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.
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 Flies, Maus, Heart 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.