I’m attempting to write some ‘difficult to read’ scenes such as violence, rape, trauma, etc. And I’m not talking about ‘good’ violence such as in Game of Thrones or a Quentin Tarantino film. The novel is about an abusive relationship, so I want the reader to be able to empathise with the victim and feel emotionally distressed on their behalf. But when it comes to the truly disturbing scenes, I don’t want to cause so much distress that they feel like putting the book down and never picking it up again. Is there a balance to be had? Is there anything I should keep in mind when attempting scenes like this?
You should always be mindful of why a reader is reading your book. People are reading for a reason. In the case of fiction, they are reading for pleasure. People may take pleasure in reading about serious and difficult subjects. One of the functions of fiction is to provide vicarious experiences that we can use to prepare ourselves for the things that we may face in life.
But when it comes to scenes of violence, there are two very different way in which the reader may enjoy what they are reading. Their enjoyment may come through sympathy or it may come through sadism. Their pleasure may come from vicariously resisting the pains that are inflicted, of from vicariously inflicting them. Any great dwelling on the detail of the abuse itself seem more likely to excite the reader who is taking pleasure in vicariously inflicting those pains, rather than in vicariously resisting them.
Remember that armchair travel, even for serious purposes, is travel with most of the discomfort, tedium, danger, and pains removed. The armchair traveller wants to come near the most enjoyable parts of the journey without suffering all of its trials and tribulations. How much do you really think the reader of your story wants to have their nose rubbed in the abuse itself. It is more likely that the reader you seem to want will want to spend most of their time on the effects of the trauma rather than the trauma itself.
Remember too that effects in fiction are achieved largely through correct setup, not through lurid description of the event itself. Establish the innocence of the innocent and the vileness of the vile first, and then let the innocent wander into the lair of the vile and let the reader's imagination do most of the work. This way the reader is in control over how long and in how much depth they dwell on the details of the event itself.
Something doesn't always need to be graphically described to be powerful, and sometimes less can be more. There's a scene, in the original novel version of the Godfather, relevant to today's headlines, where the mafia's lawyer goes to see a top Hollywood producer. While he is at the producer's office, he sees a stage mother and her young daughter go in to see him. When they emerge, the little girl's makeup is smudged, and she looks dazed and unsteady, while on the mother's face there is a savage look of triumph.
With such small details, Puzo sketches a sordid and disturbing scene that is all the more indelible for the fact that it takes place entirely "off screen." What makes it so hideous is the portrait of the powerful exploiting the powerless, and the complicity of the mother, the child's putative protector. We get all that in just a few words, without anything graphic or explicit. The obscenity is in the situation, not the words.
The reader's own defense mechanisms may cause them to disengage from, or even just skip over anything too horrible or disturbing. But you can work with that instead of against it. Show the character's mental blocks about the incident, their reluctance to revisit it, the emotional damage they feel from it. Then, if you actually do describe it, do so plainly and simply and directly. A good example is Murakami's Wind Up Bird Chronicles which is arguably all about an assault, but where the assault itself is barely even mentioned --everything is about the psychological fallout.
I can't speak for everyone, but I can speak on my experiences growing up and what I have dealt with in my life (in the realm of abuse and bullying). Write it the way you vision it. Write it the way it is meant to be said. Topics like this ARE uncomfortable. Topics like this when brought up in writing are meant to allow people to feel what it is like to be in these situations. Sugarcoating it, reducing the reality of it, is not doing justice to the people who survive these situations every day. What ever uncomfortable feelings the reader may have hardly compares to what it is like to live that life daily for years.
You should however, provide a trigger warning preface. It should be well known that the materials are going to be uncomfortable and may not be appropriate for those who suffer from PTSD in the realm of abuse.
Obviously though, with any form of gore, violence and other matters, it shouldn't be done up for the sake of having a super dark scene. It should be accurate and realistic.
So bottom line is, I say draft it the way you intend for it to be written without fears of it being "too much". See how the story sounds first. Personally, I think we need more books like this that give a REALISTIC view of the matters and not something minimized, or over dramatized for the sake of a horror or TV show.
Do everyone justice and be real with it. Maybe then, people will get an idea of what it is like, and be willing to help solve/reduce a problem widely swept under the rug.
Every reader is different, so you can't please everyone. A story that contains graphic depictions of violence, rape, torture, etc is not a story that some folks will want to read (me included, generally). That doesn't mean you shouldn't write it. Rather, let your prospective reader decide whether to read the story.
If the audience understand what they're getting into beforehand, they won't stop when they come across dark content. Either they'll continue into it with correct expectations, or they won't start reading to begin with. You may even find that readers who would be turned off by stumbling across an unexpectedly dark scene will be more accepting of it if they are prepared for it. Conversely, a reader who doesn't know what to expect may get invested in the story only to feel cheated when they run across something so dark to them that it ruins their ability to enjoy the rest of the story.
Now, obviously, you shouldn't tell them exactly everything that is going to happen, because that would spoil the story. The challenge, then, is communicating just enough about the upcoming content to prepare them for it. I often see TV shows and literature with disturbing content prefaced with a content warning. Many of us have seen TV shows that start with "viewer discretion is advised", preceded by a more specific description of the kinds of uncomfortable content to expect in the show. Literature can do the same thing: warn the audience up front of the kinds of dark content it contains that might be off-putting. Simply list the themes, like "graphic depictions of violence, rape, and torture" as I used in my opening paragraph.
