Graphic Writing: Gore
Writing gore can be difficult, especially if you are worried about it. A lack of confidence in your writing or ability can make your work either too descriptive or overly-detached, both of which separate the reader from the story. This is a guide to calm worries when writing gory scenes and create repulsive yet engaging writing.
This essay contains graphic descriptions of gore.
To write about gore effectively requires self-confidence. The words themselves do not need to be exceptionally graphic or explicit—you can write about gore through subtle means and still get the desired effect—but it must be delivered effectively and without shying away from what needs to be said.
The words you use when writing about gore are essential to get right. Ridiculous analogies, overly-descriptive metaphors, or obscure similes will confound the reader and restrict your flow of words. Choose your language carefully and use comparisons as sparingly as possible to create a greater impact.
I start stabbing him in the stomach, lightly, above the dense matted patch of pubic hair. This sobers him up and instinctively he tries to cover himself with his hands and the dog starts yipping, really furiously, but it doesn’t attack, and I keep stabbing at the bum now between his fingers, stabbing at the backs of his hands. His eye, burst open, hangs out of its socket and runs down his face and he keeps blinking which causes what’s left of it inside the wound to pour out like red, veiny egg yolk.
American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis
This whole scene is shocking and horrific due to the violence and cold aggression delivered, but the single simile at the end of the extract holds the most disgust. The two words that compare the detached eye to something the reader can understand, and create a repulsive visual representation, are ‘egg yolk.’ It gives so much context, and shows considerably more than an excessive detailing of the actual appearance would.
Another way to use language when writing gore is to suggest and insinuate, skirting around the details whilst mentioning just enough to allow the reader to create the scene themselves. This sometimes has the effect of increasing the number of similes and metaphors used, but consistency and elaboration can prevent sentences straying from shocking into cringe-inducing, or even comical. To maintain the horror, occasionally you have to obscure it slightly.
The face of Olson Read, when she found him, his neck and head, this last 10 percent of him was still perfect. Beautiful even, compared to the peeling, boiled-food rest of his body.
Still screaming. As if the stars give a shit. This something left of Olson, dragging itself down this side of the White River, it stumbled, knees wobbly, staggering and coming apart.
There were parts of Olson already gone. His legs, below the knees, cooked and drug off over the broken ice. Bit and pulled off, the skin first and then the bones, the blood so cooked inside there’s nothing going off behind him but a trail of his own grease. His heat melting deep in the snow.
Haunted by Chuck Palahniuk
In this section of the book, Olson Read had fallen into a geyser. This is the aftermath, described as he was found by the section’s protagonist. Palahniuk switches between intense detail and action, almost musing on the scene as narrator, to deliver a gory and yet captivating passage that analogises more than it should, but gets away with it.
Whether you decide to embrace or avoid analogies, ensure what you use is consistent and in the language of your characters. The right word, although usually innocent, can become the most graphic descriptor if placed correctly, and so the gore you insinuate becomes an unstoppable mental picture for the reader.
One of the main criticisms of written gore, particularly in transgressive or fantasy novels, is how over-the-top it all appears. As a writer, you strive to ensure your dialogue is naturalistic and fits within the world you are writing in, similarly your characters’ actions are reasonable and logical, so why not make the gore accurate?
Stoop low, they said, under the smoke. Don’t run, you’ll bump into things and die.
She was locked in. Locked in. Walking, stooping low, fingers trailing on the floor, she found legs—other end—she found hair, a hairy flap, put her hand in something soft below the hair. Only pulp, sharp bone splinters and a loose eye in it.
Red Dragon by Thomas Harris
There is no overt description of horror in this scene as Reba, a blind woman trapped in a burning house, discovers a body, but instead a slow-dawning realisation of what her hands are feeling. The last thing she heard was a shotgun blast and this description of a corpse with no face is both graphic and realistic considering the range of the self-inflicted shot, as are her actions.
The other point when looking at writing gore is to consider how it would affect those who witness, or are part of, the scene. Considering some people pass out at the sight of blood, being party to excessive gore would surely have a dramatic influence over anyone, and as such it is always worth considering how characters are reacting.
