Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Don't Kill The Baby

Okay, before I scare anyone, this isn't an issue post or anything involving graphic images of anything whatsoever. Because that's an image that none of us need, I'm sure.

This post is about theater. We like that, right? Something nice and warm and sweet (even if theaters can be dark and kind of cool temperature-wise, but that's besides the point.)

Okay, it's about killing babies and theater. And writing, of course. But mostly about the later two, I promise.

Anyway, getting on topic...

Once upon a time, in the days when I was two inches shorter and an active member of a certain theater cult (I mean, family-esque theater organization...), an older member gave us some very useful information about improv, or really any material you're presenting: Don't kill the baby.

That line came from a kid in one of her college theater classes who did a whole pantomime as if tenderly holding a baby only to culminate by killing it. Basically, it meant that during an audition or something of that sort, don't do things that will scandalize or horrify your audience past traditional bearing.

Here's the thing about doing something like that, if you kill the baby, people will be pretty well horrified, and that's all they're going to remember about your work. They'll walk about saying, 'Heaven's to Betsy, they kill the baby.' 98% of the time, that's not the reaction you're hoping to elicit.

So, unless you're in the two percent who want people to think, 'Aaahhh! They killed the baby!' I'd strongly recommend not doing it. Really strongly recommend it.

I'm not saying that shocking your readership is a bad thing. It can be a very good thing to do. But there are times, places, and ways for it. And it's probably best to make sure that the way in which you're doing it does not detract from your work overall.

I recently finished a book (which shall remain nameless, because of my policy of not dissing books on the blog) that killed the baby. It's wasn't a bad book, but the Killing the Baby scene is one of the two I seriously remember. (Actually, arguably, there were three shocking scenes, one of which stands out as seriously Killing the Baby, all of which I remember, and one regular scene that was good. The traumatic stuff, though, is what leaps to mind.) Basically, the baby-killing moment wiped a lot of the book from my recollection.

While I think this book might have fallen into the 2% where killing the baby works for the book, it still illustrates, in my mind, the care with which one must handle such material. Is this the part of the book you want seared into your readers' brains? Does this moment make sense in the context of the rest of the book, or will it seem completely out of left field? Is this shocking to help or shocking to be shocking? You'll need to know the answers to those questions.

Baby killing scenes are specifically Handle With Care.

How do you feel about such shocking material? Have you used it in your own work? Has such a scene ever drastically changed your view of or reaction to a work?


  1. Well, from this point on I will always remember this issue as killing the baby. What an appropriate if disturbing image. Personally, I like to surprise the reader, but not shock the reader. And when I'm the reader, it's the same-- I like to be surprised, but not horrified.

  2. I don't want to horrify my readers any more than I want to be horrified when I'm reading. I'll definitely keep this in mind as I rework some scenes. Thanks!

  3. I think this is great advice. In my novel, I do have a shocking scene (some would say two), but there is a limit to how shocking I wanted to be. Like you said, we don't want the horror of one scene to be so powerful that nothing else is retained from the reading experience. At least I don't want that.

    When I thinking about scenes like this--and now I'm realizing that my current WIP will have an equally shocking scene--I think the key for me is to make sure I show the humanity of the act. I want to focus on the emotions, and I want to portray that in a way that allows the reader to sympathize.

  4. Great advice and I love the analogy!

  5. This post comes at a good time for me! I was just mulling over this issue, and now I'll be extra careful. I've been working on a scene in which an unrequited lover gets devoured by a dragon, which has been displaced from its natural habitat by warfare. One of my readers thinks it's too sad! Haha. I think the scene is kind of funny, but I think I'll need to handle it with care.

    I find this concept to be true. I've read a couple of really good books that so thoroughly jarred me with a gruesome image that it's the main thing I remember about the book. I certainly want to avoid that in a fantasy/romance story.

  6. This is great. I think it depends on the genre, too. I read some horror pieces for the Genre Wars contest, and quite frankly, they killed the baby every other paragraph. But that was - to me. To any person who actually likes horror, I'm sure it wasn't nearly as shocking.

    I like this phrase, killing the baby, and I think you've got a great point here! Shocking your reader just to get a reaction is never wise.

  7. Great post! I would be in the 98%, I think. I try to have suspense and twists, but I don't wanna kill the baby.

  8. Thank you for this post. I am now killing the baby in my current WIP. I think she only needs to be roughed up a little bit, more than a spank but definately not enough to leave a red mark.

  9. I don't know that I do "shocking" but I hope I do "emotionally charged." I don't want to gross people out or send them running to their therapist but I do want to make them think a little.

  10. Karen -- I think you've hit on a good point there. We should surprise our readers, not horrify them.

    Susan -- I'm glad you enjoyed.

    Davin -- I think you're right that showing the emotions will help make the characters more sympathetic and cut down on the horrific aspects. Emotions are things people can relate to, so it can help the reader understand.

    Talli -- Thanks.

    Genie -- I'm glad the post came at a useful time for you. Good luck with that scene. It sounds really interesting. :)

    Glamis -- Thanks. I think you're right that killing the baby could be someone relative. If one is more used to an idea, it might not horrify them, but it could easily shock the daylights out of someone else.

    Elana -- Thanks. I agree, suspense and twists are good, baby killing, not so much.

    Piedmont -- I'm glad you found this post helpful. Nice continuing analogy in the comment. :)

    L.T. -- I think emotionally charged is good. You want people to care about the characters and what happens to them, after all.

  11. She killed the baby!!!! AHHHHHHH!!!!!!!

  12. vader -- That was my reaction in a nutshell.