Thursday, March 22, 2018

Red Sparrow: A Broken Winged Bird

I love the actress Jennifer Lawrence. I have watched all of her movies and admired her portrayal of Katniss Everdine in The Hunger Games, Mystique in the X-Men, and Tiffany in the Silver Linings Playbook.

I also love spy movies.

So, I eagerly settled into my theater seat to view Red Sparrow, a tale of a Russian dancer turned Soviet Agent.


There was the setup and inciting event: dancer is injured, thereby ending her career and income stream. She has a sick mother who needs medical care (personal dilemma).

Enter the uncle who proposes a new job: become an agent or her mother dies (story goal).

The first twist: she was intentionally injured by the leading man and another dancer. She gets brutal revenge so we see Dominique has the capacity for violence.

Then the plot swan dives: they send her to, in her words, whore school. Neither men nor women are spared explicit sexual exploitation. There she learns to use her sexuality as a weapon and to stay one step ahead of her mark. This is the gun placed to be fired at the climax.

The middle of the movie is a mire of torture porn. Dominique meets her mark, fails her original objective, gets beaten to within an inch of her life, miraculously bounces back, and goes back in the game.

The ending has a satisfying twist and that is the only good thing I can say about the movie, other than Jennifer's acting ability.

Once again, I was sickened by the explicit rape and torture writers rely on for ratings.

Recently, screenwriter Bridget Lawless launched the Staunch book contest for Suspense Thrillers where "no woman is beaten, stalked, sexually exploited, raped, or murdered." The winner will be announced November 25, 2018, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. You can read more about the contest in this article from the Guardian.

Brutal torture, graphic violence, and excessive gore saturate books, films, video games, and television series. I tried to remember a single series (other than cozies) or movie that doesn't feature images of women (and men) bound, waterboarded, beaten, electrocuted, chopped up, raped, etc.

A murder mystery must have a murder, but the act doesn't have to be lavishly filmed (with the verbal or actual camera) in full technicolor detail. The same goes for the ridiculous body counts. You can have one death occur in a story with resounding impact rather than dozens of deaths that go by without connection or emotion. That same tense moment where the heroes are walking the corridors, watching out for bad guys is just as tense without the ridiculous shootouts.It is what happens before the bang, rat-a-tats, or booms that matters.

"But, but," I can hear the objections already, save them. I know films are supposed to appeal to 18 to 30 year old males and they eat that stuff up. I find that gross generalization an insult to men in general, but I digress.

"But, but it's getting into the bad guy's head. He is a sick, evil, twisted guy." Fine. Use that if you can't think of something more original. Quite frankly the drawn out focus on a twisted person's mind is a turn off for me. It has been done to death. Villain is a cruel psychopath? Got it. Understand what that implies. I don't need to watch/read every sick thing s/he does or thinks. It's okay for the sleuth to say, this guy is really sick. He gets off on (fill in the blank). But I'd rather be spared his POV while doing it. Seriously. For me as reader/viewer, that's a good time to pan away and summarize.

Don't get me started on hitting people with cars, truck, and trains, with or without heads rolling and limbs flying, and fountains of  blood and guts. Ditto waterboarding, electroshocking nipples, hanging people from the ceiling with chains, charring their skin, or slicing digits off. Do really bad dudes in the real world do this? Possibly. Do we need to watch it? No.

You don't need tired tropes to have a successful suspense story. I would go so far as to state relying on shock value rather than the harder task of making the plot tense is weak writing.

It can be done with fairly simple tools: high stakes (personal and overall story), ticking clocks, limited options, cat and mouse, red herrings, chases, horrifying realizations, and information reveals that change what the protagonist and readers think the story is about. Hero and villain can face off without killing everyone in sight with assault rifles.The deaths of many dilutes the deaths of a few.

If you know of non-cozy mysteries or thrillers that are successful without extreme violence (books or movies), leave a link to them in the comments. I will be sure to check them out.

Continue reading:

Wonder Woman Versus Atomic Blonde

Bad Romance

Reinventing the Hero

The Power of Story

Diana Hurwitz is the author of Story Building Blocks: The Four Layers of Conflict, Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict, Story Building Blocks III: The Revision Layers, and the YA adventure series Mythikas Island. Her weekly blog, Game On: Crafting Believable Conflict explores how characters behave and misbehave. Visit for more information and free writing tools. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter.


