(Warning: This article contains descriptions which some readers may find disturbing).
Although I’ve partially covered this topic in my article about horror fiction, I thought that it merited it’s own article since this issue can be a bit more complicated for other genres. For starters, I should probably point out that every story is different and what might work for one story might not work for another story, so this isn’t a definitive guide.
Generally speaking, unless you’re writing a horror story, a war story (war stories shouldn’t be sanitised) or some types of detective stories (eg: “police procedural” stories), then you shouldn’t make your story too gruesome. This isn’t anything to do with censorship or moralism, but it is to do with reader expectations. Since there are probably a fair number of readers who aren’t really that keen on gruesome fiction and they might be put off if your story has too much in the way of blood and guts in it.
In other words, if you read a horror story then you probably know what to expect, but if you read a a western story, then you might not expect it to be particularly gruesome.
This doesn’t mean that your story can’t be violent or realistic, but it means that you have to be slightly careful about how you describe things. It’s perfectly possible to put some fairly horrific things in a non-horror/war/detective story without too much in the way of overtly gruesome descriptions. This will make your story more acceptable to a general audience and, if you do it well, it can actually be more (or at least equally) as shocking as describing things in detail.
In other words, leave the really grotesque details to your reader’s imaginations whilst giving them just enough detail so that they can still imagine what is happening. For example, say you were writing a thriller novel which ends with the main villain being kicked into an open vat of highly-concentrated hydrochloric acid after a fight in a (very unsafe) factory.
Now, you could spend two pages describing him being dissolved or you could just write something like this: ‘For a second, it looked like he’d fallen into a swimming pool. Even his flailing and screaming sounded like someone who was drowning. It was only when the surface of the vat went cloudy pink and the screaming stopped that John realised that it wasn’t water.’
See, by leaving all the really horrible parts to your readers’ imaginations, you can still write a fairly horrific and dramatic scene which fits in well with your story and won’t alienate your readers. You’d be surprised how many films use techniques like this to great effect (although in their case, it’s usually due to budgetary or censorship reasons more than anything else. As a writer, you probably don’t have to worry too much about either of these things.).
Likewise, you can generally get away with showing blood in most types of stories (provided that it isn’t gratuitous or irrelevant to the plot) as long as you only describe it fairly briefly (eg: ‘his shirt was covered in blood’ or ‘the room was spattered with blood’ etc…) and don’t go into a huge amount of detail about it. Your readers’ imaginations will fill in the gaps anyway.
However, saying this, gruesome scenes can sometimes be appropriate in non-horror/war/detective stories. Because people don’t expect stories in other genres to be too gruesome, then it is a lot more shocking when they are. This means that if you have an extremely compelling artistic reason to emphasise the horror of what has happened in your story, then you can go into detail. But you shouldn’t do this very often in your stories and you should only do it when sanitising a particular scene would rob it of its dramatic/narrative power or be fundamentally dishonest.
This is especially important in some types of historical fiction which may include references to, or scenes involving, extremely horrific events that actually happened (eg: slavery, genocide, torture, executions, wars etc….).
By sanitising or glossing over the reality of these things, you are diminishing the horror which they should evoke in your readers in order to warn them that these parts of history should never be repeated. But, at the same time, you need to be careful not to make these parts of your story exploitative or gratuitous (in other words, do your research and try to keep the descriptions fairly accurate).
As I said at the beginning of this article, it’s usually best to err on the side of caution when it comes to general fiction and to leave things to your readers’ imaginations. Anyway, I hope that this article was useful.