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How Much is Just Right when it Comes to Shock Value?

Tantz_Aerine at 12:00AM, Aug. 12, 2017

Having decided that shock value is needed in your comic and you must scare, disgust or generally traumatize your audience in some way in order to get the emotional reaction to serve your theme and your subject matter, how do you decide when and where to draw the line? (note, all of this discussion is about films that don’t use comedic-approach gore but intend to play it straight and serious)

How much is too much, and how much is not enough?

This is the second stage of design: Setting the Limits. And as always in the methods I suggest about these things, you have to ask yourself some questions:

1. Who is going to be reading this?

It might seem mundane but it’s the best starting point to mark down your limits: who is your audience? Shock value works differently (and more or less difficultly) across different audiences. If you want teens to read your comic, you have to abide to teen ratings first. If you want the comic to be available to everyone, then you have to work with those limits.

The reason I bring these two light ratings as examples (rather than Mature or Adult, or R-rated or NC-17) is to illustrate that you can have shock value even within such limiting confines. You can scare or shock by alluding to a situation you aren’t allowed to depict because of the rating, and you can play mind games. Some of the best thrillers use the audience’s imagination rather than show on screen the gore or the shock.

When considering your audience, consider how you have primed them. Shock value is multiplied if your audience isn’t expecting the situation or the method of portraying the situation that is going to bring about the shock. If your audience has been lulled to a sense of security that characters in your story won’t die, then a sudden death, even if relatively sanitized (like a lethal gunshot) will have much greater shock value than if your audience expects blood and gore, but all they get is a gunshot to the head. Which brings me to the second question you have to ask yourself:

2. What is the audience expecting to see?

People choose what to read or what to watch based on a rough estimation of what they’re going in for. If that estimation proves wrong, usually the message or even the entertainment value is lost (except when the audience expects a pretty bad product only to get a rather good one).

So when designing your shock value limits, you must keep in mind that while you have some margins to fool your audience as to what to expect, but that is a narrow margin. Your rating will prepare the audience far more than your comic’s or movie’s cover.
So you must be prepared to keep it within these limits, or the shock value will become too much (and take center stage rather than the reason you have it there for) or too little (and also be discussed far more than the sum of the work itself) and you will have pleased/satisfied/entertained very few.

However, though some of the limits are set by standardized things like the rating, what happens when you are not as restrained? When the subject matter or the rating gives you free reign, what do you do? That brings me to the last question to ask yourself.

3. How do you shock the audience when they expect to be shocked?

Another way to phrase it would be ‘how to bring forth shock when the subject matter is shocking in and of itself’ without crossing the line as I discussed in the previous newspost. Once again, you need to consider what the audience expects to see, and give them something to see they shouldn’t normally expect, or aren’t prepared for.

One way to do it is by tricking the audience into believing one character is main or vital enough to be preserved throughout the movie, and then proceed to eliminate (or otherwise change) fairly early in the narrative. Another way is to have a large cast which you begin to eliminate at (seemingly) random throughout the work, thus keeping your audience always at the edge of their seats. Both methods remove the feeling of safety and predictability from the audience, and get adrenaline going.

Another way is to give shock value that personalized. When, for example, Nazis is your subject matter, there’s nothing you can’t show in terms of gore. They have quite literally done it all. But the audience doesn’t necessarily know that. So there are two ways to go:
Either display the unusual things, or personalize the usual ones:

The audience expects the ‘normal’ things- death camps, intrusive surveillace, kidnappings and murders and the occasional torture scene. So it’s likely that they will be moved far more if all of that is happening to an unlikely, or very undeserving character that the audience likes, identifies with or connects to:

Someone like this.

By doing that, you don’t actually need to show on screen too many things. The audience’s mind fills in the blanks, and that can be more horrific than actually showing what is done to the fullest, to the point that people feel it’s done for the (sick) pleasure of it rather than to get a message across.

HOWEVER. Sometimes, you might need to go all out. Sometimes some elements of a particular subject matter have become trivialized, or have been swept under the rug, or in general are considered without a realization of the true horror behind them. If that is the case, and you decide that you must jolt the audience into experiencing the true levels of horror that for whatever reason have been blunted over time or other reasons, you cannot sanitize a thing.

Pull all the stoppers. But also give it the dimensions of that reality, trivial or not- if was routine, show it as routine. If it was normal, show it to be normal. If it was just the job, show it to be just the job. That might be the most horrific thing you can do.



