The Shock Factor in writing is best described as a sentence, image, or phrase that’s meant to create immediate tension in an audience. You may have heard multiple things accused of “relying on Shock Factor” like PETA ads, or poorly made YouTube videos. These are usually greusome photos of injured animals from companies like PETA, or horror movies that are more concerned with frightening imagery than making sense in the plot. Most commonly it’s in images, but it can be found in writing as well.
When poorly done in writing, it often comes in the form of clumsy lines in poetry or prose. I think the worst example of relying on Shock Factor I’ve seen in my life was from a poem. I was on a date with a man who told me that his poetry was “different,” “real,” and “on TikTok,” so I looked it up after a rather poor excuse for a date. The poem was spoken word over sad music, with a black and white picture of a woman crying in the background. The first line was, “What if I told you I tried to kill myself.”
I don’t think it had the desired reaction. It’s obvious by the blunt statement and serious tone that this is meant to frighten the audience. It’s meant to be a terrifying thought that he, specifically, might stoop to that level of desperation. After a full year of not speaking to this man, that line of alleged poetry still stands as a marker in my mind for bad writing.
Should we Avoid The Shock Factor?
The Shock Factor is not inherently a negative thing or a sign of bad writing. It exists because, when done well, it can quickly create tension in an audience. This tension can be built on or the story can leave the audience to sit with their feelings. It depends on the author’s desired impact. However it does often get confused with just banging the audience over the head with graphic imagery.
A well known example of The Shock Factor that is done fairly well (although we hate to give Disney credit for anything) would be from Disney’s Mulan after the song A Girl Worth Fighting For. It’s an unbeat song about soldiers who are mostly younger men talking about their dream women. They sing about what they want to fight for; women they would like to marry. It ends abruptly when the soldiers come across a burned village. The characters are shaken by the devastation of war and the mood for the entire movie shifts to as serious as a kids movie can be. It’s a good example of how the scene can change immediately, add tension, and not be overtly greusome. In the screenplay, it’s described as,
Army Chorus [Mulan breaks away and walks in the opposite direction of the army]:
A girl worth fighting for!
(whistle) [Mulan sees Ling, Yao, and Chien-Po with snowballs about to pelt her so she turns around]
A girl worth fighting--
[All have stunned looks on their faces]
[Cut to ruins of a burned out village. The soldiers walk through the singed gate and look around at the few planks that remain from the buildings]”
This might not register as a moment of Shock Factor to some people. It’s a well done change of tone for the story. However, this scene relies entirely on the audience being shocked at the suddenness of the tonal shift and implications of death. It’s not a sudden and intense flash of graphic imagery, but it still exists to shock the audience into this new tone.
Another great example is from Doki Doki Literature Club. If you somehow didn’t come into contact with someone talking about this game in 2017 when it came out, it’s a visual novel that looks like a dating simulator, however as the story progresses, the “physiological horror” warnings begin to make more sense. This game uses a lot of Shock Factor, starting with the first death in the game and then building on the severe change in audience expectations. The first death doesn’t occur until after hours of gameplay, and has a graphic depiction of a suicide. From there the game glitches, removes files from the computer, mixes it’s cartoon style with realistic eyes, and other characters begin sharing disturbing backstory. These decisions would all be listed as classic Shock Factor, but Doki Doki is not accused of relying on it. The first graphic image is built up over time with the character admitting to dealing with depressive thoughts despite a bubbly attitude. Her confession is an important set up for what the audience is about to see, increasing the horror as the main character goes to check on her. It’s especially well done with the main character saying things like, “I bet she’s sleeping in again,” so that even when the audience is sure of what they will find, there’s a sense of hope that it might not be true. Additionally, because of the art style in the game and the gameplay being based on dating simulators and other visual novels, it feels unlikely that a graphic depiction will be shown. It’s not uncommon for these types of games to have dark themes, but to describe them without imagery being included. Doki Doki breaks this expectation and shows graphic imagery multiple times, including a loosely animated stabbing.
In Steven King’s Revival Shock Factor is used multiple times. It’s somewhat expected by the audience for a horror novel to include shocking moments, but in this book there are a few moments that are more immediately shocking than others. Such as the first death that sets off the plot of the book. Once the characters and setting are set up, the wife and child of the town’s local reverend die in a car accident. This is another moment when the shock doesn’t come from graphic descriptions of the corpse or scene. Instead, the audience is left to imagine the horror as the main character describes hearing the reverend see his child.
“Where’s his face?” He cried. “Where’s my little boy’s face?”
