The Problem of Proportion

I’ve never been good with portion control.

I once saw a home video of my three-year-old self crying and begging my mom for another chocolate chip cookie. I’d gotten a taste of that sugar crack and only wanted more. Whoever was filming me, probably my jerk father, just kept pulling the camera away, making me chase after the audience like they were all cookies. Finally, my mom caved and handed me a second portion moments before the video cut.


The same issue has persisted in my fiction ever since. No, I’m not always giving my characters chocolate chip cookies—I’m locked in the battle between over-explaining / over-representing and under-explaining / under-representing, a.k.a., proportion.

One of my favorite quotes about proportion deals with Starz’s British-American period piece Outlander (book series by Diana Gabaldon). Commenting on the brutal sexual assault of a male lead character, Shaunna Murphy, for MTV News, defends the series’ choice to explicitly show the assault: “in real life you don’t get to turn the camera away when it’s happening…or during its aftermath.”

From this quote, I glean that trauma should be “on screen” not only to create a “realistic effect” toward trauma representation but also not to hide, discourage, or shame through silence any survivor’s experience. In other words, trauma should be “on screen” not for shock value but to bring out of the shadows darker and often forgotten / tabooed assaults or abuses.


The contrast to this, however, is a ridiculously long, dense, and “uncomfortable” work. Authors must pick and choose the scenes that demonstrate character development, plot details, scene description, etc. But, how do we include trauma or post-trauma? How much of it should we write on the page?

Soap operas (and Glee’s poor presentation of Ryder Lynn’s sexual abuse post-trauma—which I have my own vendetta against) are notorious for featuring one “rape” storyline that gets forgotten (even by the characters, often women, who suffered this “on-screen” trauma) by season two or five or whatever.

How can we be more responsible in our fiction to uncover and present these horrors without “horrifying” them, without presenting them as pure shock value, or without fulfilling some strange Hollywood quota?

Basically, how do we do proportion?

Please, someone let me know as even this blog entry seems to focus more on chocolate chip cookies than craft. Then again, those cookies are part of my own “on-screen” (and off-screen) trauma.


— Nat Updike, Fiction Editor

Leave a Reply