363. About Storytelling: Shock Value Is Overrated

This blog post discusses subjects exploited for shock value in fiction, including atrocities like torture and sexual violence. I have done my best to address these subjects in an appropriate way, yet sensitive readers may want to give this post a miss.

There has been a lot of buzz lately over Game of Thrones and its sexual violence. I’ve never watched Game of Thrones, yet I’ve gathered the impression that it is not—to put it as gently as possible—a family-friendly show.

That looks... familiar.

This picture looks… familiar.

Some weeks ago, the controversy over the show inspired a sensible article explaining why subjects like rape must be handled very carefully by storytellers. (I would link to the article, but I can’t find it.) The gist was that rape is a monstrous crime and should not be taken lightly.

Can such atrocities be used effectively in fiction? Of course they can. Are such atrocities used effectively in fiction? Far too often, they are not. Subjects like rape, torture, and pedophilia are sometimes used by storytellers merely for shock value. Such atrocities are a cheap way to make a villain seem evil, a setting seem dark, or story seem gritty and “mature.”

Here are a few problems with such a shallow approach.

Stories that include heinous crimes too often focus on the criminals and ignore the victims.

If storytellers have the guts to depict a vicious crime, they had better also have the guts to show its effects on its victims. Using an atrocity like rape or torture for shock value, but glossing over its horrific consequences, is not only disrespectful—it’s bad storytelling. The cost of such crimes is too great to be ignored.

Shallow or tasteless use of monstrous crimes in fiction is deeply disrespectful to real-life victims of those crimes.

Before depicting a shocking crime, storytellers should ask themselves: What if anyone in my audience has been a victim of this crime? What will that person think of this scene? Fiction can explore atrocities in a meaningful way, but using them merely for shock value is cruelly disrespectful to those who have suffered them in real life.

There are endless ways to depict evil or depravity in fiction without using horrific atrocities as a cheap shortcut.

In my twenty-something years, I’ve read a lot of disturbing books: Lord of the FliesMausHeart of Darkness, and The Road, among others. (Twilight was equally horrifying, but for entirely different reasons.) These novels are chilling in their depiction of evil. So far as I can remember, none of them relies on torture, sexual perversions, or sexual violence for shock value. The depravity of humankind isn’t limited to these atrocities!

Shock value has its place in storytelling, but it must be treated with caution. Using shock as schlock, treating monstrous crimes as shortcuts to edgy storytelling, is a terrible mistake. Shock value can be used effectively—but it must be used carefully.

6 thoughts on “363. About Storytelling: Shock Value Is Overrated

  1. Woo! Anytime I see “About Storytelling” in the title here, my toes get a-tappin and I’m excited to see what follows.

    A great entry into the series, too, and I agree with you. I think the same holds true for comedy. I see so, so often the concept of shock value forcing cheap laughs in both stand-up and shows/movies alike. The comedians who I truly admire use none of it, not even on occasion. I think these folks really know their stuff, because everything they put out really digs into the essence of what makes something funny. Shock humor bores me, personally. (Which is saying something, as Fred the Monkey began life as a shock-humor comic, 100%. What can I say, I was 12.)

    Another thing that sprang to mind while reading your post was the focus on criminals vs. victims you mentioned. I think it can also be applied to heroes vs. victims. Watch any crime drama (and by golly there are a butt-load) and they all begin with some bloody corpse surrounded by chalk outlines. Then the protagonists step in to ask the same standard questions and dutifully solve the grisly murder. You meet the victim’s family on occasion (more so when one of them “did it”), who are always stereotypically upset, and then it’s off to normal day to day life. It rarely, if ever, shows the devastation of such a situation. It’s cold and logical, with the protagonists offering a fleeting, empty “Sorry for your loss.”

    I don’t like to get into discussions on “desensitization” because it always leads to “knowing the difference between truth and fiction” but I really think the way these things are handled ad nauseam on TV makes you a bit less horrified by it, both watching AND in the real world.

    Not that that would ever stop producers from greenlighting such things. People want their entertainment, real world be damned.

    Anyway, great post, and now I will sit back and wait for the ever precious “About Storytelling” to appear once more, like an angelic gazelle at a dew-kissed pond.

    • I think shock value can be used well, but it seldom is. As you pointed out, the audience may see a crime in a police drama, but not the devastation inflicted by that crime. Too many stories show all of the sensationalism, but hardly any of the cost, of heinous crimes.

      The best uses I’ve seen of shock value in fiction — and there are worthwhile ones! — show not only the atrocity, but its effects on the people involved.

      I’m glad you find these About Storytelling posts useful. 🙂

      • So what, for example, do you find a good use of shock value? Any book or film that jumps to mind? Just curious, maybe it would help me understand where it’s useful. 🙂

      • One of the best uses of shock value I’ve seen is the explicit violence in the Vietnam War memoir The Things They Carried. The carnage is shocking, but not gratuitous, and its effect on American soldiers is shown with tragic clarity. The Things They Carried uses shock value to depict the horrors of war authentically.

        Another good use of shock value comes from the film Snowpiercer, which I watched not long ago. It has a scene (minor spoiler ahead) in which the tough-as-nails protagonist, while describing a food shortage years before, breaks down and says, “Do you know what I hate about myself? I know what people taste like. I know that babies taste best.” It’s a sickening confession, yet it underscores the horror of Snowpiercer’s dystopian society, and its shock value is warranted by its devastating effect on the protagonist.

        Shock value can have, well, value. It all depends on how it’s used.

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