FranksWrite: socks & violins

The Killing Sisters crime-thrillers, A Last Act of Charity and The Corruption of Chastity carry an ‘explicit content’ warning. How shocking is shocking? How explicit should an author be, and why be explicit anyway? Writer Frank Westworth explains…

Corruption of ChastityIt begins in the planning stage. It is essential to write a plot plan and stick to it. That was the strongest advice I received from a currently published thriller writer as I struggled to work out how to write my mysteries. And I tried to follow it. I did. Honest. But I couldn’t manage it, not at all. After a year of complete failure and frustration, I swore very loudly and deleted tens of thousands of turgid words. The swearing really helped. True. Try it. OK; you’ve no need to try it because you already swear like a trooper when times get tough. You already swear like … a trooper? I was writing a book involving ex-soldiers…

Soldiers – troopers all – swear a lot. Go drink with some. Not the cheesy movie fictional soldiers who have perfect dentition, manicured fingernails and may use the F-word every so often to show their mettle. Talk to serving troopers; the guys who shoot at other guys and who get shot at by those same other guys. Go drink with a few. Talk military, talk murder, talk killing. The language will be instructive. Both my brother and my sister are retired soldiers. Army. The language does not go away when they retire.

So if a mystery story is to be in any way realistic, the language used by its characters needs to reflect real life. The best mystery stories – my own favourites, anyway – hide their central mystery in plain sight, obscured by the everyday actions of the major players and all the people they interact with while going about the humdrum ordinariness of their lives. Even contract killers, professional assassins, ninja artists and gangland heavies share probably 90% of their everyday activities with white-haired old ladies who can solve the murder in the library in between adding a sugar lump to their china cup of Earl Grey and stirring it. So how to make them stand out, suddenly and obviously? How to emphasise to The Reader that the guys on the page are completely and utterly different to the guys The Reader meets every day? Because they surely are different.

CharityMaxSo. Our hero, who we’ve only just met, just this minute on the page, is in a coffee shop buying himself a coffee to go. He’d no more sit in a Starbucks or wherever surrounded by mums and toddlers wailing and jabbering and gurning into their cell phones than he’d pay to attend origami classes. A youth jogs him, spills his drink. Nothing new there. Happened to you and me both, and more than once. The youth, who’s with his gang and needs to impress, gets loud and gets physical. About a spilled coffee? Yep; that is what happens. He takes a swing at our hero. Who’s an ex-soldier, not a teenage jock with attitude, Our hero takes down the youth. Very hard, hard enough to express his unhappiness. Youth tries to regain his lost initiative, but fails, badly. The action fight moves and their consequences are described in exact detail, which bones break, and how bad the damage is likely to be. That’s explicit. That’s the author’s intended shock assault on The Reader’s sensibilities. But the real outrage is hidden. It’s there in plain sight and it’s the point the author wants to make.

Our hero is completely cold, dispassionate, unmoved and uncaring. He’s probably crippled a lad for… for what? For spilling a coffee and for being stupid? That, not the explicit violence of the scene, is the shock. But it’s hidden, in plain sight and maybe ignored, but your subconscious will absorb it, and you will remember the coldness of the man, not the hotness of the coffee. Explicit content provides the distraction, a little titillation, so The Reader learns and understands in a hopefully more interesting way than reading ‘Our Hero is a cold man who feels very little and hits people’ ever would. And I know this to be true because I wrote that coffee shop interlude and several readers and reviewers commented on it – and they commented on our hero’s character as demonstrated and emphasised by the explicit violence of the scene.

A little later, and our hero is working in a jazz club, as he does, and takes a trip to the bathroom, as we all do. A woman introduces herself to him while he’s in there. The scene is deliberately explicit, shocking to many, but elevates both parties way above the rest of the characters involved. The Reader already knows our hero, but The Reader will also never forget the new character; the invasive woman. Who has deliberately manipulated a situation for her own reasons. Once again the explicit content – and it surely is explicit – will shock, outrage and even appal some, but everyone who reads it will remember it. And I know this to be true, because…

FourCornerSounds all very considered and calculated, doesn’t it? That’s because it is. If a new, aspirant author intends to make an impression upon The Reader, who has in turn already read a massive amount in the genre, then that author’s characters and the actions they take need to be outstanding. They need to compel The Reader to read on, to be sufficiently intrigued/appalled to talk about it with their friends and to develop an urge to find out what happens next, as the central mystery – the story – unfolds. There’s also a considerable risk that they’ll close the book at that point and never read another word written by that particular author. The author and their publisher need to recognise that. One reviewer wrote that the book – my book – was ‘a truly repulsive read’, which I took as a considerable compliment, because that was my intention. Having set up a sequence of events intended to repel, it becomes a lot easier – almost a relief – to offer more palatable, less challenging developments as the tale progresses.

Sex and violence are the central drivers to all animals – in a sense. All species have but a single purpose; to breed, to further their species at the expense of all others. No breeding, no species. That’s how our makers intended it to be. And to make sure that we – all animals here – never forget their basic purpose, the actual gene-mingling process is designed to be the most stunning physical experience of them all. That’s sex, that is, in case you’d not worked it out. Humanity is obsessed with it. Look around you…

A secondary driver is the one revealed by Darwin; that natural selection demands the famous survival of the fittest. In its most basic form, in the animal kingdom that means that the male or female with the biggest fists and the sharpest mind and the most powerful personality will always compete to win the most beautiful female or male to produce winner babies. That, basically, is the violence half of the sex’n’violence partnership. That’s it. That’s what life is. Civilisation and modern society has clouded the issue a little, but look around you; what does everyone talk about? What grabs the majority of the headlines and clogs the talk shows and social media? Take my point?

How explicit can an author be, though? A tough question, and only you can answer that. Because authors are competing with each other for your attention, for your approval. We all shout ‘Look at me!’ in the hope that you will do that. The explicit sex and the detailed violence are for emphasis, to share, to show … and to entertain, which is what fiction is all about. No?

FiveStarReviews

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Frank Westworth shares several characteristics with JJ Stoner: they both play mean blues guitar and ride Harley-Davidson motorcycles. Unlike Stoner, Frank hasn’t deliberately killed anyone. Frank’s Killing Sisters novels and JJ Stoner stories are available in paperback and ebook formats – explicit content and all…

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