Tantz_Aerine at 5:16AM, Aug. 15, 2017

Bravo1102: I think you can. It will only make their monstrous side even starker by comparison. At least that's what I've tried to do with Arthur and Raban.

bravo1102 at 3:08AM, Aug. 14, 2017

And yes I do have a World War II comic in the works. But can you get away with portraying real soldiers doing real stuff if there are sieg runes on their collar and not automatically have to make them monsters?

bravo1102 at 3:04AM, Aug. 14, 2017

Come and See is surprisingly not gory or explicit in its depiction of mass killing. There is a subgenre of exploitation films about Nazi atrocities. Some are much more effective than others. One director insisted he would do it but only if everything was completely accurate. And it raised that film above the genre. Another absolutely silly film actually shows nothing that isn't documented even down to German helferin units being stripped and gang raped by Russian soldiers and a nearby German unit racing to their rescue. It's a totally ridiculous sequence and yet it really happened.

bravo1102 at 2:57AM, Aug. 14, 2017

The amazing thing about the Mongols was that in a pre-modern time their horror reached from China to Eastern Europe whereas the Nazis were entirely within Europe. Ethnic genocide is something else. I wouldn't compare the systematic elimination of a group as done by the Nazis, Austrians, Turks going back to the Assyrians to just killing everyone. Read the accounts of the Einsatzgruppen or even the various unit diaries in the Wehrmacht. It's so easy to pull a trigger at a distance but even shooting someone in the head takes a special kind of inhumanity. One great image often attributed to the Nazis is the baby on the spear. Except the first report of it goes back to ancient Egypt. Just how do you know when to rein accounts of that in? Do I show the Einsatzgruppen rounding them up and the shots off stage? Someone stabbing down and nothing else? What is better Schindler's List or the TV miniseries Holocaust? Holocaust did a great job within 1970s TV censorship of driving it home.

Tantz_Aerine at 6:47AM, Aug. 13, 2017

usedbooks: You're a very kind hearted person. I can see that place doing that to you. // Ozoneocean: Thank you! I try to keep a balance without going overboard :)

usedbooks at 3:33AM, Aug. 12, 2017

The normalizing of massive level tragedy is why I am grateful to no longer work at Petersburg National Battlefield. It depressed me to study that history and angered me to read the way it was recorded "A Union/Confederate victory at the cost of ___ casualties." "Cost of." Ugh. Buying victories with lives. Each with a family and dreams and thoughts, but now just a scribble on a page that glorifies the brilliance of commanding officers that were in some distant location. (As history records "Grant" or "Lee" did such and such despite being far removed from the actual scene.) I didn't tell the stories like that. I looked up soldier's letters. I talked about what they were feeling and experiencing. And it broke my heart daily. Glad to be gone from that sad bit of ground. I like fiction better. (Or history without loss of life, like the stories I get to tell at my new job.)

ozoneocean at 3:30AM, Aug. 12, 2017

Well made points Tantz. The way you show your shocking horror in Without Moonlight was very effectively done!

ozoneocean at 3:28AM, Aug. 12, 2017

The Nazis DID impale people in rows in various areas. I've read an account of them crucifying rows of Jews in Croatia. The Austrians impaled scores of civilians in Serbia during the first world war... I don't think there's any honest distinction between pre-modern people and modern ones, once they get crazy and throw off the bounds of decency and civilisation there's zero limit. As for higher percentages or lower ones that's a weird point... The Nazis killed far more people but it was a lower percentage of the human population at that time, sure, But the fact is there are only so many people you can kill before mundane things like simple geography get in the way. Even if you've only got simple tools like swords and horses, slaughtering entire pre-modern civilisations (which were tiny and grouped together, whether in cities or small farming communities), is many times easier than modern peoples even with the best technology.

Tantz_Aerine at 2:50AM, Aug. 12, 2017

Bravo1102: I mostly agree, though in the Nazis' case at least over here in Greece they did engage in pretty much Mongol-level destruction of pre-modern times. Granted they didn't impale people in rows upon rows nor did they blind entire troops leaving an one-eyed man to lead them (like Basil the Bulgar Slayer did), but the extent and sadism involved did reach such levels. And definitely in fiction, Stalin's rule of thumb holds- one (personalized) death pays more dividends than slews of unnamed people.

bravo1102 at 2:12AM, Aug. 12, 2017

And to keep it all in perspective as Stalin supposedly said "one death is a tragedy, a million deaths are a statistic" For horror, worms eye view works best. Keep the viewpoint focused and tight and the camera at a low angle and then use a up and a way crane shot to bring home just how broad the horror is.

bravo1102 at 1:57AM, Aug. 12, 2017

But the Nazis didn't do it all. They did massacre the population of cities with swords nor walk down streets literally ankle deep in blood. They were purveyors of modern almost scientific horror, not the relentless bloodletting of the pre-modern world like the Albigensian Crusade or the Mongols. The Kaiser may have wanted his armies to emulate the Huns but they never came as close to the mass killing of populations by the sword that barbarians during the fall if Rome or the Middle Ages were famous for. Remember what conqueror killed so many people it actually led to a worldwide drop in human population that it took centuries to recover from: the Mongols. A greater percentage of Germans died in the Thirty Years War than the two world wars combined. The Nazis had a more perverse philosophy but they weren't into destruction for its own sake as practiced in the pre-modern world.

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