5 Tips for Writing About Bathrooms

06092019 Writing Club witty nib

Welcome to the Witty Nib Writing Club, where we study all things writing and look to hone our craft! This week we’re examining something that can be jarring when people read it: bathrooms and lack of bathrooms. I’ve read plenty of bathroom scenes that are pretty sh*tty, so come right in, sit on the throne, and have a read.

5. Consider that Most People Pee and Poop

Believe it or not, most people happen to have bodily functions that end with excretion of undesirable by-products. And, even more unfortunately, most humans experience several instances per lifetime of food to excrement processing time being less than desirable.

Do your characters even think about going to the bathroom? Does no one experience the urge, whether at critical or non-critical moments? Isn’t that unrealistic?

When you read about someone going to the bathroom, it’s often meant to give one of the following feelings:

  1. Added realism
  2. Some kind of sex thing
  3. Give a character an excuse to not be on screen
  4. Get a character somewhere it’s just them and the narrator

Bathroom scenes need to accomplish something, or they’re just a waste of space. If the scene doesn’t add anything to the story, people will notice. People remember poop stories because they’re so jarring; don’t make an empty scene be the thing readers remember.

4. So You Want to Add Grittiness?

If you want to add grittiness to your story, start by taking out the TP and replacing it with sandpaper.

sandpaper tp

More seriously, grittiness of feel is one step away from putting in a scene solely for “realism”. “Realism” The difference between grittiness and an attempt at realism is worldbuilding.

Why is opening your sphincters different in your world? Do you live in Arizona and worry about scorpions in the toilet on the regular? Are you in space where everyone and their mother (even if dear ol’ mom won’t admit it) wonders how you use the poop chute in zero G? Those types of situations are things you could do to reinforce your world.

You may even use the opportunity to reveal the stringency of social norms. Let’s say your characters have to perform a makeup regimen on the regular, and deviation from this protocol will cause major social blowback. That’s worldbuilding. That’s grit, even if it’s not bloody awfulness.

And, then, you can use a bathroom while a character’s bleeding out, adding some grittiness in that there’s no other option or it’s a terrible place. Bathrooms make us automatically feel a little dirty (and by us I mean most people), so adding dirt to a vulnerable situation can often make it feel grittier.

3. Are Your Characters Into Bathroom Sex Things?

Pretty sure this is a thing some people are into, also sure it’s not me.

However, this is something you’ll need to think about if you ever have two characters in the bathroom at the same time. I’ve read several stories where there’s two women in a bathroom, and that (at the moment) doesn’t seem so weird because society has taught us it’s not weird. But when you have two men who do any talking – ANY talking – in the bathroom, there’s a weird feeling that leaves the question of eroticism or sparks open.* A girl and a boy in the same bathroom? Slow down, Nelly, that’s gonna require some ‘splainin.

Enough people appear to have a sex thing/expectation with bathrooms that you may want to consider how to mitigate it (unless, of course, your raunchy characters are fixin’ to bump nasties). Battlestar Galactica (the new version) includes bathroom scenes with teeth brushing and face washing with men and women using the same room, and they do a great job taking their super-sexed-up characters and somehow showing greater-than-real-life equality between men and women with their weird bathroom scenes.

Extermination

So yes: if you want sex clues in a bathroom, go for it. It’s easy. Otherwise, think about it and get Beta Readers to help you figure out if there’s some lascivious feelings laced up in that mess.

*I’ve heard this mostly from my husband and an interesting conversation about the placement of the urinals in the library bathroom during Korean Music Appreciation class in undergrad. You may disagree with my friends from Korean Music Appreciation class.

2. Give a Character an Excuse to be Off Screen

This one’s pretty common.

Spy says “Gotta take a piss,” or a woman says, “I’ve got to go to the powder room.” Next thing you know, they’ve left through the bathroom window and come back with the mafia to kill the hero. Alternatively, tne character in the group leaves and everyone else instantly starts telling secrets the missing individual can’t know.

