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I am writing a novel, and in one part, a boy falls off the building. I feel like it would be very gory. Most people said to write in great detail, but then some people say to write what I know. I feel that if I write a gory scene it would turn out plain.

My question is, should I describe what happens to her when she falls to the bottom, or should I just leave it saying what went through her, and her friend's, mind? If you could, I would like some examples.

Edit: And should I let him die? He is a character close to the main character, but I feel it is unrealistic to write a story where everything turns out perfectly fine

  • Forget "Write what you know." Go ahead and write what you want. Do research to learn about the stuff you don't know for sure. – Ken Mohnkern Sep 8 '15 at 20:20
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We can't tell you what should happen in your story. (In fact, questions asking what to write are off-topic here.) But perhaps you can ask yourself a few questions:

  • If the scene is described graphically, in gory detail, what effect will that have on the reader? Will it help to further the story, or will it cause the reader to put the book down in disgust? (Identifying your audience will help you puzzle out that last point.)

  • If the boy dies, what effect will that have on the other characters, and the rest of the book? (If you don't know what's going to happen, you could always spend a little time planning the story. If that's not your style, perhaps you're a seat-of-the-pants writer and need to embrace that.)

In either case, I suggest you just write. Write it all now, and fix the problems later. Your questions will also become easier to answer when they're attached to a finished draft.

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So first of all, don't know what your story is about, writing style, etc.

That said: I dunno if you've read Lord of the Flies, but there is an excellently handled scene there where someone falls to their death. It does describe the outcome - brains on a rock - but it's a quick, short description. However, because we have grown to know the character, the brevity of the description makes the moment that much more impactful. It happened, it's done. Really stuck with me, that one.

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It'll depend on what impression you wish to convey;

  • If it's the horror of the boy's death, don't. It'll have more impact, and you won't distract the reader with details he might not want to know, or can perfectly imagine himself.
  • On the other hand, if you're writing on the boy's point of view, you might want to convey his last moments to the reader. In that case, the fear and pain are important to the narration.

As for killing the boy or not, if it's a dark story but everyone is perfectly okay at the end, it might seem like you got too attached to your characters to let anything happen to them. He doesn't necessarily have to die; but you might want to leave some kind of trace, as a reminder of what they went through.

  • Thank you, that will help me a lot. As for the boy, It will be more like a tragedy, where the ending is bad, but also good if that makes sense? – Capril Solaris Aug 20 '15 at 14:18
  • It's always nice to leave some hope, especially at the end of a tragedy (my personal opinion). But at the end you're the one to decide in what state you want to leave the reader at the end :p – Nathaniel Solyn Aug 20 '15 at 14:24
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The thing with novels is that they're really squishy in form/shape until you decide what you want to do with yours.

So as for "should I show the death"...what do you like to read? Are you turned off by explicit scenes? Or do you feel that without showing the scene, something important to your story is lost? As others have said, often the shape your book should have--including questions like "should I include this scene or not?--become clearer once you have a draft. Then you can go back and realize, "this scene screws up the entire tone of the book" or "I was too squeamish about this scene, but now I realize not showing it made it really hard to care about the dead kid, I might need to go back and add it".

You can always write it out explicitly in the first draft, then remove or tone it down in a later draft.

Second, I saw you mentioned "write what you know". And that "rule" makes me sad so I'm going to talk about it.

Don't take "write what you know" super-literally. I write sci-fi and fantasy, and I've never been in space, nor seen a real live dragon. The idea of "write what you know" more means that you should draw from experiences you have to enhance the ones you're writing about. It's not meant to imprison you so that you ONLY write what you know (which would be boring in my case since I'm an office-dwelling white suburbanite!)

For example, I've never been divorced, but I have had a hard breakup with a boyfriend. I can draw details of how I felt when grieving for a dead relationship and apply them to other situations where someone might feel grief. I have never been a chef, but I like sharp knives in the kitchen, so I bet a harvester on a farm probably needs to be sharpened from time to time. There's little details like that that you can apply even to the strangest, most made-up situation that you never hope to actually be in yourself. That's what "write what you know" means. It's not a prison to prevent you from writing about situations you have never actually experienced. It's a tool to help you add veracity to those fictional situations.

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The moment after the boy begins to fall, he might realize the inevitability of his imminent death. That point, while he is still in mid-air and has only begun to fall, might be a logical place to break off.

