July 8, 2010 / 2 Comments

A Shock to the System

We all know this moment. It shows up in books and films.

Our heroine, Dot, descends into the darkened cellar with only a flickering flashlight to guide the way (or a torch, for our British readers). We hear a rustle of movement. Something gets knocked over behind her–a set of golf clubs. She pans to the light left and right, revealing so many places to hide. There’s definitely someone-or something— down here in the cellar with her. There’s more movement, more noise, a few cries from Dot and then

–HAH —

the cat leaps into her arms from the top of a nearby cabinet or stack of old newspapers.

This, my friends, is what we commonly call a cheap shot. It’s when you wind up tension and expectations only to pay them off with a shock that turns out to be completely innocent. Granted sometimes it isn’t innocent because


the cat leaps away just as the psychopath dives out and runs Dot through with the umbrella from the golf bag. This is still a cheat, however, because the psychopath is just relying on shock value. All that built-up tension got paid off early with the cat and, well, the cat is not the payoff we were hoping for.

In certain activities, this sort of thing is called “premature”…

Cheap shots and shock gags are popular in stories for two reasons. One is because they’re hard to screw up. Put a racing crescendo in the soundtrack, add a racing heartbeat, splatter some gore, let rip with an off-color fart joke, and the audience almost has to react a certain way. That’s the second reason. You can practically guarantee the audience will respond how you want because they’re the lowest common denominator of emotional stimulation.

Now, let’s be clear on one thing. These little shocks are great, either in horror or action or comedy or whatever. Anything that gives the audience a little jolt out of their complacency is always good.

The problem is when that’s all a given story has to offer. A lot of stories try to get by with lots of cheap shots and shock gags because they don’t have anything else. The comedies aren’t that funny. The horror stories aren’t that scary.

There was a little horror movie I saw a while back where the suspected killer (or is he…?) had a habit of appearing from nowhere. Someone moves or the camera shifts and there he is. Walk into the office reading your mail, look up, and there he is. Open the medicine cabinet for an aspirin, close it, and behind you in the reflection there he is. Have a talk with your friend about stress, say goodbye, turn around, and there he is. Go out to get something from the fridge at night, close the fridge door, and there he is.

Notice how the italics are getting boring? That’s shock value wearing out its welcome. It’s breaking the flow again and again by reminding you this is a constructed story trying to play on your emotions. At the screening for this particular movie, I realized halfway through that the other critics and I were all doing the same thing. We were conducting the film with our fingers, cueing the suspected killer’s appearances because they’d become so predictable.

Consider, if you will, the lesson of Monty Python.

For those pathetic few of you who don’t know, Monty Python was the name of a British comedy troupe back in the ‘70s. John Cleese was a founding member. So was writer-director Terry Gilliam. There’s probably a few other faces in there you’d recognize, but I didn’t really want to talk about them.

The whole point of Monty Python was to do off-beat, nonsensical comedy. It was absurdist humor taken to the extreme, with people arguing about book stores, dead parrots, and even arguing about arguments. Unexpectedly, Monty Python became a huge hit. Their show ran for several seasons. The group did international tours. They made a couple of movies.

And they became predictable.

People started taking about jokes and skits being “Pythonesque.” It was hard to be nonsensical when people were expecting nonsense. The absurdity became standard. And right about this time Monty Python started to be a little less funny. Then a lot less funny. And then they more or less broke up.

If you don’t want to think poorly on the Pythons, consider slasher films. They dominated the ‘80s because it was easy to shock audiences with more gruesome and gory deaths. Eventually, though, slasher films almost became another form of comedy. People were laughing at them more than cringing because they’d become bored by the constant cycle of extreme death. It’s just like what I mentioned a while back about endings that come out of left-field. They become so commonplace in bad indie films that people just expect them now. They lost what shock value they once had.

Again, as I said above, there’s nothing wrong with a shock or a cheap shot now and then. Shocks and surprises are good. We all enjoy them.


You need to have more than that, though, if you want to really connect with your audience. There needs to be real tension. Real suspense. Real payoffs.

Yeah, it’s tough and, yeah, some readers simply are not capable of understanding foreshadowing and suspense. A real uphill battle. So you need to decide if you’re going to aim high or if you’re going to go for the lowest common denominator.

Because you can only be premature so many times before other folks start getting frustrated with you.

And then you’re going to find yourself all alone.

Next time, I need to talk about the developing flea problem.

Until then, go write.