  1. I heartily agree with you. I've been reading thrillers, mysteries and crime stories for many years, and watched a few of those sorts of movies, and the violence has become increasingly extreme, gratuitous - and worse - glorified. And yes, it tends to focus on women. I feel like I must be an old fuddy-duddy to think this way, yet I'm (sadly!) waaaay too young to retire. It's as if writers/movie makers think they need to keep raising the bar on the shock and horror, using a larger hammer every time to get the audience's attention - they're scared we're going to look away, at the next shiny thing the interwebz can put in front of us. The focus seems to have shifted from storytelling to marketing - how can we make this slick and 'sexy' and so naughtily horrifying that people won't be able to go past it, just like a train wreck. We've opened Pandora's Box when it comes to 'dark' material and now all the horrors are pouring out. By way of saying, I too wish skilful story telling rather than graphic marketing would return. I can't think of any examples of the former.... Thanks for tackling this challenging topic.

  2. This is a fabulous post, Diana. You've nailed it. Violence is, very sadly, a way of life today. Evil people who commit horrific acts have existed since the beginning of time; however, they seem now to be more in abundance than ever before, as emphasized by school shootings, the killing of law enforcement officers, mass murders in other arenas, and the list goes on. Unchecked bullying drives victimized youngsters to commit suicide and therefore seems to me to be a form of indirect murder. Despite the feminist movement and so-called strides made toward equality, the abuse of women appears to be as prevalent as ever, exemplified in part by recent revelations of its frequency in the entertainment industry. Some suggest our knowledge of all this is because we have better communication methods than in the past, and we therefore learn about situations we might never have known about years ago. Really? Consider this: random acts of kindness, once the norm for many people, now make the news because of their rarity.

    As a writer, I acknowledge the existence of violence and include some of it in my stories. While minimally graphic, it is realistic in presenting life as it exists but without excusing or glorifying such ugly acts in any way. Also, the perpetrator gets an appropriate reward by reaping what he/she sows. Explicit sex scenes (rape or consensual) never appear in my novels, nor do the expletives that pepper so much of today's entertainment. There are other ways and terms to demean people without resorting to language that once would have gotten our mouths washed out with soap.

    Thank you for posting this article, Diana. It's great food for thought.

  3. I agree, too. And I love the idea of a prize for books that contain no violence against women. Sadly, I suspect one of the "solutions" will be to avoid including female characters... but that's a whole 'nother issue. Avoiding such tropes is on my checklist for my writing, and I enjoy the challenge: increase the ratio of female to male characters, don't use the female characters as "bait" or other plot devices, and show the male characters treating the female characters with respect. Easy ;-)

  4. It shouldn't be too hard. :) Good men exist. And we used to have fictional white hat heroes.

  5. I originally wanted to see that movie, but the reviews have been much like yours, which I didn't read at the spoiler part. I'll wait until it's on TV and free.

    As a writer who has a woman in jeopardy in my series, and even one where there's a violent scene--it's mostly behind closed doors--I have noticed that many female writers are the worst offenders. I can name two but I won't. I do have one book where there is a violent scene, and strangely, it's one of my highest-rated books, mainly, I think, because of the end. There's a difference between violence that drives the story and gratuitous violence, or maybe I'm kidding myself.

  6. I think the biggest problem is the excessive amounts and explicit close ups of sick behavior. And the massive body counts that take the meaning out of a life lost.

  7. What a great post, Diana, and I agree with you. Remember the great drama and suspense in the old Hitchcock films?

    My mysteries are labeled hard-boiled and have at least one graphic scene of murder in some of them. But that scene is PG rated compared to what is in books and films today in that same category. In each scene I focus on the emotional reactions of victim and killer, rather than any actual gore. Not a drop of blood mentioned. LOL

    I once heard that if you have one murder scene in a story that has several people killed, the reader will remember that scene every time another victim is found after the fact. Sort of like what we think of every time we see someone get in a shower after seeing "Psycho."


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