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Monday, June 9, 2014

The Shock and Awe Story Model

 \There’s a new story paradigm that’s been popular with writers for the past decade. I call it The Shock-and-Awe story model. In this story model there’s no focus on plot and character development, but on taking a character and putting them in series of graphically violent or graphically sexual situations. While the audience is awe struck by the shocking things they see transpiring in front of them, they have no idea how they’re being cheated out of a story by the writer.

The shock-and awe model has its roots in the 1995 film Independence Day. In that film special effects featuring the mass destruction of big cities was used to overcompensate for a weak plot and poor character development. And since Director/Producer Roland Emmerich was able to pull a fast one on the audience by giving them a poor quali1ty story in exchange for their dollars, other hacks have come out of the woodwork to apply this deeply flawed story model to their own work.

Over the last 20 years, Producers like Roland Emmerich, Lee Daniels, Tyler Perry and writers, like E.L. James, and many comic book writers like Brad Meltzer and Dan Didio have used the shock-and-awe story model to establish their careers with.

In most of projects featuring the shock-and-awe story model, there’s a lot of focus on putting characters through horrific situations. And instead of a hero, we get a victim or a series of victims. Over the course of the wafer thin plot, we see these victims put through a series of horrifying and traumatizing events where there’s extremely graphic sex, extremely graphic violence or a combination of both.  

The Shock-and-awe-story model moves its plot forward by playing on the audiences’ emotions. However, this play on emotions is not to keep the reader compelled to see the story to the finish. It’s designed to keep the audience from seeing how poorly structured the plot of the story is and how poorly developed the characters are. While the audience is shocked at the sight of the graphic sex and violence, they never see there’s very little substance for all the flash transpiring in front of them.

When one deconstructs a story that uses the shock-and-awe story model they don’t see a solidly crafted story with a clearly structured series of linear events that fit into a sequence. No, they see a rickety frame made up of toothpicks filled with plot devices taped to sex scenes and glued together to random acts of violence. In most cases the story comes to an awkward finish with a convoluted ending, a forced ending, or a Deus Ex Machina.

Plot wise, there’s very little organic progression in a shock-and-awe story model. The audience doesn’t get a reason for why things happen or how they fit in a linear sequence Stuff just happens… Just because. And when the storyline starts stalling, the author just throw a dead body out of a window, decapitates a supporting character, mutilates a hero, or has a hero open the door to see their best friend having sex with the hero’s girlfriend while she does a handstand.

While these kinds of events distract the audience they do not spin the action effectively or move the story forward towards a satisfying conclusion. Shock-and-awe writers are good at playing at people’s emotions but know nothing about how to build a compelling storyline. In many cases the plot points in their stories don’t even remain consistent with what they established in their opening acts.

Writers who use the shock-and-awe approach oftentimes have no idea on how to use literary elements like irony, foreshadowing or symbolism or how to influence the nuances of storytelling through subtext. They have no idea on how to do things like building suspense, creating chemistry between characters or even how to make a character relatable on a human level. Because they don’t know how to craft a story using these techniques, they have to overcompensate with gimmicks, plot devices, and sex and violence to distract the audience.

In most cases, the shock-and-awe writer is so busy bludgeoning the reader with sex and violence that they themselves get caught up in their own emotions. And because they’re so eager to write the next explosion, the next character mutilation decapitation, or describing the next set of sexual positions they don’t see how any of these actions fit within the plot or effectively move the story forward. Stuff happens in a shock-and-awe story, but we never come to an understanding of WHY it’s happening.

The biggest problem of the Shock-and-awe story model is that it doesn’t answer one of the three basic questions of storytelling: What does the main character want?

In most movies, books that use shock-and-awe story model, the audience doesn’t ever come to understand what the main character wants. And because there is no clear goal set forth in the opening scenes, the story gets muddled. Yeah, there are a lot of emotional moments in a shock-and-awe story, but it doesn’t come together to become a story with a clear beginning, middle and an end where we see the hero or heroine achieve the goal they set out to achieve in the first chapter or the opening scene. Stuff just happens…Just because.

Whatever goal that was, it gets lost in the shuffle of graphic sex and violence. While the audience remembers the hero’s best friend having sex with his girlfriend as she does a handstand, it stops caring about why they wanted to read this story or watch this movie in the first place.

What I hate most about the shock-and-awe story model is how it dehumanizes the characters and turns them into objects. Instead of the audience connecting with the characters and seeing them as human beings they can care about like real people, the audience becomes disconnected and detached from the story. In most cases they become like a voyeur peeping into a window of a bedroom. And while they watch the action transpiring in front of them they’re anticipating what disturbing thing they’ll see next. It’s the equivalent of reading or watching pornography.

Yes the audience is titillated, but their brains aren’t stimulated. Anyone with critical thinking skills becomes aggravated at the numerous plot holes, poor character development and lack of story direction in these shock-and awe modeled stories. What’s most frustrating is the fact that most of them don’t come to a satisfactory conclusion.

The way I see it the Shock-and-awe story model is a half-assed way to tell a story. Only a weak writer needs to use graphic sex scenes and grisly violence to get the audience to pay attention to their story. And only a hack needs to turn a main character into a victim to get the audience to sympathize with them.

A good writer can get the reader’s attention without using graphic sex or violence. In fact, a good writer wants the audience to focus on the main character and show them how they’re just like them and how their struggles to overcome whatever obstacles they relate to. A good writer wants the audience to come out of the story they read with a lesson they can apply in the future to their lives.

As a writer, I refuse to use the shock-and-awe model. I feel the audiences’ time is too precious to waste on a story that’s not my best work. When I publish a work of fiction, I want them to have a satisfying reading experience. That’s why I make every effort to make every story I write feature a solid plot, multidimensional characters and a compelling storyline which organically builds from the opening act. The way I see it the reader should be shocked by a plot twist they didn’t see coming in an awesome storyline and come to understand how it related to events in the opening act.

1 comment:

  1. Here's a link to a forum post where the author has stated similar things to your statement.