The indignity of shock value

I was browsing through Youtube this morning, and I came across a video talking about incest in books. Naturally, I was curious.

It sent me on a philosophical journey on literature and its’ relationship with shock value. There’s no point in denying it – shock value is everywhere, especially in my favourite genre; fantasy. Firstly, let’s talk about the definition of shock value. By this, I mean when a writer conciously adds a shocking thing or event to their story, with the sole purpose of being just that: shocking.

It could be a character death, a display of cruelty/torture or as in the case of the above mentioned video, incestuous relationships. In theory, it’s a cheap move, yet it’s so tempting for beginner (and sometimes experienced) authors that it’s no surprise how incredibly common it is. For example, I would argue that Game of Thrones is full of shock value, although a lot of it serves a higher purpose. (SPOILER ALERT) The death of Ned Stark is a shocking event, but it needs to happen in order to kick off the ensuing conflict between the Starks and the Lannisters. The same goes for the relationship between Cersei and Jaime. It’s twisted and wrong, but it serves a purpose, especially since Jaime’s character arc makes him more of an anti-hero later on. This just makes his incestuous relationship even more tragic, and I LOVE THAT STUFF.

On the opposite side, you have things like Ramsay killing the Stark boy (does anyone really know his name?) as he tries to run to Jon Snow. His character did really nothing at all to the story and we weren’t sorry to see him go, but bringing him back simply to kill him off like that was nothing more or less than pure shock value. There are loads more examples of this throughout literature and film, but I think you get my point.

All of this made me take a closer look at my own manuscript. To my horror, I found shock value content in a couple of places (that’s what first drafts are for, amiright?). I had fallen to the temptation. Don’t we all just love it when we read a juicy chapter, and just as it’s about to end, the tables turn, something unexpected (and shocking) happens, and we can’t stop reading but have to continue to the next chapter to see what happens?

Well, trying to achieve that effect is a major trap for shock value inserts. Just a tip.

I guess my final point on this would be: if you (like me) are an aspiring writer, beware of these traps. Don’t lose track of your characters’ purpose and the meaning of their actions simply because you want to surprise and shock your readers. Seriously, they won’t thank us for it… but shock away all you want, as long as you do it for a reason. That will simply make it all the more epic.


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