Three Tips For Writing “Edgy” Fiction

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.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

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The Practical Advantages And Disadvantages Of Risque Cover Art

First of all, I should start by saying that this article will be focusing entirely on practical matters. So, if you’re expecting a call for censorship, then you’re going to be disappointed. On the other hand, if you’re actually expecting to see any risque cover art in this article, you’ll also be disappointed. That said, let’s get on with the article….

Anyway, I ended up thinking about the paradoxical subject of risque cover art recently after finding two creative works that use this type of cover art.

In addition to the horror/thriller novel that I reviewed yesterday, I also ended up buying a MP3 of “Future Club” by Perturbator a while before writing this article ( a song that comes from a record with fairly “Not safe for work” cover art). Naturally, this made me think about both the practical advantages and disadvantages of this style of cover art.

I’ll start by listing the advantages, then I’ll talk about the disadvantages. So, let’s get started…

The Advantages:
First of all, risque cover art is attention-grabbing. Even if the cover art isn’t your kind of “thing”, then it still stands out from the crowd and gets your attention.

After all, this style of cover art usually breaks some kind of social taboo about nudity or whatever, so it is going to be something that people will notice. Yet, it’s usually just mild or suggestive enough not to fall foul of any rules that might restrict it’s display. It’s a similar principle to the famous “French Connection UK” marketing campaign from the 1990s. So, when done well, this can also make a creative work more memorable too.

Secondly, risque cover art can make prospective readers, viewers, players or listeners feel like they’re doing something a little bit “rebellious” by looking at something with this style of cover art. Needless to say, making your audience feel like rebels is a good way of building a fanbase.

Thirdly, risque cover art traditionally served as a kind of content warning/critic filter. In other words, people who disliked the cover art would just try to ignore the thing in question (although, as I’ll explain later, this also has disadvantages). This was a way for things with risque cover art to ensure that they were only experienced by people who actually wanted to experience them. This traditionally resulted in these things having a more devoted and loyal fanbase. Of course, in this age of social media and instant controversy, this technique doesn’t really work any more.

And, yes, although controversy has traditionally served as a form of free advertising in pre-social media times, it isn’t a wise strategy to use these days. Not only is controversy seen as more of a “bad” thing than it used to be, it’s increased frequency these days means it has less “shock value” than it once did and – of course- due to the invention of social media, responses from people who dislike controversial things have also gone from strongly-worded, but polite, letters to the local paper to more vitriolic, threatening etc… online messages.

So, in short, the practical advantages of risque cover art are that it grabs the audience’s attention, it makes a creative work more memorable, it makes the audience feel like rebels and it used to lead to a more devoted fanbase whilst also serving as a form of free advertising, via controversy. Now, let’s talk about….

The Disadvantages: The first disadvantage is that audiences are more cynical, and this can work against you. Because risque cover art is such a well-known way of getting attention, most of your potential audience will be wise to it. As such, they’ll probably think that you’re trying to make a low-quality creative work look more appealing. Of course, if your creative work is actually good, then this expectation can work against you.

For example, the two creative works I mentioned at the beginning of this article are really brilliant. Even if they didn’t have risque cover art, they would still be brilliant. But, because they use this type of cover art, they don’t seem as sophisticated (at first glance) as they actually are.

If it wasn’t for the fact that I’d enjoyed other books by the same author and had previously heard the song on Youtube, I’d have probably just rolled my eyes and thought “If they need to use nudity to sell this, then it probably isn’t very good” if I saw them on a shop shelf. So, risque cover art can lose as many sales as it gains.

Secondly, whilst risque cover art might make your audience feel like rebels, it also limits where and when they can enjoy the things you create. Simply put, it’s frowned upon to read, carry, watch etc.. these kinds of things in public. Likewise, it may put less extroverted members of your audience (who might really love the thing you’ve made) off of buying the thing in question, because of the embarrassment or nervousness involved.

For example, although I wasn’t impressed by the quality of the sample chapters I’ve read there’s a very good reason why the UK paperback cover art for E. L. James’ “Fifty Shades Of Grey” is a deliberately bland picture of a grey necktie. If it was a more graphic picture, then it probably wouldn’t be a bestseller because many people would be too embarrassed to buy it or read it in public.

Finally, risque cover art limits your audience and can shut out some potential fans. Different types of risque images appeal to different people. So, you’re limiting your audience.

