My wife, who also acts as an excellent first reader and copy editor, thought that I had been far too explicit in describing some horrific events in my current project. I thought about it and decided that she was right. I replaced a scene with a few lines of narration.
Dealing with that raised what I believe is a good point about when one ought to tell rather than show.
I am not very squeamish. This may be because I worked for decades in both medical and social-service related jobs where I saw things that fried my nerve endings.
Things that I consider not that unusual horrify normal people. And they should.
I am going to be vague about where and when some of the following events occurred. The reasons for my reticence should become obvious.
Many years ago, I ran EEGs for a living. I sometimes had to figure out where to place the electrodes because the places they would normally go weren’t there anymore. If you try to kill yourself with firearms, miss the brain stem (you probably keep breathing), but send chunks of your head across the room, that tends to happen.
On the social-services side, I remember a doctor who had found a way to ensure domestic tranquility.
He kept his wife on a cocktail of drugs that left her with just enough cognitive function for simple housework. She never argued, and was, well, cooperative, when he wanted to have some fun. (And people thought Ira Levin was making this stuff up.)
The case, which wound up being handled by adult protective services, began as an investigation of child neglect because during freezing weather she sent her first grade child to school dressed for summer. Too few of her neurons were firing for her to notice.
I also saw three separate cases of a child under the age of ten who had attempted suicide because the poor kid saw death as the only escape from a life of continual sexual abuse. In one of the cases, the father was a clergyman.
Deal with stuff like that for a few decades, and I promise you won’t see the world as a place filled with happy bunnies in sunlit meadows.
I do sometimes include graphic scenes of horrible events in my fiction—I’m not writing for children or unusually sensitive adults—but I don’t do it lightly. I do it only when it either (a) develops the character or (b) moves the plot forward.
Ethical issues(exploitation of human misery) aside, scenes with very disturbing material that don’t drive the main thrust of the story risk pulling the plot off course. The scene my wife objected to was about a secondary character. It was such an emotionally charged scene that it almost turned her into the protagonist. That just didn’t work for my story.
As long as I’m on the subject of the grotesque, I’ll finish by quoting Robert Block. Block is remembered as the author of Psycho and as the youngest member of H. P. Lovecraft’s circle of correspondents. He is supposed to have said, “Despite my ghoulish reputation, I really have the heart of a small boy. I keep it in a jar on my desk.”