Posts Tagged ‘shock value’


Yesterday I received a text from a friend of mine who has been reading my manuscript, The White Room. “I can’t believe you killed him!” he said, referring to one of the characters in the story. I explained to my friend the reasons behind the macabre act and why it had to be done… and it got me to thinking about the reasons we kill some of our favorite characters.

 

When killing a character that the reader has invested in, an author walks a fine line between further engaging the audience and losing them altogether. The key to successfully murdering a make-believe person without repelling the reader lies in the reasons behind the character’s death and the string of events and ultimate outcome it provides.

We’ve all read stories or seen movies where a character we love dies for no good reason. At best, this divorces us from the active role we felt we were playing in the story. At worst, it offends and alienates us entirely, angering us enough to put the book down, change the channel, or otherwise find new and better things to invest our time in. Shock value, convenience, gore factor or just plain whimsy are not good enough reasons to kill someone you’ve asked the audience to care about.

The character my friend was referring to was the hardest character I’ve ever had to kill. My initial intention was to let the guy live, but as was pointed out to me in the process of writing the book, he had to die. He had to die not only for the sake of moving the story forward with its integrity in tact, but mostly, for the sake of propelling my protagonist forward and arming him with the conviction and wrath he would need in order to believably make the choices he had to make.

I did everything I could to find a way to reach the end of my story without killing this guy. For many reasons, I was incredibly attached to this character and accepting that he had to die was a gradual process that took place in slow sections. I fought with myself and with my mentor the whole way… but when the story was finished, I understood. Reading the manuscript from beginning to end, I realized that this character’s death was vital in the overall power of the story.

Murdering my all time favorite character was a good learning experience for me as a writer. I learned that, as it is in life, some things need to be compromised for the greater good; that even in the world of fiction, there is a price for everything… and if you want to write a good, strong story with enough emotional impact to keep the readers reading, sometimes you have to do things you don’t necessarily want to. I learned to tiptoe the precarious edge of good storytelling and cheap shots; that the death of a beloved character must be a kind of fictional human sacrifice for the greater good of the story. I learned the bottom line of all storytelling:  if it serves to further strengthen the story, do it… and if not, don’t.

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You have about fifteen seconds to get their attention, and given the average modern-day attention span, which is about that of a coffee-buzzed gnat, it’s best to try doing it in five. This being the case, one of the most important lines ever written in a novel is the first one. For contemporary writers, the days of Charles Dickens-style, drawn-out opening passages are gone. Not that we don’t still love the “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” type of opening lines of the golden oldies, but we generally adopt a different mindset reserved only for the classics; and even concerning them, that first line has to contain enough intrigue to move readers to the next sentence. This is a truth that has withstood era after era. One of the best examples I can think of to support this is probably the Holy Bible. Even though the bible goes on to confuse, bore, or entirely evade many of us in a literary sense, you can’t help but be a little intrigued by its first line. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and earth,” is, if nothing else, a pretty good hook. The bible though, is not a novel, so unless I am looking to write my own bible (which I certainly am not), I should probably look elsewhere for insights that will improve my own fiction writing techniques.

 

Probably my favorite opening line is that of Margaret Mitchell’s, Gone with the Wind. That first passage, “Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but seldom men realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were,” is, to me, a brilliant starting point; not because it thrusts the reader into the heart of some on-the-verge-of-death conflict, but because it is so thick with insight into human nature, and as well, gives us an immediate but subtle sense of duality and arguably, deceit. Scarlett O’Hara herself is the conflict, and that alone presents a whole new breed of hook.

 

Mystery can also be a good approach. Stating something that intrigues a person, yet doesn’t say much at all about what’s happening, can (if done well) propel the reader forward with a strong level of interest. Human beings are, by nature, very curious creatures, and a writer who knows how to strike the precarious balance between not enough information and too much information can carry a reader quite a long way on this tactic alone. A good example that comes to mind which uses this technique is the opening line of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451: “It was a pleasure to burn.” How can you not continue reading something like that?

 

In The Servants of Twilight, Dean Koontz begins with the passage, “It began in sunshine, not on a dark and stormy night.” This is a strong opening for several reasons. First, it’s ominous. By saying, “a dark and stormy night,” we know something bad is going to happen, and we all love it when bad things happen. Second, it’s mysterious. We don’t know what “it” is, and we really shouldn’t care, but somehow, we do, (probably because we know it’s something bad).  The third element of this opening line that strikes me (and probably my favorite part of it), is that it gives the middle finger to the dark and stormy night cliché that so many horror stories depend so heavily on. With this line, Dean Koontz is taking fear to a whole new, far deeper level by telling us (as if we needed to be more afraid) that really horrific things can happen just as likely in the broad daylight as anywhere else. Thank you, Dean Koontz.

 

Shock value, is of course, also an option. Using shock value as an opener is probably the riskiest approach because you chance offending, and thereby losing, the reader right off the bat. In a way, I respect this approach though because if the content of a novel is going to be offensive, at least its author is being respectful enough to let you know upfront. Still, it can’t be said that shock doesn’t do a pretty good job getting, and in the best cases, holding an audience’s attention. The opening of Sabbath’s Theater by Philip Roth is a shining example of that. With the novel’s opening line, “Either forswear fucking others or the affair is over,” we are either immediately hooked, or immediately offended. Whether or not it was Roth’s intention to shock the reader, only he knows, but there’s no denying it’s an eyebrow-raiser. This line, as far as I’m concerned, pretty much has it all: mystery, sex, shock, profanity, and self-confidence; all this in nine words, and with a poetic edge to boot.

 

Regardless of how I choose to begin each story, I have to keep in mind that the first sentence needs to pack a little punch, and that it doesn’t get any easier from there. In my experience, an interested agent will ask to see five to thirty pages of a person’s work in order to determine whether or not a submission is a worthy investment of their time. I recently re-wrote the first four pages of my third manuscript because as I reread it, I realized I’d given the reader very little, if anything at all, to hold onto. My initial intention was to start in the heart of the action, and while this is often times a fine idea, it was, in this case, not working. So I challenged myself to compact as much into the first five pages as I could, while still moving the story forward. In five pages, I tried to reveal a sense of who my character is, what normal life is like for him, and that some kind of conflict is on its way. This, while introducing a couple of characters, laying down a setting without going too heavy on description and detail, and moving the storyline forward at an interesting and engaging pace, without relying on back story and too much exposition, is no easy feat. But it can be done.  

 

In an era when people are tapping their feet, impatiently waiting for the microwave as it heats up their frozen dinner; when folks are rolling their eyes and looking pointedly at their watches in the less than ten seconds it may take while the internet uploads an entire library’s-worth of world history on their computer screens, there’s no time to dawdle. You have fifteen seconds or less to get their attention. Make it count.