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Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Value of Shock

Shocking Your Readers the Right way for the Right Reasons

Sometimes as a writer, you might want to make your readers uncomfortable or shock them. Here are some reasons why—

  1. You want to leave an impression on your readers
  2. You want to inspire a change of heart, perspective, or action from your readers. Or simply increase their awareness of a specific issue.
  3. You want to illustrate, realistically, how a particular situation is.
  4. Just for sake of it, for effect.

Number four is usually referred to as “gratuitous”—it’s there for the sake of it. It doesn’t add to the story. It doesn’t further the plot. It’s just there.

One example that comes to mind is the first Transformers movie. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a decent movie, but it has gratuitous content: a random sexual conversation about the protagonist…having his own private time in his room, senseless swear words, sexual objectification of Megan Fox. To me, I felt like this kind of content was just put there for the sake of it (or to make sure the movie got a PG 13 rating, heaven forbid it got a PG rating, then no one would take it seriously, right?). None of this really added to the theme or plot of the movie.

Honestly, what girl sticks her rear-end out and curves her back that much when she's looking under a hood?

Many writers, (including myself,) consider gratuitous writing, bad writing.

Let’s look at an example that isn’t gratuitous. Although shocking and horrific, the content of The Hunger Games is there for thematic purposes. The loudest point of the books is that we shouldn’t have an entertainment industry like the Capitol’s—one that glorifies violence. The series illustrate how under the guise of “entertainment,” evil acts can become acceptable ones. (It's a worldly truth.)

Collins shocks her readers to get her point across. It worked on me. I think twice about the “entertainment” I choose, and the story made me want to change our entertainment industry. Collins’ message wouldn’t have been conveyed as well if her readers didn’t actually witness the atrocities of Panem. The bloodshed had a purpose to the story.

Another example that uses shocking content to good effect is Tadeusz Borowski’s short story “This Way to the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen,” which takes place at a Death Camp during the Holocaust. Was the content put there for the sake of it? No. The author includes it to illustrate, realistically, what happened—he would know, he was there. The story increases readers’ awareness of the events that took place in our history.

(Note: a lot of “worldly truth” stories contain shocking content that is thematic as opposed to gratuitous. A lot of “deceptive” stories contain content that is gratuitous.)

There are writers and readers who don’t want any shocking content, and stories that don’t need any. That’s perfectly fine.

A Thin Line—Pulling Back

If you decide your story needs shocking content, you walk a fine line. For a writer, the challenge comes from making the content jolting enough that it fulfills reasons one through three above without making it so shocking that it drifts into reason four, because you can overdo it.

In New York, J.K. Rowling addressed this problem when talking about a scene she axed from The Casual Vacancy:

“There was a scene where there’s an autopsy. You saw Barry’s autopsy, and I liked it as a piece of writing, and the reason it was there was because so much of the book is about what is hidden, and stripping layers away and behaviors and so on, so obviously the autopsy was symbolic in that way. And I did like it. I spent quite a few days on it, and then I just chucked it. Because it didn’t belong there. It felt too graphic, and grisly, and it was one of those occasion where I felt it was veering into shocking for its own sake and [that’s] not at all what I wanted to do, so it went.”

One of the problems with making a scene too shocking is that it draws too much attention to itself, and as such takes the readers’ attention away from the actual story. I experienced this, personally, with the latest film adaptation of Les Miserables.

But I'll touch more on that in my next post, and I'll discuss how you can tell if a scene is too shocking for your audience.

So, do you use shocking content in your stories? What do you think about shocking your readers? Do you agree that it has a purpose in storytelling?

Read Part 2 . . .


  1. I never consciously thought about shocking the reader so this blog makes me aware now...thanks

    1. Glad it helped. Thanks for reading and taking the time to leave a comment, Suzzette.

  2. Great article on shock factor. Totally agree with this post.

    1. Thanks Kaitlyn (and thanks for following my facebook page).


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