So, yes, there are also some fairly hefty disadvantages to using this style of cover art too. In short, there is no “right” or “wrong” answer to the question of whether you should use this style of cover art. In some contexts, it can work really well. In other contexts, it can be a terrible idea. So, use your own judgement.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Internal Contrasts And Shock Value In Comics – A Ramble

2016 Artwork Shock Value and comics

Even though this is an article about how to make your comics more dramatic, I’m going to have to start by talking about making my own upcoming webcomic mini series yet again. As usual, there’s a good reason for this. But, if you want to check out my previous mini series (so you can see what I’m talking about), they can be seen here, here, here, here and here.

Anyway, when I was making the seventh comic in this upcoming mini series, I ran into a familiar problem that I’ve had (in various ways) with all of my other mini series. Namely, I started worrying that the comic in question was “too shocking”. By my own standards, it wasn’t even close to “shocking”, but I started worrying about how everyone else would react to it.

The comic in question is a comic about horror movies. Basically, Roz has tricked Harvey into seeing a modern horror movie and he spends the half of the comic grumbling about how old horror movies are better than new ones because they’re less gruesome and less risqué. This is, of course, accompanied by stylised drawings of both types of horror movie.

When I’d finished the comic, I was really proud of the illustrations, but I started to worry that the illustration of a “gruesome” and “risqué” horror movie was “too shocking”. Although I made a few nervous self-censorship changes to the final picture, I was thankfully able to stop myself before I ruined the whole thing. This was mainly because I realised that I’d already self-censored a lot when I was actually making the illustration.

Not only was the illustration a greyscale illustration with a red tint applied to the whole image in post production (to imply the presence of blood without actually showing any), but most of the violence in the image was implied rather than depicted (eg: you see someone swinging a chainsaw at a zombie, but the chainsaw doesn’t actually make contact). These are some of the classic self-censorship tricks and, yet, I was worried that people would think that the picture was “too violent”.

Not only that, the “risqué” parts of the illustration mostly just consisted of the characters wearing less formal (and slightly more revealing) clothes than the characters in the picture of the “old” horror movie do. There was also a small sign in the background with three “X”s on it. This is hardly top-shelf stuff, and yet I was worried about how people would react to it.

Thinking about it logically, it is a ridiculously tame picture. If it appeared in a movie, it probably wouldn’t gain more than a “12” certificate or a “PG-13” certificate. If it appeared as an illustration in a magazine article, no-one would raise an eyebrow. Hell, even “The Simpsons” has probably shown more “shocking” things. I certainly wouldn’t be shocked if someone else had made a similar illustration. And, yet, there I was worrying about whether it was “too shocking” for my comic.

And I think that I know why. It’s all because of internal contrasts.

The image comes across as more “shocking” than it actually is for two reasons. The first is that it appears directly after a rather genteel image of an aristocratic vampire lurching out of a coffin – by contrast, it comes across as more shocking. The second reason is that most of the comics in my previous mini series (and most of the comics in this mini series) don’t include that much horror movie imagery – so, again, it’s more shocking by contrast.

This, of course, is something to bear in mind when you are making comics or writing fiction. In other words, any “shocking” things in your comics or fiction are only shocking because they contrast with other things. After all, people are only shocked when they see something out of the ordinary.

It’s kind of similar to the old idea of “keyed colour” in paintings. Basically, you can make an area of your painting appear lighter or darker than it actually is by making the surrounding area much lighter or darker than the area in question.

The classic example of this can be seen in the old piece of advice about only using four-letter words sparingly in fiction or comics. This isn’t because your audience are dowdy old puritans who faint whenever they hear realistic everyday expressions. It’s because if every other word in your story or comic begins with the letter “F”, then this awesome word loses it’s dramatic value fairly quickly.

If most of the dialogue consists of these words, then they are “ordinary” and they carry less dramatic weight. Whereas, if they only appear a few times, then they stand out more in comparison to the rest of the dialogue.

The same is true for anything “shocking” in the things that you make. Shocking things only have shock value by contrast. A classic example of this can be found in some of the horror/thriller novels written by Ryu Murakami in the 1990s. Objectively speaking, they are actually less gory than most classic splatterpunk horror novels from the 1980s and 1990s are, but they seem more shocking because Murakami only includes one or two gory scenes in his horror novels – and spends most of the novel building up to these scenes.

