Every story has its hero, its sidekicks, its villains, and its everything in between. We cheer when the villain loses, when they die, and we are happy when the hero and her sidekicks succeed. But sometimes it is the other way around. Sometimes the bad guy wins, sometimes evil beats out the good and our hero and her followers are left broken, or worse.
Most of us have seen Game of Thrones. For those, like myself who did not read the books, we must have been shocked at the Red Wedding. We see time and again in that series that the good guys do not always win. Just the other day the new season of The Walking Dead premiered and - in the nature of not spoiling it just in case - Neegan did some very, very bad things. It was undoubtedly the most brutal episode of the series. A series where characters get killed off with general frequency, yet it was still shocking. When the bad guy wins, it is shocking, numbing even.
We have become so used to the idea of the hero being alright, that good will always win, that any alternative to our golden ideal is shocking. But is it worth it?
I remember when I first witnessed the Red Wedding, i was shocked, but I was angry. The entire story had been building up to that point for those characters, and suddenly it was over. In all honesty, I am still - to this day - unsure if they were even needed at all, if their lives had any real impact on where the story has progressed to. When Neegan killed who he killed in the season premier, I was sad. When you watch a horror movie and the main characters are terrorized or killed, we are frightened. It is the unexpected, the break from the line that many stories tow, that shocks us into some drastic emotion.
Somewhere deep down I have to think to myself, do we even like that? Do we enjoy being so rattled that it awakens some intense emotion within us? Why the hell do I enjoy being angry, sad, and scared? Why don’t we want every story to have a happy ending? It is something beyond mere conflict; every story has conflict, whether it be an action-packed, Michael Bay orgy of explosions, all the way down to children’s shows and romantic comedies. They may not be the same kind of conflict, but there is always something.
The truth is, we don’t like things that stagnate. We don’t want to see the same thing over and over again because we will get bored. A story is not entertaining if it is 300 pages of someone leading a successful, middle-class life, but it is also not entertaining to read about someone born into and living through poverty until they pass away from natural causes. Neither of those stories would sell, no matter the medium.
Variety is the spice of life, and that is true for the tales that we consume. Every tale needs to have that shock factor, that little piece of something that no one was expecting. But here you have to be careful, too. It has gotten to the point - and don’t hate me if my opinion differs from yours - that I have almost grown weary of Game of Thrones. You choose not to attach yourself to a character because you half-expect them to be dead in a few episodes, and every now and then it actually happens! If you shock your audience too much, they disassociate from the story, and it has stagnated from a different point of few.
The goal is to find that sweet spot somewhere in between: provide your audience with enough shocks to keep them on their toes, but not too many that they simply accept it as the norm. It may sound like common sense, but putting it into practice is a lot harder than it seems. And by no means do I think I have mastered it myself; authors, directors, entertainers of all sorts that I envy and admire still sometimes struggle with it.
But hopefully, one day, I can make you genuinely love or hate a character, cry for them, or make you throw the book against the wall in frustration. Maybe one day, you will be so absorbed that the shock reminds you that they story isn’t real.