“…I have little regard for an art that deliberately aims to shock because it is unable to convince.” – Albert Camus
So, to continue on our current path of “Nick rants about the stupid things writers do.” today we’re going to talk about the seeming need for writers to make “shocking” decisions about what to do with their characters. Because here’s the thing, it’s not that shocking anymore. Or, it’s shocking because all indications were that they were going to go in a totally different direction and we’re shocked because it’s nonsensical based on what we were led to believe.
I got the quote that started this from an article written at Fandom Following by the wonderful Gretchen Ellis. (Follow her on Tumblr here. Seriously, go follow her, she’s amazing.) There she’s mainly talking about Game of Thrones, but there’s a larger point that she’s making and that I’m making here. Writers, especially on television, think that they need to produce these shocking swerves in plot and characters in order to keep their viewers interested. Which is fine, I like a good twist as much as the next person, but it needs to a) not be telegraphed, and b) not be so poorly written that it’s impossible to see coming.
What’s a shocking twist that’s done well in the movies at least? Well, first off spoiler alert for Fight Club, a movie that came out in 1999, but yes, Fight Club’s reveal that Tyler Durden isn’t real is a well done twist that when you go back on subsequent viewings you can see where it was being set up. Mind you I’ve only seen it once, but it’s not hard to look back on my memories of watching it and see where they set it up. Also, there’s plenty of articles online that a quick google search will find and they will inform you of the foreshadowing that took place throughout the movie. And, the best part of this twist is that it doesn’t come entirely out of left field at the cost of the plot or past characterization.
Now, what is a “shocking” twist that comes at the expense of previous characterization and decent plotting? Pretty much any stereotypical death in a television show. Lesbian shot by accident? Shocking only in that it still happens. Black guy killed off? Ho hum. Woman is murdered to further a man’s pain. Tell me more, I’ve never seen anything like it. Anything David Benioff and David Weiss do on Game of Thrones? Well, I certainly wasn’t expecting that, but that’s because your previous writing led me to believe that you were going in an entirely different direction. Usually, these shocking moments come from the fact that the audience is stunned that the writers actually went ahead and used the damn trope.
Look, I get it, writers like to keep their consumers on their toes. But there’s a good way and a bad way to go about it. You want to truly be shocking? How about you reverse or just refuse to even use some of these tropes? That will truly be shocking to your viewers and readers. Lesbian survives the series and has a happy ending? Hell, have adequate LGBT+ representation and you’ll have the LGBT+ community beating a path to whatever network will be showing your next show. Well written racial minorities that are fully fleshed characters rather than moronic 50’s stereotypes? You will be drowning in advertising money, literally drowning. I know you guys can do it, but maybe I have too much faith in your abilities.