09 July 2019

Plot, Not Snot!

by Barb Goffman

Realism. It's something authors strive for and readers look for. If I see something in a book that seems completely unrealistic, it may make me stop reading. And while readers will often suspend their disbelief for a good story, it behooves authors not to push readers too far.

So when I see an author striving to get the details right, I'm pleased. But allow me to let you in on a little secret ... it's possible to go too far.

Yep. There are certain things I don't want to read about, especially in detail. Here are some:

  • Snot. Yes, in crime fiction, you may have characters who cry. And yes, in real life, there may be snot associated with that crying. But I don't want to read about it. It's gross. So if it's not necessary to the plot (and really, when was the last time snot was necessary to the plot?), cut it. Please! 
    Showing tissues, good. Snot, bad.
  •  Vomit. Sure, sometimes the contents of a character's stomach may rise. Saying that bile entered someone's throat can be a good way to show a character's reaction to a disgusting situation. Even saying a person threw up can be okay. But showing the vomit leaving the body in graphic detail, nope, nope, nope. Don't do it. Please!
  • Farting. Another thing that happens in real life that I don't want to read about unless you can make it germane to the plot. Good luck with that one.
  • Using the toilet. Yes, we all do it. And sure, if you want to mention someone went to the restroom, go for it. People can talk privately in restrooms. They can wash their faces while contemplating the horrible thing they just witnessed. And they can go in there to take care of bodily functions. All fine. But when that stall door closes, the reader in me begs you to fade to black. I don't need to know the details about what goes on in there. Please, please, please.
  •  Phlegm. Similar to vomit. Yes, it happens. Nope, don't want to see it.
I'm told that these rules don't apply to fiction aimed at children. That kids love books that talk in detail about bodily functions. Not having been a child in a long time, I will have to accept that premise as true. But I'm interested in hearing from readers with kids on this matter. Do your kids like reading about all this disgusting stuff? Is there an age at which it ceases to be something fun and turns into something gross? And is there a difference between boys and girls on this matter?

Okay, readers, weigh in please. Have I missed anything? What do you not want to read about in graphic detail on the page? Tell me what is snot necessary for you. 

20 comments:

Paul D. Marks said...

I agree with you, Barb. Reality and Verisimilitude are good things. But, as we know, there can be too much of a good thing. And what do some of the things you mentioned add to a story? Especially if they're told in too much detail.

O'Neil De Noux said...

Yes. Unless it is germane to the plot. Elmore Leonard taught us to leave out the parts readers skip. Hitchcock said,"“What is drama but life with the dull bits cut out.” (I've also seen the quote as, "Drama is real life with all the boring parts cut out.") Don't know which quote is exactly what he said but we get the meaning.

As for children's fiction. We had a well known children's writer read at a gathering here and there was potty humor and details about bodily functions in each story read. One of the books was about using the potty, so I understood, but the others were not focused on potty training or anything, just kids being gross some of the time.

Mark Bergin said...

Agree agree. I can’t imagine writing any of these into a book, and I blew somebody’s head off in mine. The only bodily function passage I can think of that works is Spermwhale Whalen greeting his new bride in Joseph Wambaugh’s THE CHOIRBOYS. Beyond gross but completely appropriate for the story. And the only scene I remember reading, now forty years later. (If you don’t know it, I can tell you when I see you. And we’ll both be embarrassed.)

Michael Bracken said...

On a related note: Temple and I have noticed how a great many modern crime and action movies have a scene in which a man urinates. It is rarely important to the plot or to any form of character development and is only occasionally used in a humorous manner. So, why do so many modern movie markers have a thing for urinating men?

But farting? Farting is funny.

Becky M. said...

Agree! Having raised two boys, I've had a lifetime's share of gross stuff. Books are my escape from reality, not a reminder of it.

Eve Fisher said...

Totally agree! Granted, if you're going to write a bunch of middle-school aged boys talking, there's going to be fart / bathroom references galore, because that's what they do. But grown men and women? No.
I've only used vomit once, when the husband of a character projectile vomits across a room, which gets him hospitalized, which gets the doctors to find out he's been poisoned. I consider that part of the plot. But I didn't linger over it.

Tonette Joyce said...

I can't tell you how much I agree with you. when I see these, I wonder if the writer has ever gotten out of third grade. It was bad enough when the men did it, but I see it more and more in women's writings; there is no excuse.
I have given up on more than one otherwise funny movie because of 'fart'jokes, and skimmed through stories fearing more would be thrust upon me on the pages.It ruins a good or fun read.
Let's face it: Good writing is a balance of good description and too much. How many great writers are out there? Not enough!

Leigh Lundin said...

