Thursday, July 2, 2015

Shock Value

If you're anything like me, you like what you're reading to surprise you.  It should make you wonder what will happen at every turn.  And, usually, what better way to put the reader on edge than to show that no character is safe?  Any character, including the main one, can be snuffed out at any moment, thus altering the direction of the entire narrative.

Unfortunately, this looks like it's becoming a fallback position for many works.  I know that Stephen King said that you should "kill your darlings," but this has become the lazy writer's way of introducing drama into a boring story.  Someone sticking around too long?  Kill them.  Need a murder investigation to hit turbulence?  Kill the main suspect.  Want the hero to have a reason to seek vengeance?  Kill his lover.  And on and on and much so that the "shocking" twist becomes cliché and expected.

Does this mean you can't do it?  Of course not, but you should do it sparingly.  M. Night. Shyamalan was seen as cutting edge at first when he introduced the twist ending to his movies, but he has now become something of a running gag since everyone is prepared for his twist.  Here's a hint - if people expect your twist, it's not a twist.  If everyone sees a major death coming to shake things up, then the only potential surprise is who gets the ax.  Even an awesome show like The Walking Dead has used the "unexpected death" things so often that it no longer makes the impact it needs to.

When I say that death is the lazy writer's approach, I mean that death isn't the only way to introduce shock - only the most obvious.  Therefore, a writer really looking for a way to make an impact needs to find a way to really grab someone's attention.  Instead of death, maybe your main character was accidentally(or intentionally, depending on how dark you want to go) working for the bad guys. Or an introduced pregnancy could be shown to not only not belong to the main character, but that his girlfriend secretly inseminated herself with the sperm of another man.  Perhaps the helpful mentor was actually working to undermine the narrative and set himself up as a god.  Who knows?

Don't be boring when looking for surprises, and death is the most easily reached for.  Sometimes it's necessary in order to advance the plot, but look for other twists to keep readers on edge.  You'll be surprised the paths they'll follow you down if you just give them a reason to keep reading.

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