One could not even begin count the collective gasps and jaws that dropped upon watching the infamous ‘Red Wedding’. As soon as the episode had finished, social media and the internet were ablaze with comments ranging from outrage to hilarity to anguish and everything in between. Over 5 million individuals in the US watched this particular episode as it aired on HBO, and millions more watched it around the world thereafter. The response was universal. “That didn’t just happen!”
Even those who had read the books before watching the show watched on with wide eyes, mesmerised and horrified by an intensely graphic depiction of a famed literary event. And though so many people cried out in anger, the Red Wedding only drew more people in to watch the next episode and read George R R Martin’s books.
It is a little bit of schadenfreude that draws us to continue to watch and read or is it a futile hope that somehow things will turn out for the best. It could be that society has shifted its taste in literature and media to allow for the more debased and extreme elements of life. One only needs to look at the most popular television shows of the last few years. Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, the Walking Dead and Boardwalk Empire show us over the top violence, sex, drug and alcohol abuse and general indecency. Yet they do so with gripping storytelling, and we love them.
The current trend in television is towards the long story arc that leaves a viewer hanging for more at the end of each episode. And viewers are now so saturated with content that they are seeking new thrills. We are all searching for the next high. The Red Wedding was essentially an overdose and now everyone is waiting for that next hit.
So what does this mean for the writers out there? What is the true power of killing off a main character? Does writing need to adapt to the changing marketplace, or is this a fad that will work its way out over time? My answer is write what you feel will help you best tell the story. We should not need to turn to extreme violence and sex to sell, but if that helps you to convey your message in the best possible manner then do not shy away from using them.
Shock and awe is a powerful creative tool but must be used with care. Give us more Red Weddings but don’t make them the norm. Sometimes the tried and tested formulas are the way to go. Why? because they are tried and tested. And I ask all those writers out there currently plotting their next story, when you do choose to include that jaw dropping event, provide a warning to all those out there with heart conditions. Not everyone has the constitution to survive such a scene.