Shocking Your Audience

A guide to using shock in your writing the right way. Contains content which may offend.

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© 2008 Epytome / Used With Permission

Shocking your audience can be a powerful tool if it’s done right. I’m not going to go into how to do it; there’s far too many ways and it depends on so many different factors that it’d be impossible for me to guide you through how to shock your audience.

So don’t fucking ask, okay?!

That’s a fine example of what not to do. Shocking? Yes. But also out of place and not appropriate. You, as the reader, no doubt saw how forced it was. It was simply added to shock you; it had no other role. And that’s bad. If you’re going to be shocking your audience then you need to do it in such a way that it’s natural, in a way that serves a purpose other than simply shock value.

In my series of books, The Fang Series, the main character attacks a family, tortures them for a while and then kills them all. Including the five year old daughter. That’s shocking enough. In the second book it is revealed that the main character raped the daughter to psychologically damage the parents. It wasn’t described in any way, but that too was a shocking element. Main characters are often assumed to be the ‘hero’ of the story. If they start acting in a way that a hero shouldn’t then the audience reacts. I didn’t include this because I wanted to shock the audience. I didn’t expect it to if I’m being honest. I put it into my book because that’s what the character would have done in that situation. He was a monster. Monsters aren’t nice. Monsters don’t have morals like normal people.

But how do you know if you’re adding something for shock value, or you’re adding something that will shock your audience? You need to ask yourself some questions.

Does it fit?

Does it make sense in the context of the story? If you’ve got a short story about a small child wandering around the house alone only to reveal that the mother is dead on the kitchen table at the end, that’s shocking and fits. But if you’ve got a short story about a child wandering the house alone and it ends with the big reveal that the child is actually Satan come up to eat kitten brains, that’s certainly shocking but does it fit? Does it make sense?

Is it what the character would do?

As writers we know so much more about our characters than the reader could ever hope to know. A pacifist eighty year old nun suddenly picks up nun-chucks to fight local crime with no triggering event? Would never happen. An eighty year old nun being gifted youth and strength from a higher power to fight crime after her nunnery is attacked by a local gang? Shocking but makes sense within the character. As a side note, if you want to write that story, go ahead and let me read it. It sounds interesting.

Is there a point to it?

Does it progress the story? Is it the big reveal at the end? If there isn’t a reason for it to be in there, then get rid of it. Readers can tell when there isn’t a point to what you’re writing or if it’s simply being added for shock value. And it bothers them. That leads to negative reviews; people writing lengthy blog posts about how terrible the writing was, or something damaging towards your reputation, and then sharing it with all of their friends instead of the glowing review that we all want for our work.

Should you do it?

That’s a harder one to answer. It’s very easy for me to say, “It fits in the story, go for it. Screw what everyone else thinks.” And that is my advice. But it’s a decision that you need to make. Shocking your audience can be a great thing but it’s not without its risks or drawbacks. Based on reviews that I’ve had, people have stopped reading my books because they were too shocked. Appalled even. That’s two books into a six book series. That means, essentially, I’ve lost four book sales/downloads and I’ve got a negative review, impacting further sales. If a hundred people feel like that, that works out at quite a lot of lost revenue for me. Would I go back and change it? Not a chance. If a publisher contacted me tomorrow and said, “We want to have the entire six book series, here’s a cheque, you’re the next James Patterson. But we need to take that stuff out.” I would respectfully decline their offer. Because it demonstrates a point. It shows the darkness that’s lurking in the main character. It’s what he’d do.

If you’ve written a piece, and you’re happy with it, you’ve asked yourself these questions and you can answer ‘yes’ to them, then go for it. Screw what everyone else thinks. You can never make everybody happy. Nor should you try. People may disagree with me, but you only need to focus on making one person happy with your work. You. If you are, that’s all that matters.

David Chitty was born and raised in Thanet in the 90s. He devotes most of his energies to writing fantasy fiction novels.

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