Meanwhile, I did nothing but vomit. Over and over again. Long after it seemed there was nothing more for me to bring up, I continued to vomit. At last, the bearlike Mongolian officer held up the skin of Yamamoto’s torso, which he had so cleanly peeled off. Even the nipples were intact. Never to this day have I seen anything so horrible. Someone took the skin from him and spread it out to dry the way we might dry a sheet. All that remained lying on the ground was Yamamoto’s corpse, a bloody red lump of meat from which every trace of skin had been removed. The most painful sight was the face. Two large white eyeballs stared out from the red mass of flesh. Teeth bared, the mouth stretched wide open as if in a shout. Two little holes were all that remained where the nose had been removed. The ground was a sea of blood.
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami
This conclusion to the torture and skinning alive of Yamamoto is terrifyingly realistic yet almost placid in its retelling. Murakami’s narrator is both repulsed by and accepting of this memory, and recalls it in such vivid detail, showing both absolute disgust and the trauma this event, and memory of it, have inflicted.
Ensuring the physical description and characters’ actions and reactions are accurate and follow the rules of the world in which your story is told will allow the reader to successfully continue suspending their disbelief and experience the scene instinctually. This will add more drama and weight to those moments which are so horrific they stay with the reader long after the book is over.
A lack of accurate pacing is one of the downfalls of bad gore scenes; but this can be solved with both a little research and a sensible approach.
It was human, she saw, or had been. But the body had been ripped apart and sewn together again with most of its pieces either missing or twisted and blackened as if in a furnace. There was an eye, gleaming at her, and the ladder of a spine, the vertebrae stripped of muscle, a few unrecognisable fragments of anatomy. That was it. That such a thing might live beggared reason—what little flesh it owned was hopelessly corrupted. Yet live it did. Its eye, despite the rot it was rooted in, scanned her every inch, up and down.
The Hellbound Heart by Clive Barker
Barker’s slow reveal of the creature in the gap between the walls builds on the already unbearable level of tension maintained throughout the story. The reader is offered the merest glimpse of what remains of Frank during his first appearance after being taken by the Cenobites, and it is drip-fed throughout the paragraph. What happened to him during the intervening period is rightly left to the imagination, though the description of what he has become does suggest something truly horrible.
By contrast, faster explanations—when done right—can be just as disturbing, if the text is not just gore for its own self-indulgence. Even when describing excessive gore, pacing can even out the scene. Separating elements of the description using action or tangential details can create a meandering flow of disgust.
A legion of horribles, hundreds in number, half naked or clad in costumes attic or biblical or wardrobed out of a fevered dream with the skins of animals and silk finery and pieces of uniform still tracked with the blood of prior owners, coats of slain dragoons, frogged and braided cavalry jackets, one in a stovepipe hat and one with an umbrella and one in white stockings and a bloodstained wedding veil and some in headgear or cranefeathers or rawhide helmets that bore the horns of bull or buffalo and one in a pigeontailed coat worn backwards and otherwise naked and one in the armor of a Spanish conquistador, the breastplate and pauldrons deeply dented with old blows of mace or sabre done in another country by men whose very bones were dust and many with their braids spliced up with the hair of other beasts until they trailed upon the ground and their horses’ ears and tails worked with bits of brightly colored cloth and one whose horse’s whole head was painted crimson red and all the horsemen’s faces gaudy and grotesque with daubings like a company of mounted clowns, death hilarious, all howling in a barbarous tongue and riding down upon them like a horde from a hell more horrible yet than the brimstone land of Christian reckoning, screeching and yammering and clothed in smoke like those vaporous beings in regions beyond right knowing where the eye wanders and the lip jerks and drools.
Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy
The suggested gore combined with the increasing swell of this lengthy sentence adds to the impression of a growing mass of ‘horribles,’ as McCarthy calls them. The purposeful lack of punctuation builds momentum and increases the pressure of the words, mounting to a tidal force of terrifying enemies wearing the bloodstained clothes of their victims. The excesses of blood and use of human remains as decoration further adds to the dread that the relentless pace creates.
Whether the scene requires fast or slow pacing, and however you choose to reveal the gore, remember that some elements are best left unwritten. Those parts that are not explicitly mentioned, but instead insinuated, are the details that the reader will remember. Creating your own mental image is much stronger than imagining someone else’s, so by guiding the reader and pacing the description it is possible to have them conjure the gore for themselves, thereby leaving a lasting impression that is much harder to shake.
Seb Reilly is a writer, fiction author and occasional musician. He lives by the sea in Thanet, Kent, with his family and two cats.