The Double-Edged Sword of Storytelling

“…When we tell writers to keep away from certain subjects because others have fumbled them or because they are just too “risky”, all we do is strangle those fundamentals.”

Kier McDougall

CW: Reference to sexual violence/assault

A disturbing trend has emerged in conjunction with the rise of provocative storytelling, particularly in television and, to a lesser extent, in film. The trend is not necessarily the decisions made by their writers, but more in the reactions to them.

In a landscape where popular stories are darker tonally and greyer morally than they have been in recent memory, I have noticed audiences, critics, and the like starting to reject the power of the writer to make bold storytelling choices; killing characters, or making story-lines more challenging or difficult.

I am firmly against the idea that writers should not be allowed to go down the controversial or even taboo road. I’m sure you would read that sentence and think, “duh,” but that paints over the problem. Because someone that says, “Of course, writers should be able to write what they want,” often says next, “Except for x, y, and z. That’s all a bit much. I don’t care if storytelling requires a character to experience struggles before getting to the happy ending – this shouldn’t be allowed.”

It is absolutely fair to criticise or dislike a writer’s execution of dicey material, but the line between criticising writers and blacklisting controversial content is thinning, to the point that the latter even seems to subconsciously motivate the former.

When you know what you’re talking about, any topic, any decision should be fair game. When do we know what we’re talking about? That’s a question for another time. Regardless, any failures of storytelling need to be recognised as a misstep of the writer’s execution, rather than Exhibits A through Z in the case against bold choices. Just because one writer makes a hash of killing off a popular character doesn’t mean that it should be removed from the consciousness of all writing.

I promise not to avoid it any longer – sexual violence, that is. 

Controversial? Yes. 

Distressing? Yes. 

Relevant to a host of systemic, real-life problems? Yes. 

Easy for a writer to mess up? You bet.

In any popular example of recent fiction writing, has the topic of sexual assault been handled with the best care? Of course it hasn’t. It and racism are probably the two most difficult subjects to even consider writing about. Its depictions are rarely ever going to be received with popular acclaim. But I have the firm belief that there are writers out there who know how to get it right, with this topic as with any other. As they come to the fore, I am certain that the wider writing world will benefit.

One of the most important parts of writing is learning, and wanting to better your execution through challenges. And when we tell writers to keep away from certain subjects because others have fumbled them or because they are just too “risky”, all we do is strangle those fundamentals.


This blog entry is part 3 in a blog series by Kier McDougall, titled “Loose Threads“.

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