Thursday, March 28, 2013

Shock value: do you we need to put the reader through it?

by Colby Marshall

I recently read a very interesting blog post about gender and rape in fiction and the comments following it.  And while the post and ensuing conversation was all very insightful, one comment in particular intrigued me. It was :“Do I need to put the reader through this?” 

I wish more authors thought about this question. Violence for violence’s sake, for shock value is exhausting and off-putting as a reader. I’m glad to see an author asking that question, and hope others do as well."

I sat back and started thinking about this comment, because as an author, it is incredibly important to me to take care of my readers.  At the end of the day, I want to make sure people who read my books have a satisfying answer for whodunit, that they know what happened and why, and that they know anything else that they might otherwise leave the book feeling like I couldn’t manage to write a proper ending because my dinner was getting cold and the new episode of Downton Abbey was about to come on. 

I jest.  I actually don’t watch Downton Abbey.  Or eat dinner.

But this…this bugged me. After all, anyone who has ever read Chain of Command knows that it is basically a bloodbath.  With such a violent premise for a book, I'm sure many a person could read it and think at times it was violent for violent's sake.  However, as the author, I don't think it is.  When I was writing it, I didn’t think, “Now, what can I shock them with next?”  

That said, the idea that readers might think any of the violence in my books is there for the shock value made me ask myself an important question: "If I’m not doing it for the shock value, why DO I do it?" 

I found that I already knew the very simple answer.  I put in the violence because that is the way the story is formed in my head.

Now, let me backtrack here and clarify: I am not one of those authors who claims their characters speak to them at the breakfast table or tells them on the subway how they’d like to romantically pursue a different character than the author originally intended.  There’s nothing wrong with authors who work this way as long as you’re not the chick from Stranger than Fiction—that broad was crazy.  It’s just not how I operate.   

Even so, though, I do tend to have very specific visions of parts of my stories in my mind: characters’ physical traits, scene settings and locations, the movements of the characters, and yes, the events that happen in the scene.  I rarely sit down and try to think up scenarios and actions of characters.  When I write a scene, it is usually fully formed in my head already.  I might need to figure out logistics if anything turns out to be problematic, unbelievable, etc.—what editing is for, but the violence in the scenes aren’t ever contrived on my part purely to elicit shock.  They just are.

Which, for me, begs a new question.  As an author, I have a responsibility to my readers to take care of their satisfaction with the book, but at the same time, my job first and foremost is to tell readers the story.  After all, isn’t that why we as readers buy books—to read a story someone else has to tell?  Otherwise, we would all makeup our own stories all the time.  But no!  We want to be able to read someone else’s story, to live the story along with the characters never knowing what happens until the next page is flipped. 

So the question boils down to this: if an author’s foremost job is to tell their story, the one they conceived, molded, crafted, and nurtured, should the instinct of authors to take care of the needs and comfort of the audience reading the book ever trump that foremost job of telling their story?  If you think so, why?  If you don’t think so, what is your reasoning?

BIO:  Writer by day, ballroom dancer and choreographer by night, Colby has a tendency to turn every hobby she has into a job, thus ensuring that she is a perpetual workaholic.  In addition to her 9,502 regular jobs, she is also a contributing columnist for M Food and Culture magazine and is a proud member of International Thriller Writers and Sisters in Crime.  She is actively involved in local theatres as a choreographer as well as sometimes indulges her prima donna side by taking the stage as an actress.  She lives in Georgia with her family, two mutts, and an array of cats that, if she were a bit older, would qualify her immediately for crazy cat lady status.  Her debut thriller, Chain of Command is about a reporter who discovers the simultaneous assassinations of the President and Vice President may have been a plot to rocket the very first woman—the Speaker of the House—into the presidency.  Chain of Command is now available, and the second book in her McKenzie McClendon series, The Trade, is due for publication by Stairway Press in June 2013.   

Chain of Command is now available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Sony, iBooks, Kobo, other major e-readers, or in select independent bookstores.

Watch the official book trailer for Chain of Command here: You can also learn more about Colby and her books at 


Kat Sheridan said...

You'd be surprised how many people read stories because they CAN'T make up their own. It's really hard for a writer to understand that, because we do it as naturally as breathing. I once asked Hubs about the stories in his head and was stunned to find he didn't have any. My first reaction was "My god, you must be so lonely!" On the other hand, it took him ages not to think I was crazy for hearing all these voices. So, you're writing stories for those who don't have any.

Secondly, the contents of books, whether it's violence, or romance, or horror, or history, allow the reader to experience something in safety and security, without real danger. Sort of like when folks get on a roller coaster. They get to experience all sorts of thrills, falls, that horrible swooping out-of-control feeling, while knowing inside that they are strapped in and safe and nothing truly bad is going to happen. Books do the same thing for those of us who tend to throw up on roller coasters.

Books allow us to fully explore our emotions and exercise parts of our brain not used in other ways. We are no longer faced daily with the terror of trying to outrun a saber tooth tiger to get our dinner, but our brains are still wired to need that adrenaline rush sometimes. So we find books that fill that need.

And in books like yours, thrillers, people are looking for justice. As you said, the ending is SO important. Too often in real life, horrible things happen and there is no answer, no why, no justice. So we seek that in our books--that reassurance, that balance, that helps to feed our sense of right.

colbymarshall said...

Kat- I for one am incredibly glad I don't daily have to outrun a saber-tooth tiger! The reader who comment on the blog I quoted was interesting to me, just because the notion seemed to be that authors should never subject their readers to something violent that might make them uncomfortable. Personally, I think readers wouldn't want a story to be too sugarcoated, particularly in the thriller genre. After all, taking the thrills out of a roller coaster is no fun at all! ;)