Writing Excuses 5.18: Offending Your Readers

Send your angry emails to Howard, because this was totally his idea.

This is a discussion of avoiding unnecessary offense. Sometimes, especially in humorous works, offense is a required risk, so that’s not where we’re going here. We’re going to talk about the sorts of things we sometimes do that offend our readers, and how we can prevent those sorts of elements from entering into our writing — at least into our final drafts.

Some of the offenses we might offer include talking down to the reader, certain racial and gender demographics, poor representation of a particular culture and/or gender (anyone remember RaceFail from two years ago?), straw men, potemkin villages, open moralizing, and breaking the promises we make to our readers.

Book of the Week: Dragon’s Ring by Dave Freer, available now in paperback from Baen Books. Ask for it by name at the bookstore.

Inspiration for This Podcast: A completely unrelated request from Oletta.

Howard’s New Band Name: “Nuke The Blue Monkeys”

Writing Prompt: Start with hard science-fiction, move to werewolf romance.


72 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 5.18: Offending Your Readers”

  1. I’d like to point out that Wicked (the book) offended me too, not because of the sex or anything, but because it was just plain BAD. However, anyone who found fault with it above, I would advise you to go see the musical.

    It’s nothing like the book and its brilliant. (Unless one doesn’t like musicals… In which case it could offend…)

    Great Podcast guys.

  2. @Oraymw. I see where you are coming from and you are entitled to your opinion the same as everyone else. However, you have to understand that there is not one thing that you can write that is not going to be offensive to someone somewhere. You mentioned Dan Wells doing it right, but that is your opinion and I happen to share it with you. I think Dan’s “John Cleaver Series” is awesome and I can’t wait to get the third book. That said, after I read “I Am Not A Serial Killer” I lent the book to a friend and she was totally freaked out and offended by the graphic description of the embalming process. She gave the book back to me without finishing it and said she would never read anything written by Dan ever again. That’s just her loss, Dan’s awesome and I will buy his books, because he has shown me that he will write the story the way he believes it should be written.

    As for my writing, I also write the way I believe my stories should be written. If the story calls for violence, or a sex scene then I put it in and don’t worry about it. I don’t write for money, I have a job that pays my bills. I write simply for the love of writing. If my writing happens to make a buck or two some day, well cool beans for me, but that’s not why I do it. I think anyone who is writing just to try to get rich would do better to play the lotto.

    Thanks for the transcript Mike. :)

  3. @Oletta
    Sounds like you’ve got the right idea with your writing. If you feel your story needs a particular scene or character, then by all means, put it in. Do what you feel is right for the story.

    For example, swearing. Some writers can get away with very little in the way of modern swear words, and often substitute words that make sense for the setting. For example, in Brandon’s Way of Kings people often curse with ‘storms’ in one way or another, and in Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera, they use ‘crows’ a lot. It works, it fits. Other writers will use things like ‘s***’ (blanked out to avoid offense :P ) on occasion, for emphasis. Others use it, and other words, much more.

    Could such language offend readers? Sure. But I figure so long as it fits the context, the tone, the character, the setting… so long as it FEELS right to the author for the story…. then it’s okay. And if the reader can see that too, then that’s all for the better. But if it’s gratuitous and just there to offend the reader, that’s a problem.

    I think part of the problem with bad/offensive writing is that for whatever reason, the author doesn’t think through what they write. Or they lack perspective enough to see why it’s offensive or bad. They write in a way that TELLS us ‘this is good, this is ok’, but what they SHOW is offensive and nasty. “This guy is a HERO! He’s an awesome HERO! Everyone loves him and thinks he’s a wonderful HERO! Excuse me, the HERO has to go out of his way to slaughter people unnecessarily without twitching an eyebrow… but it’s ok because they work for the bad guy, and he’s the HERO!”

    There’s a book out there, I haven’t read it myself, but an online friend of mine is part of the writing group that the story was submitted to before publishing. Said friend often analyses bad fiction and writes up commentary on a blog, so that’s what she did with bits of this story. Apparently, the author was writing to a formula for mystery/romance novels. Not ‘hard boiled detective+gutsy heroine reporter+dead body in closet’, more ‘body found on page 5, sex scene on page 56, big reveal on page 286’ sort of thing. Supposedly, the author had examined other books in the chosen genre and was working off the averages as to when other authors put particular things in their story.

    As if that wasn’t enough… the author couldn’t understand why the sex scene she included wasn’t steamy and erotic, despite the actual actions involved being largely non-consensual and harassing. She also couldn’t grasp why, ok, the villain is a serial killer, but the modus operandi and the final reveal were simply grotesque and absurd.

    Then there’s ‘The Fifth Sorceress’, where female magic is apparently inherently corrupt, I don’t recall if there was a particular reason for that the way there is with the male side of magic is corrupted in Wheel of Time. Also, the male side of magic is called ‘the Vigors’ and the female side, ‘the Vagaries’. So…. the male side is ‘Vigor’, meaning strength and energy, and the female side is ‘Vagary’, meaning whimsical, unpredictable, capricious… I dunno, sounds pretty sexist.

    So yeah, go ahead with your ‘oversexed gangster with a sweet-tooth’ and the ‘sarcastic cigar-chomping pearl diver on her way to prison for a murder she didn’t commit’. Rock on! They sound like they could be great, interesting characters if you develop them enough!

