The Rise in Shock Value

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The internet, and myself included, were all in a tizzy this week with the announcement that in a new comic series, Steve Rogers #1, Captain America is actually an undercover Hydra agent.

Nope.

No.

Not having it.

Fans were quite rightly upset and for good reason.  Captain America has stood as a moral icon, defending the defenseless against tyranny and oppression, and choosing the right path, regardless of personal cost, for 75 years.  He’s the good guy, with no hints at all to his character to the contrary.  Many fans believe this is just a publicity stunt, shock for shock value alone, and I agree.

With his rise in popularity due to two wonderful films in the MCU, I can imagine that there was a meeting in which execs and writers came up with a few “what if” scenarios, but as a fellow writer, I can attest to the fact that not all ideas are good ones.  I can’t fault a writer for wanting to take a risk, especially with a character of Cap’s reputation, but taking a character with such a strong moral code and turning that on its head without any warning is just feeding into the mentality that the only way to be relevant is to be shocking.

We, as a people, continually exposed to all manner of craziness via the internet and the rise in dramatic, stunning television, I think, are the reasons behind such bold moves.  In order to be noticed, we’ve resorted to becoming the one-uppers.  Shows like Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, and American Horror Story, among others, have risen the bar in the way of surprising their audience, and I thank them for it, but at the same time wonder if it’s not hurting us as well, overall.

We now expect so much more from all our media-going experiences, and this is forcing writers to do the unexpected often without reason.  A scene like the Red Wedding in Game of Thrones had a great deal of build up.  It wasn’t an out of left field surprise, although yes, it was upsetting.  The stage was set, long before we arrived, with bread crumbs left along the way that led us to such an inevitable conclusion.

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This is something as writers we need to be aware of.  We can’t throw in a shocking twist just because – there has to be a reason, motivation, there has to have been set up.  Audiences want to be satisfied, they also want to feel clever, and this is done by offering them morsels and insights they can piece together before the big surprise.

This offers us, as writers, a great challenge to think about the nuances needed to tell our story more effectively.  If we look at the big picture, how can we impress upon our audience what is to come with a little foreshadowing?  Is there a metaphor that could highlight the impending dilemma?  Is there a phrase said by a character early on that offers such insight?  Think of social media and how people dig into their favorite scenes, stories, characters, etc. to find more depth and hidden meaning (I have discovered a number of memes and the like showcasing foreshadowing I missed myself) and think of how happy it will make our audience if we can offer that to them.

I found this writing tip via Helping Writers Become Authors that offers the good and bad reasons to kill a character, but I think it can be utilized in regards to any plot device.

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Let us not short change our audience.  Let us give them the surprises they deserve; those that mean more because we cared enough to think our story through, and not just another tactic or ploy meant to incite emotion or a reaction.  Let us also not short change our work or our characters.  Be true to them.  They deserve no less…and so does Cap.

Happy Writing!

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Happy Endings

HappyilyEverAfterOkay, so just a forewarning, this might be a bit of a rant.  And this should be titled “Satisfying Endings”.  I finally finished Dexter (thank you, Netflix) and (no spoilers) was extremely disappointed with the ending.  After 8 seasons, I expected better, and although I haven’t read the books, so I’m not sure how the author ended his series, I was mad at the tv writers for not giving the fans a more satisfying ending.  You have to stay true to the character, and after some time recollecting on Dexter as a character, I don’t think his character arc found justice in the end.  This made me reconsider endings of other shows and movies and I couldn’t think of one that ended in such a way that I was left so angry and resentful.  I even voiced aloud that I would never watch that final episode again.  The distaste caused me to start rewatching earlier seasons to give me the love back.  Even Game of Thrones, which has the power to shock and surprise me (I just started reading the first book), has left me hopeful, since there are still more episodes (and another book) in the works.  So all this made me think about my own endings.

I’m an 80s girl with a love for all things princess (thank you, Disney).  So I love a happy ending, but I want it to be warranted – that’s come with age.  I also love foreign films.  They tend to be more honest.  They might not end the way we want, but most of the time you’re still satisfied, or at least understand that life doesn’t always work out the way we expect or hope.  This is the blessing about variety.  The whole point of film is escape (documentaries aside).  I enjoy becoming invested in a story, walking in a character’s shoes sometimes so different from my own, and escaping into another world, and depending on my mood, there’s a movie that can fulfill those expectations.  *Obviously, novels work the same way.  I’m a screenwriter, so I tend to refer to films more often.

So far, my own stories are “happily ever after” types.  It’s part of who I am.  I want the girl to get her boy in the end.  I want wrongs to be righted.  There are elements of struggle and tragedy, but mainly, I think there’s enough bad in the world that when you come to one of my movies, eventually, you’ll leave a little happier.  I hope.  Except with my spy story.  Lately I’ve been thinking it should end a little open-ended…maybe everything doesn’t end “happy” but I want it to be satisfying and truthful to my characters.  I say this now, but I love the boy I’m writing as the love interest, so in my heart (and the back of my mind), I’m probably going to write them together…

I recently wrote a blog about a few things I learned while attending an event where a producer talked about the 5 elements of well-being in both life and writing (movies in particular).  What she said was to “end your movie at the peak of audience satisfaction”.  The truth of the story is “the relationship”.  Which relationship is the most important?  And how it’s portrayed is what gives us that satisfaction.  Take Rocky for an example.  In the end, he doesn’t win the fight, but does end in his woman’s arms.  A movie for guys ends with a sort of bait and switch, where the accomplishment becomes secondary to the relationship, but you don’t know that until the end.  What are considered “women’s movies” are all about the relationship.  And it doesn’t have to be strictly the romantic relationship, but whichever relationship is the most important.  We, as the audience, love to watch a character survive, to overcome great obstacles, but it is the moment after, between the hero and their loved one, that completes the story for us.  Of course there are modern-day tragedies, like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, that are about achieving the goal without the relationship, but it all depends on the story you’re trying to tell.

I’m no expert.  I just think that as writers we should not force an ending to be something it’s not.  Our characters are the way they are for a reason, and they’ll probably tell us what’s right for them – mine do anyway, most of the time, I just sometimes have cotton in my ears.  As writers, we are the gods of our universe, and we are responsible and free to create the world the way we want it.  So we should exercise that freedom.  I suppose we shouldn’t worry about the audience when we’re writing, for that might skew the process, but you may want to be prepared for some angry fans if it doesn’t end well.  Dexter…

I told you this was a rant, but thanks for letting me get it off my chest.  I don’t really have a tip to solve this dilemma, except to say, do right by your characters…and may they live happily ever after.

Best of luck in your writing endeavors!