I suggest writing it with all the detail you can muster, then returning to it cold and rewriting to delete repetitiveness and all the detail you can stand to give up.
Remember these passages are like any other in the story: They serve a purpose to the larger story, and should have some consequence later. You can apply this to each and every sentence of the description in question. figure out WHY each is necessary, to this scene and to the reader's understanding, to show the brutality of the scene.
If this is a rape scene, how did your character resist, and how was that resistance met? What made their resistance useless? What made their subjugation complete and resistance pointless?
The way to be mindful of the reader is to not stretch the description out and revel in every thrust of a rape. The entire move-by-move description is not necessary. Stories are about change, and what is necessary is to understand this chain of transformations in the victim, and how this incident changed them from version 1.0 to the version 2.0 we see before us now. How their instincts were shaped, their hatreds were shaped, their judgment warped or their ability to love or trust crippled.
So you don't want to leave anything out, but you also don't want to be repetitive. If you have several lines conveying the same sense of terror or disbelief at what is happening, cut them all and write a better line, a better comparison or metaphor or whatever, to state it once and for all.
If you mean, by "mindful of the reader", hiding the worst from them, that falls under the heading of necessity to the rest of the story. If the worst is really necessary to explain and justify the future actions of your victim, you need to write it. But if the worst moments of a rape are not really needed to justify the future actions of the victim, if just the basics of the rape are enough, then you can leave out those worst moments, whatever you imagine them to be.
Which is why I say write it all, as best you can, then come back to it cold (so you can get closer to the reader experience: They read it cold), and delete all you can without damaging the final "sense of it all" to the reader.
Frequently, you make it as painful and explicit as possible.
One of the most compelling ideas I've heard about art in general, including writing, is that each piece of work has a gesture, or overarching goal that it's trying to achieve. The gesture can be anything - a theme, a particular artistic technique, an experience for the reader, etc. For a romantic comedy movie, the primary gesture to be funny and let the audience enjoy themselves. For a Jackson Pollock painting, it's to get viewers to focus on the abstract yet nevertheless aesthetically pleasing ideas of color and texture. For The Chronicles of Narnia, it's to explore Christian ideas in an imaginative, inviting setting.
For a movie like The Big Short, it's to make the audience aware of how galling the financial crisis of 2008 was and generate moral indignation. For The Passion of the Christ, it's to portray how horrible Jesus' suffering was as described in the Bible. For a book like Lord of the Flies, which includes a violent allegorical rape scene, a character having a religious experience with Satan, and a ritualistic murder, the point is to show humanity at its worst.
In all of these examples, pleasant and distrubing, the artists behind the works decided what the primary focus of their piece was and did everything they could to make that experience as direct and compelling as possible.
What this means is that when you're writing a passage that deals with a disturbing or violent situation, then for better or for worse, the disturbing and violent incident is your gesture. To make the scene as compelling as possible, it's best - although often very emotionally difficult - to lean into the pain, not to shy away from it.
This is tempered by the overall goal of your writing. If you're writing a whimsical fantasy story and it involves, for plot reasons you decide not to work around, a rape scene, then the overall gesture of a fun adventure trumps the pain of the specific scene. It makes sense to tone that scene down.
As another example, the book A Fine Balance is about a group of people living in India whose lives are torn apart by political forces and hateful bigots outside their ability to control. The gesture of the book is arguably to make the reader aware of how brutal life was for many Indians during a specific point in the nation's modern history. The book involves multiple very violent and explicit rape scenes. In line with the book's particular overall gesture, these rape scenes do not shy away from the extraordinary pain the characters are put through. But the scenes emphasize the victims' pain and experiences, not the eroticism of the sex. I bring this example up because Mark Barker's answer suggests that if you write your scenes too explicitly, you invite readers to sadistically enjoy the characters' pain. I disagree with this. You'll certainly make your readers uncomfortable - A Fine Balance is an extremely disquieting novel - but you can focus your writing in a way that focus your gesture on the human meaning of the events of your story, not on violent or sexual voyeurism.
For your particular situation, is your story's gesture to make the reader aware of how brutal abusive relationships can be, or to celebrate a victim overcoming abuse? The former gesture demands you don't shy away from the main character's pain. The latter gives you space not to make things so painful that readers are too uncomfortable to keep reading.
I think you should hold nothing back. I believe there's a quote about how softening and sanitizing your style to appeal to a larger group is the recipe for mediocrity, but I can't find it.
Do you want to trigger the gripping, riveting empathy you are imagining, or not?
Anecdotal aside: When I was a kid I read Treasure Island, and the scene where blind Pew sneaks into the Admiral Benbow and grapples Jim, seemingly from out of nowhere, scared me so bad I put down the book for quite some time. Weeks, I think. But I eventually finished it.
The selection of opinions you've already received illustrate the only possible answer - It depends. There are many genres of fiction (and even of historical reportage) ranging from full-on to complete censorship of anything disturbing. Just as Mills & Boon have several categories of romantic fiction, from 'Heartwarming' - 'celebrating traditional values and love' - to 'Desire' and 'Erotica' - which can border on the gynaecological!
If you have a talent for graphic violence, there's a market. If it embarasses you, there's another. Write of what you know (unless you have a hankering for snuff fiction).