So, yes, shock value is all about context and contrast.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Comedy And Shock Value – A Ramble

2016 Artwork comedy and shock value article sketch

Well, I’m still in the mood for writing about the comedy genre. So, for today, I thought that I’d look at the subject of comedy and shock value. As with all creative things, there are no absolute “right” or “wrong” answers here and this article is just my opinion. After all, everyone has a different sense of humour.

Like with the horror genre, one of the things that good comedy has to do if it wants to work well is to shock or surprise it’s audience. Like good horror, good comedy often relies on playing with the audience’s expectations. To use a non-controversial and well-known example, just take a look at the classic joke “A man walks into a bar… Ouch!“.

As you probably know, this joke works because the beginning of it is similar to many other jokes (eg: “A man walks into a bar”), but the audience’s expectations are suddenly proved to be wrong when it’s revealed in the punchline that the “bar” is actually a metal bar. Although it’s comedic power has long since been blunted by common use, this joke relies on (mildly) shocking the audience in order to amuse them.

Of course, comedy often works in much more subtle ways than this. Good comedy is unpredictable and rebellious in one way or another. Whether it’s something as simple as a writer telling a story which occasionally goes in whimsically surreal directions, whether it’s a parody of a “serious” story or whether it’s very cynical and irreverent humour about a taboo subject, good comedy often relies on “shocking” the audience in some way or another.

Like with the horror genre, comedy – by it’s very definition – can’t be too “realistic” (unless, of course, you’re parodying an unrealistic movie or story).

Comedy has to rebel against expectations, conventions and realism to some level or another in order to work. Comedy relies on exaggerations, twists, taboos, irreverence, offence and other such things. It’s an anarchic and impishly unpredictable genre.

Of course, the real art form here is trying to find funny ways to shock your audience. Merely shocking an audience is not always, in and of itself, funny. After all, horror stories also rely on shocking their audiences too.

In other words, you have to find clever ways to either create expectations (or to go along with your audience’s pre-existing expectations) and then to break them in well-timed and unexpected ways. The only real way to learn how to do this well is to read, listen to and/or watch as much comedy as you can.

But, to give you an example, an ordinary person saying a four-letter word isn’t inherently funny. After all, unless you’re an extremely prim and puritanical person, you probably use your fair share of these words on a daily basis. It’s nothing special and nothing shocking. But, if a prim and puritanical person was to use one of these words, it would be funny because the audience wouldn’t expect it.

This contrast between a person and their actions is also why, for example, things such as [NSFW] these widely-publicised allegations about the (British) prime minister from last year resulted in widespread mockery, ridicule and general merriment rather than disgusted outrage.

If an ordinary person was accused of doing something like this, then it would quite rightly be considered to be disgusting rather than funny. But, because a prime minister (let alone a conservative one) allegedly did something revolting – but also technically harmless – it’s absolutely hilarious because it’s literally the last thing that anyone would expect.

Then, of course, there’s the somewhat trickier question of what is and isn’t “too shocking”. My personal view on this is that, because everyone has a subtly different sense of humour, there shouldn’t really be any formal or informal limits on comedy.

It’s kind of like food – I mean, you can buy hot chilli sauces and you can buy very mild types of mustard. Both of these things are spicy, but you probably prefer either one or the other or, more likely, something in between. If you’re more of a “mild mustard” kind of person and you accidentally end up eating chilli sauce by mistake, then it’s probably not going to be a pleasant experience.

No one would bat an eyelid if you then made the decision not to eat chilli sauce again as a result of this or even if you said that you personally don’t like eating chilli sauce. However, most people would consider it to be laughably ridiculous if you then earnestly called for chilli sauce to be banned from supermarkets and restaurants just because it didn’t fit into your personal tastes.

Not to mention that, as soon as you start trying to put limits on comedy, you also set up expectations… which comedians will just end up breaking for laughs. So, trying to censor or restrict comedy – however shocking it might be- is something of a fool’s errand.

So, yes, whether it’s extremely shocking or very mildly shocking, comedy has to be shocking.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

Should You Try To Be Controversial?

2014 Artwork controversy sketch 2

(Since I’m British, I’ll be focusing on examples of controversies [and their effects] in Britain, mainland Europe and America – since I know more about these controversies and these cultures.)

