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I am considering writing a novel in which society has fallen into a perverse pit of debauchery. This is necessary to the novel, but it also presents some problems. I want the reader to know just how bad things are, but at the same time, I want to avoid writing about them.

I don't want to simply say, "things are bad," and leave it at that. I need to show just how bad things are, so that the reader will understand the true state of society.

I also do not want to describe how bad things are, because 1) I simply don't want to write about such things, and 2) I don't want my novel to be adult-only. I want everyone to read this.

How can I describe how terrible things are, and yet not actually describe it?

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Use your characters. What are their lives like? Working plumbing? Toilet paper? Are the streets safe? You can use dialogue rather than prose.

"What do you mean there was no milk at the store? They said last week it would be here for sure."

"The jerk behind the counter said, 'When it comes, it comes.' He wouldn't take my contact info either."

  • Welcome to the site, Stu W! Thanks for the answer, dialogue sounds like a great way to convey this. – Thomas Myron Nov 1 '15 at 4:48
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I'll toss out a few improvised lines to answer (the caveat being that I'm "working clean")

Using some historical references and varying degrees of awfulness --

Nobody, I mean not a single person, still had the anything that you or I would call "modesty" before the [some seminal event in your plot]. "60 Minutes," was now "60 minutes of hard-core porn," Reality TV had been replaced in toto by live-cams inside our prisons, prostitution was not only legal, but state-sponsored, amphetamine replaced wine as a "polite thing to bring to a party," and The Supreme Court was replaced by "The Supreme Ring," where complainants and defendants dueled in a Coliseum (which was, naturally, live-streamed on YouTube and brought to you by Fox Sports DC and The SEO Corporation for Public Leering)"

We'd slipped from bad to worse in terms of morality. This was no 20s-era speakeasy-style "socially-acceptable" moonshine-swilling, this was 60s-era wanton binge-drugging that would make Timothy Leary blush."

When I say violence is now slipping to unheard-of lows, I mean that it had jumped off our big-screens and landed squarely on the street-corner. It was no longer a spectator sport -- everyone was involved with assault and murder on some level. Everyone.

Note the actual (specifics) of the dopings and beatings above are "danced-around." How BAD is this fictional society? I'll throw out one more to wrap a hypothetical "debauchery-slipped-nonspecific" culture in the key of gallows humor--this line sums it up as severely and descriptively as possible. it's offensive as heck yet technically "clean.' -- if nothing it gets the point across...

When I say we'd reached a new low in terms of debauchery, I can't overstate the cultural plague if I tried. [Fictional Setting#4477b] made Auschwitz seem like a Carnival Cruise.

(plz note--this writer is himself Jewish and does not make the comparison lightly, which is not to say I don't find it absurd enough to make for a good "extreme-answer," or that I didn't get an ill-advised chuckle at my own neurosis when I wrote it)

You see, if that isn't horrific enough, your setting is beyond my improvised-ability to describe sans adult-language. At worst, the young reader MAY need to have a discussion with his parent regarding The Holocaust and/or Carnival Cruise Lines...which is a good (& educational) conversation to have, nu?

(substitute "KOA Kampground" for "carnival" if you don't jive with comparing a "city" to a "boat," I just liked the way line rolled off my tongue)

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You can imply rather than say things with descriptions. For example:

He picked his way down the garbage-strewn street, stepping aside to yield to an over-sized rat. The reek of stale beer and body odor assaulted his nostrils. He averted his eyes as he passed alleys; no good could come of that. It was only noon, so he was not surprised that all the bars and shops (mostly bars) were still chained shut; both owners and patrons would be sleeping off last night for a few hours yet, same as always.

A pungent breeze pushed more trash along the pavement. An empty condom box skipped across his path and disappeared into the litter-strewn gutter. A fire still burned in a nearby trash can.

He wondered when the tipping-point had come. When had the cheerful days of his youth turned into...this?

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You could always elide the worst bits because the characters themselves find them too horrible to dwell on.

"Honey... did they?"
She nodded slowly, a tear trickling down her cheek.

The advantage here is that it activates the reader's imagination, to produce the worst horrors each individual reader can think of. The trick is to convince the reader that you're conveying the characters' discomfort, squeamishness, etc., not your own.

I remember an indelible scene from the original novel The Godfather --not exactly a book to shy away from graphic depictions-- where Tom Hagen goes to visit a Hollywood producer. A child actress is also there with her stage mother. The author manages, with no actual details, to imply that the under-aged actress is being prostituted by her mother to the producer for a shot at fame. It's all much more horrible than some of the other things that happen in the novel (murders, executions) that are described in full detail.

  • This is a great idea for some things, but I don't think I can use it for everything. Remember, the reader does need to know what things are like. – Thomas Myron Nov 2 '15 at 18:34
  • I didn't mean to imply using it for everything. Just the stuff that's too horrible. – Chris Sunami Nov 2 '15 at 18:48
  • Neat trick, Chris. I'll file it away somewhere to be used when called for. – Stu W Nov 4 '15 at 2:21
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I'm not at all sure what you mean with "a perverse pit of debauchery". Apocalyptic Mad Max/Dark Angel, or what a school teacher from 1850 would say about the sexual habits of millennials–or pretty much anyone from the 21st century?

But I hope my answer will be applicable regardless!

Even if society gets really bad, chances are your characters won't experience it first hand, rather second hand:

Gang-rape, murder spree, the headline read. He swiped to the next news item. Drug addicted criminals, he thought. Whores and alcoholics... out to paaarty. He could imagine them wail the word in a drunken stupor. Probably got exactly what they deserved. Idiots!

You can get a long way with a bitter character commenting on the state of things. Not just their comments but the character itself giving a picture of what place we're in.

If you repeat it a few times. It will sink in. Especially if the characters just shrug it off and move on with their lives.

You could even spread it really thick:

He swiped past the "rape and murder" section of the news feed. He liked to think of it like that. Local news. He skipped the "drug and gang-related deaths" as well. Misery and idiocy! There had been a lot of existential angst and meaningless death for a while now. He needed some lighter entertainment. The sports section. At least when someone got killed or maimed in sports it was on purpose.

Other examples from the character's everyday life could be:

  • You die of pneumonia because of course, we didn't manage to prevent resistant bacteria
  • Every month you pay rent, and for protection from the local street gang
  • Sounds at night, of drunken orgies turning into fights, turning into police sirens, turning into people crying in despair, etc
  • Or a paraphrased favorite from Dark Angel (because, of course, the original quote wasn't googleable...), "You got a job? And you get to keep your clothes on? Wow! Congratulations."

You can be secretive about it and sneak a few hints in. Or have explicit characters pushing the point with commentary or even showing by being assholes themselves—the kind of voters needed for your society...

These could be small side roles, perhaps a taxi driver talking about the news, or it could be one of your POV characters doing a running commentary of society's downfall throughout the novel, while fighting crime, or demons, or corporate lawyers.

On a side note though.

You say you want everyone to read this. You can't make everyone happy. Ask any politician... Also, bookstores can only place your book on one shelf. It's in your best interest to help them decide which.

You should decide about a genre and a target audience for your book.

Once you have that, you can read books from that genre and for that target audience and figure out what you can and cannot include.

If it's a children's book, then it will be written from that perspective, protective parents hiding a lot ("Life is Beautiful" comes to mind) and the child understanding only parts of it.

If, on the other hand, the audience is grown-ups, you can be more direct (along the lines above—you still don't have to make apocalypse porn out of it...)

Teens have to get permission from their parents (in most cases) before they can pick up your book, so you need to tone down some things. Reading the genre should tell you what.

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