Dilemma: Should Writing Be Completely Honest and Realistic?

I’ve been wrestling with a problem: how honest and realistic should my writing be? The easy answer I tell myself is that writing with complete honesty and realism is the only way the job should be done, but that may not be the best choice for a number of reasons.

The question first arose when I started my first-person account of the Route 91 shooting in Las Vegas.  I responded to the massacre on an ambulance and treated a couple victims.  As I wrote I discovered I was treading into some gray areas of both medical privacy laws and infringement on peoples’ right to grieve in peace.  In other words, it’s illegal for me to identify the patients I treated and I do not want to tear the scabs off the healing wounds of those who lost loved ones by giving a play-by-play of a victim’s final moments. That said, it’s an important story to tell. People need to know what the victims and first responders went through at the hands of that maniac.

The second time this became an issue is when I began a story about the death of a child.  I was present for the final, unsuccessful, attempt to save a child’s life and the pronouncement of his death.  Avoiding the identification of the child is easy in this case, as the details can be made anonymous.  The hard part is to know when I cross the line with regard to the realism of the description of the boy’s wounds and what was done to try to save his life. Said a different way, does my audience really want to know those details? They are not for the faint of heart.

This dilemma started me down the path of questioning how much honesty and realism we should include on any number of topics about which we write.  Are gore and extreme details necessary to convey the depths of emotion and pain experienced? Or is it gratuitous and self-serving?  This question can be applied to both fiction and non-fiction, too.

I tried to find an answer.  I Googled every query I could devise to try to find information on the reasonable limitations of a writer’s license.  All I found were numerous how-to articles which discussed several methods to vividly describe trauma, pain, death, etc.  I found nothing that proposed or defined the moral and ethical limits on what writers should, or perhaps more importantly, should not, include in their prose.

Am I free to write openly and honestly about what happened?  The nature of my stories demands that I do.  If my works lack veracity they may also lack the power to affect the reader’s emotions.  If that happens, the story is a failure.

What are your thoughts on this conundrum? Would you rather read a story about the tragic death of a child in explicit detail, or would you rather have it glossed over for the sake of decorum?  Do you believe the stories of a maniac’s victims deserve to be told in a way that maximizes the impact of the message, or should the message be softened for the sake of the reader’s weak stomach?

In On Writing, Stephen King said “If you expect to succeed as a writer, rudeness should be the second-to-least of your concerns. The least of all should be polite society and what it expects. If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered, anyway.” King’s words are true in principle, but the “reasonable” part of me says there are practical limits to what is ethical and morally right. King never penned a true tale about the death of a child.

I have yet to determine how I will write my two stories.  What are your thoughts on the matter?

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