  4. Ok… I’m not so sure about the ‘storms’ thing now. I read Way of Kings a couple of weeks ago, then read Hero of Ages, so there’s been some time and other information crowding in… I just flicked through Way of Kings and didn’t see anyone say ‘storms’. Maybe I was looking at the wrong scenes, or maybe I was mistaken.

    So if I’m wrong about that, my apologies. My point stands though, ‘storms’ or even ‘shards’ would be great curse words for the setting. No need for more modern vulgarity at all.

  5. @Jace “Storms” was definitely used, but it mostly came in the forms “storm it,” “storm off,” or “storm you.”

  6. If you’re looking for an offensive book that starts out one way, then abruptly shifts about a third of the way in and never–EVER–fulfills its promises go read “The Passage” by Justin Cronin. Actually, please don’t read it. It will ruin all that is good and wonderful for you.

  7. I actually loved this episode on so many levels, so you don’t have to worry about offending me – I found Howard’s joke clever. :)

    Then again, I honestly find that I’m not offended very easily when it comes to reading, unless it’s some of the ideas/topics that were noted in this podcast – especially the failed promises. Nothing turns me away from a book faster than reaching the end and realizing there are so many setups that were never followed through, or the build up to something that was a major letdown. My sister told me recently about James Patterson’s “Sundays at Tiffany’s” doing this to her. Great ideas, but they didn’t really deliver on the promises they made to her. I haven’t read it, but it made me think about this podcast when she mentioned it to me.

    I knew quite a few of the issues mentioned here, but there were a few that I was definitely nodding my head along to that I didn’t think about immediately when the topic came up. Thank you guys so much.

  8. Wow, you guys really know your audience… how did YOU know I’m not that smart?

    I’m glad you’re can-of-worming (or “wormcanning”?) the broken promises topic. I’m always interested in that.

  9. @ Jacob – I agree, I’m looking forward to the broken promises topic, too. I vaguely recall, in a previous podcast, one of the WE guys saying he took his story to his writing group, and they identified promises he didn’t even know he’d made. I’d love to hear more about that, because I’m sure I’m doing the same thing.

    Not quite broken promises, but similar: I heard writer Elizabeth Moon say once that readers are like horses, and the writer needs to give little tugs on the reins to make sure the readers don’t stray onto the wrong path. (This can be a problem with a long series arc, if the speculating fans go way off track between books, and the author has to wrench them back.)

  10. Or maybe that tag line should have been…

    Writing Excuses, it doesn’t matter how long our podcast is ’cause we know you’ll never be a writer! Just keep buying our books and we’ll say funny insightful things to keep you dim witted people entertained. ;)

  11. Re: Strawmen

    One thing I’ve always liked and respected about you, Brandon, is your handling of atheists in your books even though you’re a theist. Being an atheist myself, I’m so used to the doubter and the skeptic being set up as foils in fantasy books. Your treatments of the subject in Way of Kings and Well of Ascension were a delight to read and, I felt, both fair and realistic.

  12. Not only was the podcast great but so are the comments. @Jace: Thanks. Because of you, I changed Hell to Heli. I knew that it didn’t work but I wasn’t sure how I would fix it.

    Finished this prompt but couldn’t post because I suspected I’d made a promise that wasn’t fulfilled. At least, if I were reading it I would have felt unsatisfied because of the one detail that was left open ended. Last night’s podcast confirmed that it was, in fact, a promise. It’s one stupid line and I can’t wrap the story up until I fix it. At least, now, I know where the problem is.

    As for the werewolf romance; I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I felt guilty…like I was paving the way for bestiality or something. It’s not like the world doesn’t have more than enough werewolf romance writers. Still, I added a bit of romance but that’s as good as it gets with me…Not a romantic bone in this body. Not even the smallest metatarsus.

    As soon as I fix that line/promise, I’ll post.

    Can’t wait for next week’s podcast.

  13. Hey guys,

    Totally working ‘Summoning the Brandonium’ into my magic system now! Thanks for a really good podcast (the first one I’ve caught), really enjoyed it! You make the important stuff fun, which is always a good sign, will definitely be tuning in for the next one!


  14. One thing that sets me off is condescension towards the readers. I’d like to learn more about avoiding it, because it seems like such an obvious trap, yet several published authors have fallen into it. Brandon, Dan and Howard haven’t, so they wouldn’t have much to say (politely!)

    The easiest way to go about this is to add supporters of an ideology you hate into the book, steamroll them into cardboard cutouts, and act smug with your character’s glorious triumph. One such scene has the main character keep quieting a roomful of outraged politicians “with nothing but his gaze.” There are also several debate scenes where the person who’s wrong descends into frothing. Meanwhile the person who’s right effortlessly disassembles each accusation without ever losing her serene composure, and you just know that she has her nose in the air and a thin smile on her face. She probably ends the debate by dismissing the boor with a flick of her manicured fingers.

  15. Some things that I know offend me are things like soap operas. Shows with too much drama tend to annoy me and wear me out and I stop caring about anything in the story. The drama just goes on and on and on seemingly without any meaning behind it. I’d much rather watch a happy, funny little show like Phineas and Ferb. On the other hand, some shows on Disney Channel (like “Good Luck, Charlie”, etc.) offend me because of their cheap, over-the-top, and predictable humor. I feel a whole lot more comfortable with a story such as Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy because (though it might have more profanity in it) its humor is clever and fun. When I was little, my parents wouldn’t let us watch some shows simply because they were stupid put a bad taste in their mouths!

  16. As far as Tangled goes, if you are referring to the “shortcut” I think you are, it’s actually a very clever tie back to the original Rapunzel story.

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