Every writer knows a story needs conflict. Audiences and readers tend to agree, but sometimes conflict can go too far. Too graphic. Too dark. Too violent. Things that make us cringe, shake our heads, and decide to find some other story to devote our time and our hearts to.
There will be some spoilers ahead.
While watching The Boys, my mum said she thought the sexual assault of Star Light in episode 1 was unnecessary. Which, for my mum, roughly translates to “You’re lucky I didn’t switch the TV off.”
We’ve all had a moment like this. Maybe more than once.
Writers work hard to get emotional reactions to their work. Horrors are supposed to frighten us. Romances make us squee. We want to feel these emotions. If we don’t, we’re disappointed.
By that logic, my mum should have accepted her disgust while watching The Boys. Assuming the writers intended disgust to be the reaction, they succeeded. It’s fine.
Or is it?
A few years ago, I was watching Stargate: Atlantis and one episode introduced a new character called Michael. A classic amnesia case, Michael soon discovers that everyone is hiding ‘the truth’ from him and he can’t trust anyone. The reveal? He’s a member of a species called the Wraith, the show’s antagonists, and the show’s heroes kidnapped, tortured, and brainwashed him into believing he was human.
I stopped watching. I didn’t care about heroes and I checked out of their story. This is the last thing any writer wants.
It partly comes down to principles. A hero torturing an innocent person because of his race? No. Just no.
Here’s the thing though – there’s plenty of dark shows that are well-received and cause little offence. My favourite show right now, Mr. Robot, depicts mental illness and terrorism. Innocent and likeable characters have been hurt and killed. And yet, I haven’t been put off. In fact, the conflict and steady rising stakes has only made me more invested in the show.
Intent doesn’t matter. It can be done.
How, then, does it go so wrong?
Well-written doesn’t always mean well-received. Likewise if a story isn’t always well-written if it gets an emotional reaction. Stories that get the wrong reaction to what was intended are usually badly written. Fans are usually the first to point this out. When we come to love a story or character, we know what to expect and what shouldn’t happen.
So writers should do what their fans want?
Personally, I’m not an advocate for writers bending to their fans wishes. First, it takes away the writer’s autonomy. Second, fans all want different things and its impossible to make everyone happy. Sometimes there’s a plot turn that a fan didn’t see coming but ends up enjoying. Only the writer can control their words.
But there is something writers can do to avoid this problem.
It’s called foreshadowing.
Foreshadowing is the tiny hints and details the writer sprinkles throughout a story to tell us that something is coming around the corner. Subtle but necessary.
Set up and pay off is important for things to flow in a story. A pay off can fall flat without a good set up. If dark turns and bad decisions aren’t hinted at first, then there’s more risk of us being put off when those twists come around.
Stargate foreshadowed that there was something odd and mysterious about Michael’s past, but failed to foreshadow the extreme the characters were willing to go to stop the Wraith. Their decision to torture and brainwash Michael was out of character. If these were people who often made bad decisions, or saw no other choice, it would have been easier to accept. Especially if they were villains and not heroes. As it was, it didn’t work for me. It made me hate those characters.
Has a story ever gone too far for you? What was it and what happened? Why did it cross a line? Did you give it another chance or not?