Tuesday, November 15, 2005

How to shock your reader

These thoughts are prompted by the fact that, as mentioned last week, I have been watching a BBC3 serial called Funland (now finished -- but it will be back, no doubt).

The chief virtue of Funland was the quality of the acting. Everyone in it was superb, but the stand-out performance, for me, was that of Judy Parfitt as Mercy Woolf.

Judy describes the part as follows: "Mercy is totally ruthless; she will do anything to get what she wants and she is so detached from any sort of real emotion. If she does show any emotion then it is only in the hope of manipulating someone to do what she wants them to do! She's totally different to me as I think I'm about as frightening as Minnie Mouse!"

Mercy has a son, who is confusingly named Shirley. And at one point Mercy advises Shirley to face up to the truth about himself. She says this: You fucked your mother, and you loved it.

This 'revelation' in Funland was not really a revelation at all, because the scriptwriters had, as they say in the drama business, foreshadowed it. But when the truth is made known to Shirley's wife, she is deeply shocked by it.

And then the question that I asked myself was this: Was I shocked by Mercy's line or not?

The answer, of course, is No.

For several reasons. First, I had seen it coming. Second, incest is scarcely a rare occurrence these days. It is mostly father/daughter, but the other way round is not unknown. (There was an ancient Greek called Oedipus, I believe, but I don't think he counts because he didn't know what he was doing.)

And all this led me to recollect that, as someone once remarked, the times they are a-changing. There was a time when the British were shocked by almost anything, and the Americans even more so. When I was a youth it was absolutely inconceivable that anyone could mention incest in a play or a novel. In the 1950s you couldn't print the word 'fuck' without the probability of a jail sentence; even if you could find a printer who would risk putting his name to it, which was most unlikely. (For further details, see my post of 29 October 2004.)

This squeamishness was not limited to prose. In the British theatre, censorship of a fairly severe kind was in force until 1968, forbidding even the most passing reference to sexual matters. In terms of images, no male sexual organs (other than in classical art) could be shown before the late 1960s, and even then certainly not with an erection. Female pubic hair was particularly taboo, and at one time there was a section of Customs and Excise (Department PT4, with 30 civil servants aided by ten Acts of Parliament) devoted solely to ensuring that printed photographs never revealed the fact that women have genital organs.

As for television -- well, I can remember an episode of a BBC cop show, Z Cars, in about 1963, where there was a scene set in a mortuary. Dead body on slab, pathologist poised for action. At one point he said, Well, I'd better get on with it, picked up a scalpel and prepared to make an incision. You didn't actually see him do anything. This scene caused such an uproar that the BBC was forced to issue an apology and state that it had gone too far. Today, at three o'clock this afternoon, you could probably tune in to satellite TV and watch a series called Post Mortems for Beginners: part 94, the liver and kidneys. In colour. The BBC in 1963 was black and white.

So. Point made, I think. It is now quite hard to shock people.

But, you may be wondering, why bother?

Well, for one thing, writing a shocking story has been, historically, one way to bring yourself to public attention. For example, in the late 1940s, a young American called Stanley Ellin was struggling to break into the fiction business. He had never sold anything, but he had an idea for a short story which even he expected to be rejected. Nevertheless, he sent it around, and, sure enough, it bounced back. But then it found a home with Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.

The story in question was called The Speciality of the House, and it described a restaurant in New York (naturally) where a particularly tasty dish was served. And the final revelation (as you may have guessed) was that the dish derived its unusual flavour from human flesh.

When it first appeared, this story rapidly became the talk of the town. It won the magazine's best fiction award in 1948, and helped to establish Ellin's career. And subsequently, of course, many other writers have found that it does them little harm to have written something which people find shocking. Think Lolita.

That said, however, it will be fruitful to consider the nature of this 'shocking' process in a little more detail. The object is not (it seems to me) to horrify, appal and disgust. At least you should not do that to your chosen audience. There may be others, outside your target audience, who will be horrified and disgusted, but that's no help to anyone. What you are seeking here is the story that makes the hairs on the back of someone's head rise when they reach the end of it. You want them to put the book (or magazine) down, lift the phone, and call a friend to say Hey, have you read...

I have often argued here that achieving an emotional effect on the reader is, properly understood, almost the whole and sole proper purpose of a piece of fiction. And to do that you need to identify a number of things very clearly.

One, as mentioned above, is the target audience; and the easiest way to understand your target audience is to be a member of it. It's hard to write a number-one chart hit if you're 73 and only like Beethoven.

Next, you need to think very carefully about the nature of the emotion that you are trying to create. In this case what you want, I suggest, is a kind of slow burn. You need the tension to rise higher and higher as you approach the end, and then you want to produce the Oh my God! effect.

An ending which is truly a surprise is not, in my opinion, going to do it. The reader will all too often feel cheated, because you haven't played fair. No, what is required is an ending which, on reflection, readers will realise is inevitable, given what you had told them, but which they really had not wanted to recognise as inevitable because they were reluctant to do so.

Oh, and if they were reluctant to recognise what was about to happen because it involved an unhappy ending -- an ending in which a character whom they have come to like meets a sticky end -- you have failed.

Well, that's all quite straightforward, isn't it? Can't think why people don't do it more often.


Camilla said...

First of all, I have to apoligize for my massacre of the English language - I am not English, and the therfore English is my second language. Nonetheless I hope that what I write will make sense.
I find the talk of the shocking ending or unexpected turn of the plot very interesting, not least because it takes great skill to do it right. As you point out the unexpected turn or endnin in it self is not enough, to make it work you have to make it fit not only the audience, but the entire story. There is nothing worse than reading a story with a turn that seems to nothing but cut the story in two seperate halves. Then again, if the writer knows what he or she is soing, then the twist can do excatly what you are saying: make the story memorable enough to make the reader recomend it to someoneelse, and thereby secure an increased number of readers - which I guess is what every writer wants!

Anonymous said...

Funland was superb on a variety of levels. The blackness of the humour had me all the way through. I would find myself laughing at the various misfortunes, yet guilty that I found it so funny. Black humour at its very best.