films, a brothel, etc.), but Edmondson doesn’t distract from the story by adding in too much explicit detail. And I’ve always liked the fact that we don’t know the details of Sasha’s personal life.

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  2. I’m all for keeping the door of the bedroom firmly closed! I agree that sometimes explicitness is part of the story – The Postman Always Rings Twice springs to mind – but in general while I can admire those stories, I rarely enjoy them. I’m sure it’s partly prudery brought on by my ever-increasing… ahem… experience. But it’s mostly because so few writers can manage to write about sex without it becoming either icky or, worse, funny. The sex scenes in Birdsong still make me laugh whenever I think of them, and I’m quite sure that was not the author’s intention… 😀

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    1. Haha! I’m pretty sure it wasn’t, FictionFan! And you make a very well-taken point about the way sex scenes are written. It’s easy enough to write about it; it’s very hard to write it well. Quite frankly, I often think it’s better to let readers use their own imaginations than it is to spell everything out and pull readers out of the story. And you’re most definitely not alone in preferring not to read explicit scenes. I don’t think it’s a matter of…experience. I think it’s often a matter of what keeps a reader engaged and what doesn’t. There are some books (and thanks for mentioning The Postman… – it’s a good example) in which explicitness makes sense and falls out from the story. But many books don’t need it and aren’t served by it.

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  3. I’m with FanFiction here. I mostly prefer the kind of novels in which explicitness isn’t appropriate – and I also write those kind of novels. Yes, it is hard to write sex scenes and it’s often better to leave it to the reader’s imagination.

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    1. I’m the same way, Christine. My novels and stories aren’t explicit, either, and it just wouldn’t fit in. Like you, I’d rather leave things to the reader’s imagination than spell out the details. As you say, it’s hard to write an effective sex scene, and it’s really not, as a rule, necessary. As a blog friend of mine once said, ‘We’ve all got smutty imaginations.’ There’s usually not a need to be explicit.

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  4. I don’t think I’m bothered by author’s giving us the down and dirty details. I’m not that fussed either if they don’t. I suppose of it matches the book and the style. I suppose it can be easier to get it wrong though.

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    1. I think you’ve hit on the key, Col. If those details serve the story, that’s one thing. If they don’t, they can pull us out of a story. As you say, it’s easier to say that than it is to do it well…

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