But be careful: this sort of thing is common enough that it may be noticed. When a character leaves to go to the bathroom, a reader may get this twinge of “Ok, so why are they going to be absent right now?” Taking a piss is rarely the point of a bathroom in a book, and getting a character off screen can provoke a reader to pay attention or start being suspicious. Use this to your advantage by allowing for the hint, but be sure to let the absence pay off. Otherwise, it’s just “realism for the sake of realism” again.

1. Get Your Character ALONE

My favorite instance of this is in The Long, Long Trailer, a 1954 film by Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. It’s not the same characters you know of Lucy and Ricky, but they’re “Tacy” and “Nicky”. They buy a long, long trailer to live in while the travel the country, and it progressively makes them both miserable. 

The Long Long Trailer

In the bathroom scene, however, Nicky (Desi Arnaz) tries to take a shower. He can’t seem to get the shower head to suit him, and everything keeps falling. It’s a wonderful symbol of his growing resentment, of his marriage, and of his life. It’s humorous while at the same time foreboding and telling.

The best “alone in the bathroom scenes” have a definitively literary examination of the story. It adds to the characterization and plot in such a way that nuances enter your mind, even in subtle, sneaky ways. Get your character alone, and let them pour out secrets while they’re in a very secret place.

Have you ever written a sh*tty scene? Remember any that you’ve read or watched? Dump something in the comments for the rest of us to read while we’re taking our own dumps!

28 thoughts on “5 Tips for Writing About Bathrooms

  1. Pink Roses says:

    The first book I ever wrote, many years ago, was a fairy story for children, set underground near a fairy tree. When I had it finished I realised there was no bathroom down there and I couldn’t work out where to put it or if it could flush, and if so, where did the waste go? That book is still in a drawer.

  2. Alexander Elliott says:

    Most of the bathroom scenes in my books (so far) are of the “romantic bath for two” or “sex in the shower” variety. I don’t shy away from the reality of using the toilet, but you need to do it right or people will just think it’s gross and inappropriate! Since it’s such a universal need, readers assume it’s happening between the lines and that’s good enough thank you very much. Come to think of it, I’ve read lots of descriptions of puking in the toilet or peeing their pants in any number of stories, and since it was part of the plot, I never thought it odd or disgusting. Another thought – men often find bodily functions humorous, so your intended audience needs to be considered.

    • H.R.R. Gorman says:

      Yeah. I wrote this because I’ve read too many scenes where people go to the bathroom or take a piss somewhere, and it’s just unnecessary. Unless it adds to the plot somehow, don’t do it. That’s why Included the bit about the Long, Long Trailer – it’s pretty much the most perfect thing.

  3. Prior... says:

    Realism for the sake of realism
    Hmm – good point
    And enjoyed this post
    Also – side note – but our favorite bathroom reading is the little booklet that comes with dollar shave club monthly deliveries – so well
    Put together

  4. crispina kemp says:

    In The Pole That Threads (Bk 3 Spinner’s Game) Kerrid explains that she doesn’t need to go spend pennies, so it’s okay for her to travel by boat with a man.
    That’s as near as I get

  5. robertawrites235681907 says:

    An interesting post, H. I had a few short scenes or comments about bathrooms in Through the Nethergate:
    “Her trips to the bathroom were made alone and there was no Sarah to have a wicked giggle with about a teacher’s curious behaviour or unfair group discipline.”
    And then I had a scene where Elizabeth was ‘lost’ during the trip to Birmingham.

    I also have a couple of bathroom scenes in While the Bombs Fell and A Ghost and His Gold.

  6. D. Wallace Peach says:

    A really good list of tips, HRR. I totally agree. The bathroom scene has to do something besides emptying the bladder, preferable two or three things – or why not just set the scene in the kitchen? Of course our characters have to relieve themselves, but it’s generally not story-worthy. 😀

  7. fictionspawn Aak says:

    I have one called “Hangover” on my blog. Even the illustration is a guy on the loo. *Spoileralert* The visit does not go too well. I think you read it, actually, if I don’t remember wrong.

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