King doesn’t waste the audience’s time over describing what will always be worse in their imagination. Not having that description makes the moment more memorable and more shocking, especially because we are immediately given the character’s reaction.
What’s the difference?
Mostly, it time. Time to build setting, character, and plot so the audience can build expectations for what they will see. When Shock Factor works, it challenges the audiences ideas for the story. It can frighten audiences, or make them become very serious, or even be very funny if done well in comedy (think: Jackass or Hug The Sun). However, for it to work it requires an audience to be settled into a particular level of comfort.
Jackass is almost an exception to this rule. The Shock Factor comes from seeing people legitimately trying these stunts and occasionally getting injured doing it. The reason it works is that, while it might make an audience member cringe, it isn’t done to frighten you into feeling scared. It’s meant to make you tense at these uncomfortable looking landings and stunts, and then relax when the performers are fine. The cycle becomes tension, release, tension, release. However to build that tension quickly, the performers choose more and more outrageous stunts to keep up the Shock Factor. It’s shock based, but your discomfort and ease aren’t reliant on you caring about the people you see performing the stunts.
Most other good examples of Shock Factor, however, will focus on creating a comfortable setting for the audience and then introducing something completely different. It is the equivalent of putting your audience in a field of flowers and pointing out all the animals that have been poisoned by them. Good Shock Factor stories and writing don’t try to frighten an audience that isn’t relaxed into the world already.
Where do writers go wrong?
There are two major ways to go wrong with The Shock Factor.
- Failing to set up the comfortable space for the audience before introducing the shocking thing.
- Over saturating a piece with “shocking” imagery or ideas until the audience is no longer affected by them (think: Happy Tree Friends or Mr Pickles because they’re actually boring, Mr Pickles stans do not come for me I’m right.)
The first issue is probably more common and more easily rectified. People who have just started getting into writing The Shock Factor want to rush to the part of the story where the audience is tense. This is a disservice to the potential shock. It’s always better to err on the side of caution and give your audience more time to settle in than not enough. This is especially true if you have hinted to a shocking scene earlier in the piece, because waiting longer will ensure the audience is already tense waiting on something shocking. Giving them more time until they begin questioning if it will come at all and relaxing back into the comfort of the setting will make the moment more intense. It’s a tricky balance though, as you don’t want to introduce your scene too late and have your audience divest their interest before the shock can happen, or for the scene to feel too “out of nowhere” or “slapped on” if you’re dealing with serious issues.
As for Oversaturation, I mentioned Mr Pickles already so let me elaborate on that. The show is already in the “adult swim style of animation” which, if you’ve seen an adult swim cartoon you will recognise immediately. That means that the audience is already unlikely to be comfortable enough for The Shock Factor to work. As a compromise, the shocking things need to be more shocking. The problem is that this results in a cartoon of mutilated bodies, blood and bizarre amounts of vomit. This is what I would consider saturated to a point of becoming boring. Perhaps I’m in the minority here because the show seems somewhat popular, but my experience with the people telling me it’s “totally screwed up” is not that I’ve been told by people with taste. I remember a man showing me a clip, informing me that this was, “the most gruesome thing on television,” and it was plotless, baseless violence of a cartoon dog. Its goofy style and lack of interesting characters makes the severed legs and bondage references many in number but low in impact. It’s also telling that the show runners equate sex and violence as equally shocking, but I digress. Perhaps this point particularly is more based in taste than objective writing tips, but all writing tips are. If you’re curious I suppose watch the show and see if it feels shocking or if it feels like another desensitised, weirdly sanitised gore fest or if you have felt The Shock Factor.
Further Advice and Conclusion
Ultimately what some people find shocking, others will find middling. The best advice is always to study the craft you want to emulate. If you want to write The Shock Factor, look at what things people are saying works. If you don’t agree that they are correctly using The Shock Factor, figure out why. Are they trying for serious but coming off humorous? Is it took much gore, not enough gore? Does it change the audiences expectations for the story? Did it need to? Does the plot affect how it’s received? There are many questions to ask when looking into works that incorporate The Shock Factor, so that you can figure out what sort of techniques you can apply to your own work.
I have based my examples off what media have given me goosebumps or just stuck in my mind for years on end. You may look into some of these examples and find them boring, middling, or tasteless. You might really like Mr Pickles which would be… very interesting to hear about. You might think PETA is good at advertising for animal welfare, which would be even more interesting to hear about. Regardless, I hope you got something out of reading this far.
About the author
Blake Smith is a student and aspiring author in Australia. Their work is influenced by their political leanings, trauma, and reading nonsense online. Who's isn't though? Did y'all see that orange with the limbs and the face? Terrifying :/