How do people decide whether violence is acceptable in a story?
To make this broader matter, how do they decide whether sex scenes and other possibly disturbing material (I’ll call this “difficult material” from now on) are acceptable in a given story?
After all, some people have no problem enjoying stories that have difficult material, while other people can’t stand them.
Over the last few years, I’ve researched this question a little.
I’ve particularly spent time listening to storytellers who make horror stories and how they defend their work.
I’ve discovered something interesting: these two groups of people (people okay with difficult material and people who don’t like difficult material) see stories in two different ways.
They have two different ways of looking at evil in stories.
Neither viewpoint is entirely wrong. In fact, I’ve reached the conclusion that people need something of both views.
Here’s my explanation of these two views and their strengths and weaknesses.
1. Micro View
Micro (meaning “very small”) is a view where people focus on the individual actions in the story.
A person simply ask questions like “Is there profanity in this story?” or “Do people kill each other in this story?”
The context doesn’t matter to this view, it’s simply whether difficult material exists in the story or not.
Micro view is great in that most people easily understand it. They just have to answer a series of “yes” or “no” questions about the story.
Using micro views, people can easily figure out how much difficult material is in the story in an objective way.
Using this view, people can easily figure out how much difficult material is in the story in an objective way.
However, this view doesn’t pay attention to context. It tells you whether the story contains difficult material, but not how it’s used.
This can create problems since sometimes stories show difficult material in a way that could be acceptable or necessary.
For example, the 2016 movie A United Kingdom has a sex scene, but it shows a young couple on their wedding night.
The couple stay married, never cheating on each other and even staying together despite extreme obstacles.
So, the wedding night scene is sexual, but not immoral. It simply shows that the main characters are a loving couple.
In this case, a micro viewpoint doesn’t give enough information to determine whether the story had immoral or unnecessary content.
2. Macro View
Macro (meaning “very large”) view focuses on how difficult material fits the overall story.
Here, the question isn’t so much whether the story has difficult material as much as what role it plays in the story, what events it sets in motion.
If the story includes difficult material, macro view asks whether it needed to be there for the rest of the story to work.
For example, if a story needs to end with a woman pregnant with a prophesied child, the woman needs to have sex at some point in the story.
People using macro views recognizes this action had to happen for the story to work, although they can certainly debate whether writers should have shown the scene differently.
Macro view’s strength is it recognizes context changes things. This view understands that depending on what story writers decide to create, they may need to include some difficult material for the story to work.
However, it’s not always easy to tell what the big picture is.
Sometimes a story doesn’t give people black-and-white answers about who they should root for or what the overall point is, which makes it hard to tell whether the story praises or just includes difficult material.
For example, the 1991 movie Silence of the Lambs introduces the audience to Hannibal Lecter, a man who’s pretty much descended as far into evil as someone can go.
Based on his crimes and the way people describe him, the audience expects this character to be subhuman, somehow degraded by his actions.
Instead, once Lecter appears onscreen, viewers discover he’s a healthy-looking man (his diet apparently hasn’t caused any medical problems), clearly smart and eloquent (his actions haven’t degraded his brain either).
Some people (such as reviewer Jonathon Rosenbaum) argue that a character like Lecter glorifies evil, especially since he counsels and mentors the movie’s hero.
Others (such as reviewer Steven D. Greydanus) argue that Lecter just shows how mysterious evil can be, that it’s not always something we can simply pass of as behavioral problems.
In this case, finding the macro view boils down to who can make the best argument, not qualitative facts or ideas we can all agree on.
Neither a pure micro nor a pure macro view really gives people enough information to decide if some stories have too much or necessary difficult material.
A better option is to use a mixture of both views, and consider which one helps more in different situations.
For example, if you’re reviewing films for a family-friendly movie website, you’ll likely rely more on a micro view, since you’re writing for viewers who want to know all the difficult material before watching a film.
If you’re talking about to horror fans about Stephen King films, you’ll probably rely more on a macro view, since you’re mostly talking to people who are okay with difficult material.
Understand both views and find a balance that works for you.