In most modernist novels, as well as in contemporary commercial fiction, nothing is included that does not somehow advance the story. Corollaries include Chekhov's rule that if there is a gun in the first act of a play, it must go off by the final act. In other words, the gun advances the story in the first act by establishing its existence so that it can get used in the final act.

In post-modern literary fiction, all sorts of things can get thrown into a novel that don't have obvious purposes in the telling of the story. David Foster Wallace's novels spend pages describing the contents of rooms, and perhaps they represent a broader post-modern concept of creating a scrapbook of the era, usually revealing the absurd, dystopic nature of our society.

Perhaps long quasi-gratuitous descriptive passages serve to enrich the ambiance of the novel: magical realism pulls off its miracles by tightly weaving myriad details into a narrative fabric then slipping in that one mystical thread that makes the one otherwise implausible magical event seem so real.

Reaching back to the Romantic period, Moby Dick includes lengthy chapters on the technical details of whaling. Abridged editions of the book tend to omit these chapters. Yet they serve multiple purposes. The technical details heighten the credibility of the book.

A second purpose served the the technical chapters in Moby Dick lies in the voice of the narrator purveying themes. My high school English teacher told us that Ishmael ("...whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul...") disappears after the first few chapters of the book and doesn't reappear until the final chapters describing the encounter with the Great White Whale and the aftermath ("And I only am escaped alone to tell thee," the narrative quotes not Jonah but Job as Ishmael floats on Queequeg's empty coffin). Now that I am a mature reader, I have discerned that Ishmael does not disappear at all: he stops talking about his own adventure, certainly, but his voice continues and focuses on the principals of the crew. His bright spark of curiosity and his bemusement at the folly of the human race, which are themes of the novel, are constants throughout the book, including the technical chapters on whaling. So those passages on the stripping down of a whale carcass and the boiling down of the oil are subtly nuanced with the voice of Ishmael to shade the technical details with bonhomie and bemusement.

If and only if your narrative voice is charged with an attitude that rests with your book's central theme, then any passage of description might be an opportunity to exercise that voice, even as it speaks of the messy carcass of a boy who has just plummeted to his death. (I saw people jumping from the towers on the International Version of CNN on 9/11, and it's extremely disturbing, and your book, if you go that far, should be no less disturbing, which is probably a strong reason for not going there at all.)

So if it's sufficient to say that the boy fell in such a way that his death was inevitable, so be it. But if you include descriptions of the body after the fall, there must be some reason:

  • Advance the story
  • Create a scrapbook of the era
  • Enrich the ambiance of the novel
  • Heighten credibility by providing technical details
  • Voice of the narrator purveying themes
  • Or some other motive that furthers your novel's purpose
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Not knowing what your "purpose" of the story is, it's hard to give any solid advice.

You could ask yourself: How can I best describe the death such that it supports my purpose?

You can always scratch it later.

It might be a chance to discuss something seemingly unrelated. For example, when you fall, your entire life flashes by. This is an opportunity to insert something from the boy's past experience that can be used to provide detail that is useful or necessary later. Two flies in one swat: death with information.

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In addition to all the other excellent advice that was already given, I would like to point out that in our society (Western culture) violence towards children is a very strong taboo, so much so that in some countries it is even forbidden by law for parents to physically punish their children.

While children do become the victims of all kinds of violence in real life, from child abuse to accidents, and of course that part of reality is a valid topic for fiction, the actual depiction of that violence leaves readers or viewers usually with a strong sense of unease or even outrage.

While it is considered acceptable to show the results of violence on the adult human body in all its gory detail, the majority of the population probably are offended by depictions of the mutilated bodies of children. There was an example a few years ago, where an author wrote a short story about a pervert who ate children, which caused quite a stir in the media. The author is almost completely forgotten today, I would say in part due to his breaking a taboo for no reason except to shock. My impression is that people avoided that author afterwards.

While the advice to add only those details that are actually necessary for your story should get you on the right track by themselves, I would, for the reasons mentioned above, strongly advise you to consider the social norms that regulate the relationship between adults and children. While your characters are fictional, as an author you are (considered) an adult and most readers expect you to treat the fictional children in your novels as well as you would treat real children. If you don't you need to have a good reason not to do so.

Children die, and you can write about that, but do so with the same sensitivity that you would handle the subject of a real child's death.

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