I’m with you 100%, Barb, and with Michael's comment about urinating. Sometimes the tanks need to be emptied, but why document or even detail it?

Although I disagree that everyone does it. In the 5th grade, Krïstï Jaynye Schlammerhorn (that’s Krïstï with little stars in her ‘i’s) never so much as trimmed a fingernail. I’m pretty sure she never went to the bathroom for anything other than delicately touching up her makeup.

There probably is a difference between boys and girls. I had a teen boy live with me for several months. He was extremely shy about anything to do with the bathroom. He refused to use the ‘facilities’ at school, waiting until he got home.

In real life, most of us strive to be polite and considerate of others. It wouldn’t be a bad rule to carry that into writing and movie making.

Robert Lopresti said...

Good topic. When I watched the show 24 I always wondered how Jack went 24 hours without using a bathroom. Probably helped that he never ate either.

As for kids... Years ago we had an archaeologist visit our synagogue as scholar in residence. Being a college professor she was not at all sure how she could keep the interest of kids at the Sunday school. She lectured to them on bathrooms of the ancient middle east and they loved it!

Elizabeth said...

Nothing to do with fiction writing, but has anyone other than myself noticed that the TV commercials have become more & more graphic? In a toilet paper commercial that comes to mind, a lady says, "Let's talk about what really happens in the bathroom." For what possible reason?!

Lawrence Maddox said...

What a great , thought provoking piece, Barb! I also appreciated O'Neil's comments about Leonard and Hitchcock extolling us to cut the unneeded details. It's the essence of story telling. I read a lot of spy and action-adventure paperbacks from the '60s-'80s. Check out the Paperback Warrior site if these genres interest anyone. Anyway, beatings and poisons are administered in heavy doses, and sometimes the bodily fluids fly. Same true for some modern day gritty crime titles published by Down & Out and others. Readers of these genres know what they're in for. The violence can be graphic, but to misquote a film title, "There will be blood, and puke, and maybe some other stuff."

Barb Goffman said...


Thanks, everyone, for commenting. I'm a little surprised, actually, at all the agreement. Pleased but surprised. I was expecting some push back from people who like reading about the gross stuff, saying that it's "real life" or something like that.

Mark, thanks for making me laugh (blew someone's head off in mine). :)

Michael, to each his own. (And I've noticed the urinating thing on TV too, and not in crime shows. Not sure why either.)

Becky, yes!

Fran Rizer said...

Barb, when my grandson was about seven, he was watching a cartoon showing a giant cloud following one of the characters. When I asked what it was, he replied, "It's his fart, Grandmama." When he saw my expression, he said, "It's a normal bodily function." Since then, I've noticed numerous children's picture books about normal bodily functions, including a picture biography of Fartista, the French gas musician. Since I read about people dismembering their murder victims and have a main character in the mortuary business, I'm neither surprised nor offended by fiction that mentions the words you wrote about. I even have a main character who complains that when she's angry or frightened, she doesn't cry; she throws up, but she says she "barfs." I do recall from reading an author friend's first five books, she always had one of her characters "vomit,' which caught my attention because using the word was a surprise. She's since gone on to international success and frequent appearance on the Times list. Your column was interesting and thought-provoking, though now I'll probably be looking for those words when reading.

jrlindermuth said...

I confess, I wrote a scene this week in which a character farted. Not something I'd normally include, but in this case it was appropriate to the character's character.

Barb Goffman said...

Fran, I don't object to the words as much as the graphic description. I myself have had characters vomit, but it's one of those tell, don't show, things.

John, (right, it's John?), "appropriate to the character's character." Nice.

Jeanie Jackson said...

Agree 100% and there seems to be more an more of it showing up in the books I read. I love word pictures most of the time but there are just some things I don't want to visualize my favorite characters doing bit by bit.

Travis Richardson said...

Hey Barb,

I'm less offended by the body functions in stories, but don't like them when they dominate a scene and don't serve a point or the gratuitousness goes on forever. That being said, I wrote a flash fiction piece a six years ago called "A Sh!tty Story". The purpose of the story was about a guy letting go and moving on, but in an unsettling way. Most of the feedback I got was positive. You can read at your own peril. https://www.shotgunhoney.com/fiction/a-shitty-story-by-travis-richardson/

Barb Goffman said...

Yeah, I can guess where you went in that story, Travis, and I'll pass. But thanks!

MaryAnn Corrigan said...

My grandsons, aged 6 and 9, would enjoy a book with farts and vomit in it. However, their parents would not buy a book. I'm not sure when the boys will grow out of it, but I hope it's soon.

Barb Goffman said...

Good luck with that, Mary Ann.