It was Manet’s “Dejeuner Sur L’Herbe”, the works of the Maquis De Sade and Oscar Wilde’s “The Picture Of Dorian Gray” that caused a scandal in the 19th century.

It was Tijuana Bibles and the “excesses” of the cinema that ruffled the feathers of 1920s America.

It was horror comics, William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Bettie Page, The Rolling Stones and D.H.Lawrence’s “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” that sent gavels flying in the 1950s and 60s.

It was heavy metal and hip hop music, a banned poem by James Kirkup, Peter Wright’s “Spycatcher”, “video nasties”, a banned art film about a few nuns and many other things that caused a lot of outraged murmuring in the 1980s.

It was a banned song by the Pogues, a David Cronenburg film, violent videogames, “South Park” and other such things that grabbed tabloid headlines in the 1990s.

It was an opera about Jerry Springer, “South Park”, a TV show by Chris Morris and countless other things that provoked otherwise reasonable people to absolute fury in the early-mid 2000s.

And, in the present day, the recent controversies seem to surround depictions of certain timeless human activities on the internet, a few horror movies, pictures of the human body on the third pages of certain badly-written conservative newspapers and, of course, evil music videos that corrupt the youth!!!!11111

Controversy and moral panics are nothing new. But, should you (as an artist, writer or musician) try to be controversial?

Controversy is something of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it’s a fast-track to instant fame and a place in history. But, on the other hand, it requires a lot of courage to be controversial, not to mention that something is also only truly shocking the first time that it happens.

After every controversy, western society matures slightly and gradually becomes a tiny bit more open-minded and tolerant. So, something which was controversial even ten or twenty years ago may just be fairly ordinary these days.

Something which was controversial or banned seventy to eighty years ago is, quite rightly, deemed quaintly amusing and suitable for most modern audiences. And, something which was controversial over a hundred years ago usually ends up being part of the respected and revered canon of Western art and literary history.

If it wasn’t for controversy, we would still probably be living in the middle ages. As much as some people may hate to admit it, we owe many of the social and technological advancements of modern western society to heresy, pornography, blasphemy, obscenity and indecency. And this is a good thing.

If you don’t believe me – then don’t buy anything over the internet or watch Youtube (which types of sites do you think pioneered online payments, video streaming etc..?). Don’t use anything that involves satellites in any way (after all, the sun revolves around the earth and heaven is directly above the earth, right?).

Don’t watch any film produced after 1939 (After all, Clark Gable used a rude word and things went downhill from there..). Don’t wear modern clothes. Don’t vote. Don’t use modern medicine in any way (you may imbalance the four humours of your body!). Don’t fall in love with someone you actually love (if they happen to be the same sex or gender as you are). Don’t listen to any type of music other than hymns and classical pieces. Don’t choose your own spiritual beliefs etc…

I’m sure you get the idea. Controversy is necessary for the development of a society. And it is the best way to get whatever you’ve made into the history books too.

But, if controversy and shock value fade over time, then your controversial work of art, fiction, music or drama must also be extremely well-made, because your work can’t last on shock value alone.

If whatever you make would be still be good even if it wasn’t shocking, then publish it. If it wouldn’t, then don’t.

In other words, shock value is not a proper substitute for talent. But it can compliment talent quite well.

In addition to this you must remember that, by it’s very nature, controversy causes reactions in people. People from many religions can conveniently forget the parts of their own scriptures about peace, love and/or forgiveness. Democratic governments can forget that free expression is the foundation of any democracy. Conservatives become even more conservative than they already were and even liberals can temporarily turn into conservatives.

Not to mention that there are, of course, trolls on the internet too.

In other words, there is less protection for people who use their right to free speech to create controversial things than there used to be.

Controversy isn’t for the faint-hearted and it can sometimes even be a dangerous game in legal terms too (eg: in Britian, the limits of free speech are more vague and restrictive than they are in America).

In addition to this, whatever controversial thing you create may possibly get banned. Thankfully, due to the internet, this is more of a symbolic gesture than anything else these days. Plus, as countless people have said over the years, being banned is paradoxically the best form of free publicity that anyone can get.

So, as I said earlier, controversy is a double-edged sword and shock value alone is no substitute for talent. I can’t really tell you whether or not you should be controversial, but it’s something you should always think carefully about beforehand.

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Anyway, I hope that this article has been interesting 🙂