Monday Muse: Let’s Talk About Shock, Baby!

Hey, guys! Welcome to this week’s Muse, the last you’ll be seeing from me before the hell that is NaNoWriMo. Fair warning, there’s a good chance that both of my muses next month will involve tears. You’ll be my virtual bartenders, pretending to listen to me complain while my soul tears itself inside out. As much as I prepare, I’m never really ready to churn out 50,000 words in one month. I’m not the fastest writer. I genuinely loathe the actual act of writing, preferring to plan and to edit. So I’mma need you guys next month.

Fair warning.

So, what to talk about THIS month? This last opportunity I have to share something with you from a place of mental calm? I want to talk about shock value. And why, like hot chilies, a little goes a long way.

I do not watch The Walking Dead. It’s been a long time since I felt I needed more zombies in my life (with the exception, I’ll admit, to iZombie, which I think is actually kinda fun), so I never felt the need to watch it. But I’d have to be a damn fool not to know what it is or that, after months of stringing viewers along, it finally revealed who the dad from Supernatural (yes, I know who the actor is, calm down) killed with that bludgeony thing he carries. And I definitely do watch Game of Thrones both because I read the books and also because I have to keep some street cred or I’ll never be able to show my face on the internet again. Much less have conversations in the real world. But the whole TWD thing got me thinking about the use — and perhaps overuse — of shock.

Both of these shows make use of shock. The whole “who will Negan kill” thing is not shock, of course, but a cliffhanger (which is a different, though related, kettle of fish). The shock comes in who he kills and in how brutal the kill actually is. It’s the anti-Who Killed J.R. because it relies on revelation and the mode of that revelation. It requires action. And action is, of course, good. The death of Ned Stark (do I need to spoiler tag that, like…five years on? No, right?) is a perfect example of shocking because it subverts expectations of the hero (and we the viewer were conditioned to view Ned Stark as the hero) surviving. It propelled what was a good show into what I would argue is a spectacular one.

The problem comes when the shock serves no purpose except blatant viewer/reader manipulation. It doesn’t propel the story or reveal necessary information about a character, much less cause any character to grow. The event does nothing to promote the legitimacy of the storytelling because it is not, in fact, being used as a storytelling device. It is sheer, blatant emotional manhandling designed to reap sympathetic ties that have not been properly sown. For example, while the Red Wedding is not, in and of itself, done for shock value (it does serve immense plot needs), the death of Talisa and her baby absolutely were. It reveals nothing about any character that we don’t already know (oh, wow, the Freys and Boltons are bad and untrustworthy! Didn’t know that!), promotes nothing for the plot, & fosters no character growth. Another case of this is arguably Sansa’s wedding night. While it is not, as many say, rape (the sex on a wedding night was automatically consensual by the laws by which this world obviously works), it was unnecessary, promoting nothing as it did. It was sheer, blatant, emotional manipulation.

And that is bad writing.

Let me say it again for the people in the back: THAT. IS. BAD. WRITING.

So, before we go any further down the path to NaNo-dom, take a minute to look at what you’ve got planned. If you’re a panster, take a minute to really ponder. Is there anything there that serves no purpose except to shock people? To manipulate their feelings in a dishonest manner? If so, you need to remove it. It isn’t fair to you as a writer and it certainly isn’t fair to your readers/viewers (whatever the case), who deserve to have their emotions be treated with respect. We all want to be made to feel, of course; that is why we consume stories. But those feelings need — and deserve — to be the product of honesty. They need to be Ned Stark, not Talisa. They need to be… a good part from The Walking Dead… and not a bad one. I’m sorry… like I said, I don’t watch the show. But those of you who do know what I’m talking about.

OK. So… that’s it from me before NaNo, at least as far as the Muse is concerned. I’ll be back on Friday with Boozy Books!


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