Well, since I’m currently reading an “edgy” horror thriller novel from the 1990s (“Piercing” by Ryu Murakami), I thought that I’d talk about the subject of writing edgy fiction – since, what I’ve read of this novel so far is illustrative of both what to do and what not to do when writing in this rebellious old genre.
1) Pacing, intensity and proportion: As strange as it may sound, less can sometimes be more. The thing to remember is that all shock value is relative – in other words, “shocking” things are not only shocking in comparison to the culture surrouding you, but also compared to everything else in your story.
This is a bit like the old rule about using profanity in fiction – you can use as much of it as you like but, every time you use it, the next time will be a little bit less dramatic.
In other words “shock value” works best when it is applied carefully, with the “edgier” moments of your story being especially shocking in comparison to the rest of your story. If the whole of your story consists of nothing but wall-to-wall edginess then, rather than being shocking, it will eventually just make your readers shrug and think of your story as being the kind of immature thing that is more suited to rebellious teenage audiences than mature adults.
For example, Ryu Murakami is usually really really good at pacing and contrast. His novel “In The Miso Soup” is a masterclass in intelligent extreme horror fiction. The vast bulk of the novel is spent gradually showing the reader things like seedy background details, hinting at psychological horrors and creating a sense that something really awful is going to happen. So, when it eventually does, it is a truly shocking scene. “In The Miso Soup” is an intelligent, edgy and mature novel in the best sense of the word.
In contrast, the Murakami novel I’m reading at the moment (“Piercing”) does the exact opposite of this and – although it is still very well-written, creepy and morbidly compelling – it feels somewhat corny and significantly less mature for the simple reason that, in just the first sixty pages or so, the reader is overloaded with an almost constant array of “shock value” things.
But, far from being truly shocking, the sheer frequency and intensity of this means that it all just comes across as “over the top”, “trying too hard” etc.. In other words, there really isn’t enough contrast between “normality” and “horror” (with the only “ordinary life” scenes being a few brief moments in the earlier parts of the story).
So, to create a truly mature “edgy” novel, you need to think carefully about when to add the “edgy” elements of your story. Remember that shocking things are only truly shocking in contrast to non-shocking things. If you include too much “shock value” too early (you need a little bit near the beginning to keep your readers intrigued though), then you’ll either diminish the shock value of your story or put your readers off altogether.
2) Audience expectations: This is one of the most amusing paradoxes about “edgy” fiction. The kind of people who don’t usually read edgy fiction are the most likely to be scandalised by it and cause the kind of controversies which can have a chilling effect on creative expression. By contrast, the kind of people who do read “edgy” fiction have seen it all before and are much more difficult to shock. It really is a hilarious paradox.
Still, it is the latter of these two audiences that you should aim for. But, how do you do this?
Well, it’s all about signposting. Whilst the best “edgy” authors will gradually gain a reputation for shocking, transgressive fiction – so that their readers know who to look for – this can not only be a problem for new authors, it is also a bit of a double-edged sword for experienced authors too.
For example, the famous “edgy” authors Clive Barker and Poppy Z. Brite have also written some truly amazing non-edgy fiction. Clive Barker’s “Weaveworld” is a truly intelligent and imaginative dark fantasy thriller, and his “Abarat” novels are awe-inspiringly magical, whimsical and wonderous. Likewise, Poppy Z. Brite’s “Liquor” novels are these wonderfully atmospheric, beautiful, romantic and heartwarming drama novels about two chefs running a restaurant. Yet, when both of these authors initially felt like writing different types of stories, there was apparently something of a fan backlash by readers who expected something a bit “edgier”.
So, one of the best ways to ensure that the right audience reads your edgy fiction is through more traditional types of signposting. In other words, things like well-designed cover art (which implies a less “mainstream” story) and a well-written blurb that hints at the shocks and horrors to come without giving too much away. In other words, the average person needs to be able to tell that it’s an edgy story at first glance, so they can make an informed decision.
3) Non-judgement: One of the things that separates good “edgy” fiction from more traditional horror fiction and drama is that edgy fiction doesn’t judge it’s characters or plot, trusting instead that the readers will be intelligent enough to come to their own judgments.
And, yes, despite the self-righteous howling of more puritanical critics, “edgy” fiction does require the reader to have a moral compass in order to be effectively dramatic. However, it is also smart enough to know that having a moral compass doesn’t mean that you are an uptight person who always robotically marches in lockstep with the loud opinions of conservative newspapers, liberal websites, religious leaders, politicians etc…
In other words, intelligent “edgy” fiction merely shows the reader the events of the story and lets them come to their own judgements about the events and characters that they see. It expects readers to be the kind of intelligent people who understand things like nuance and to actually have feelings of empathy. In other words, good edgy fiction shouldn’t lecture the reader.
Remember, your readers already have a moral compass (your fiction wouldn’t be “shocking” if they didn’t..) and probably have intelligent, nuanced ethical opinions about a variety of topics. So, treat them sensibly and don’t try to lecture them.
Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