Do Modern Writers Lean Too Much on Blunt Shock Value?
Catching your readers off guard for a little shock value once in a while isn’t a bad thing. It can make your story seem more novel (pun intended). That freshness can motivate people to go all the way to the last page. But I stumbled across this Tweet:
The tweet got me thinking about how writers are approaching fiction writing in general. Like Chris, I’ve been getting the impression that there’s an emphasis on the technical elements that go into a draft. But you can have all of those elements and still have a book be less than incredible if your actual writing is subpar.
What makes great writing stand out?
For me, great writing is poetic, not in the sense of being flowery or verbose, but in the sense of having incredibly beautiful imagery, rhythm, and metaphor that stirs deep feelings of empathy. You absolutely can have your own style here. But readers should get the sense from your connotations, phrasing, analogies, and hints and implications between the lines that the character has some real experience with life. It’s truthful and relatable in an incredibly deep way.
Some books masterfully employ shock value in a way that encourages readers to examine themselves and the world. But from my perspective, much of modern writing lacks this poetry. It is incredibly sharp and blunt, designed to drop the jaw and not waste time. Perhaps that is because there has been so much of an emphasis on pacing and driving the plot. Perhaps we are afraid of what will happen if we allow readers a moment to think beyond the pages into the psychological or other realities those pages contain. Or perhaps, in response to overwhelm, readers would rather digest the absurd instead of thinking and feeling too much about reality. Perhaps the drama, explosions, fire-defined “action”, and technology that forces us to want immediate gratification and response have conditioned us to think bluntness is the only way to communicate.
This bluntness can be problematic in any genre, but I think it’s especially visible in horror/thriller. The stories aren’t just more gruesome. They also quickly throw out events that are so unexpected that I cannot help but feel like seams show, like the writer’s entire intent was to stop me in my tracks. And because I see the intent, the writing doesn’t shock me. Instead, I’m disappointed and distracted from the story.
Are you ready to abandon shock value to focus deeply on yourself?
The solution isn’t easy. It’s to focus on yourself. It’s to be so comfortable with who you are that, as you pull from everything you know and have been through, you don’t censure or worry about what anyone else is going to think. You must listen to your own instinct and capture it in a way that makes the purpose clear. You can do this listening even if you choose to change scenes or character traits. It’s not about what you say, but how. Do it well and you’ll never lose your voice, no matter how many revisions you go through.