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. A quick note with regard to advertising. We are still being sponsored by Audible for four podcasts each month. On months that have five podcasts in them, one ‘cast is open for other sponsorships. Email us at listenermail@writingexcuses.com if you’d like to acquire one of these slots. As of this writing there are open fifth-cast slots in May, August, and October.

  2. Man, I was wishing I had some way to remove the constant three minutes of dull that plagues my life from time to time, and here you come by and show me how.


  3. In How to Train Your Dragon, it took Hiccup weeks to fly because he had to perfect Toothless’ tail fin thingy, figure out how to secure himself, learn all the different tail positions, and figure out how each position affected the flight. Everyone else just had to learn how to steer.

    Great podcast, as usual. Happy new year :)

  4. One thing you did not mention:

    Readers can be offended if they feel like they are being manipulated.

    When I read Bridge to Terabithia (this was back in grade school, so I admit that I was missing the big picture at the time) I felt that the author killed off a character just to create some kind of emotional depth in the book. I thought that she realized the book was boring and decided to make something bad happen.

    I hated it so much that, to this day, when I see a Newbery Medal on the cover of a book I immediately count it as a strike against the book. (Books like The Giver, Number the Stars, and Walk Two Moons did not help either.)

    There is a silver lining though. I loves Alcatraz Vs. The Evil Librarians in part because of the jokes made by Alcatraz at the expense of books like that. Thank you Brandon Sanderson for helping me feel some validation after all those years.

  5. Oh, gosh, I complained about the length of the episodes to Howard on Twitter 2 hours ago and when I go listen the episode he tells about a person who complained about it before. He’s very patient, though, ’cause he wasn’t offensive with me even though that was a repeated question (and I think that these two times weren’t the only ones you guys saw people complaining about the length of the episode).

    This episode was really amazing for me, because I was planning on changing the whole ending of my book (which I’m editing) because it’s only gun fight. The way the story is, the ending I wanted to give to that story can be much more developed than with just one… fight. Now, looking at the ending, I can only see it as meaningless.
    I’m thinking, if I wanted to publish it without changing the ending I’d have to recommend this podcast to myreaders and just say “well, it’s about not offending the reader but listen to it as if it is about “not offending the writer”.

    That’s why I thank you guys. I wouldn’t, really, be very smart if I just left my ending how it is.

    And now I’m trying to recover from laughing at the little “–ahh.” in the last second of the episode. Whose was it? Amazing.

  6. Wahhhhh!!! They insulted meeee! :p
    Seriously, though, good episode. And it’ll be great to hear about the broken promises issue, too – I have never really gotten my head around the promises in writing concept, aside from the aforementioned genre-bending and things like randomly slaughtering critical characters in something established and with persistent characters, like Star Wars (I’m looking at you, New Jedi Order books), or horribly mangling your magic system or other such basic rules of your universe’s physics (again, New Jedi Order books).

    OK, maybe I do get the promises, a bit. Maybe I need to go back to the first season and listen to the original promises podcast again.

    And Rafael, I interpreted that sound as a wheeze (probably because I’m asthmatic). If you make someone with imperfect lungs laugh too much, they’ll start making high pitched wheezing sounds. This is the point where you stop making jokes. Dying of laughter is not funny. Laughing your way into an asthma attack isn’t much better.

    I’m not really sure how to segway into this, but during my visit with my family this Christmas, I came across an interesting parallel to Howard’s haunted Sword of…insufferable arrogance? (Sorry, Tauseggian designations need to be made fun of, and Petey’s been ignoring them of late.) Apparently my father recently replaced one of the toilets, and for the weeks since then, it apparently made sounds like an elephant. (I heard it on the final night, but it sounded like a very large, annoyed rodent that night.) The night I arrived, they finally managed to track down the source of the sound to the new toilet, and took off the lid to check its internal workings. The mechanism was full of soggy cardboard my father had forgotten to remove while installing the toilet. No death threats ever emenated from the toilet, but it aparently represented quite a menagerie over those couple of weeks.

  7. I just wanted to chime and say that I thought it was great to hear you guys mention that it was offensive to write down to kids. I’ve been banging that drum for years. I gave you guys some mental applause for that one. One of the most annoying cliches that gets trotted out is, “Well you know IT IS for kids…” as though that somehow excuses poor writing.

    Big thumbs up.

  8. On moralizing….

    I don’t mind it, after all many speculative fiction stories (I talking to you high-minded sci-fi) are filled with morals, they are practically modern parables. It what TVTropes (warning link ahead: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/BrokenAesop) calls the Broken Aesop, the moral that feels forced or when you really look at the story, the author seems to have missed the obvious and failed basic ethics by pushing the wrong moral lesson 0r even the contrary moral lesson.

    One thing that really bothers me is the Complete Monster bit. The best example is Batman: Returns. While Heath Ledger did an excellent job as The Joker, the way the other characters referred to him (the so called good guys) as someone that could not be understood or reasoned with allowed for the Broken Aesop that the End Justifies the Means.

    Another grievous example (that also includes a strawman literally knocked down) is the second book in the Honor Harrington series (The Honor of the Queen). Again, the bad guys behave in such an abominable fashion that turns them into Complete Monsters in order to make their more moderate counterparts look good by comparison (and justify the heroes saving their butts). Not that you can not have a Complete Monster on screen/page, in fact I applaud when writers don’t pull any punches, but when the reasons for it are this transparent/unnecessary/broken, it ticks me off.

  9. I’ve also got to go to bat for How to Train Your Dragon, for the same reasons mentioned by Mokona Go.

    As far as what offends your readers, this is where good Alpha Readers come in. It can help to have someone read your manuscript, particularly if they don’t share your beliefs/race/tastes/culture/etc. These two make good companions to this episode:


    I think it’s important to keep in mind that some things that offend us aren’t written with our tastes in mind in the first place so you just have to shrug it off and go elsewhere.

    PS: I’m offended at Berin Stephens’ blatant mention of gratuitous sax.

  10. Hey, I was enjoying a late night snack while listening to the new podcast and nearly shot a Froot Loop out of my nose when I heard Howard say my name! I’m glad that one of my comments was in a small way inspiration for this episode.

    I have to admit that I was born with a thick skin, so very little offends me. But I do get a little ticked when I feel an author is talking down to me or being repetitive about explaining a plot point two or three times. I get it the first time. And on the rare occasion that I do not, it is up to me to go back to reread something I may have missed, thank you.

    This was your the best show of the year, so far… LOL.

  11. Further to the one comment made in the podcast about being promised one thing and getting another in a story, eg it goes from space fantasy to a werewolf romance, this reminds me of a film that came out a few years ago called Paschendale. The ads for this movie sold it as the great Canadian war film showing our boys in the trenches and what they went through, and I thought to myself, “Finally a film that will show something about Canada’s military history!” Fast forward to when the film came out and sitting in the theater my friends and I discover that all the “war” scenes are small bits at the beginning and end of the film, and that the rest of the time it focuses on life on the homefront and the romance between two characters. I don’t think I’ve ever left a movie so pissed off.

    Oh, and another thing that was offensive was the part where it went completely out of character. Up until the end it had been somewhat boring, but completely realistic. Then one of the characters gets a mock crucifiction while characters miles away gaze longingly in his direction. It was just so jarring and out of place. That offended me as well.

  12. I agree with Oletta’s last line. I won’t say what I disagree with ’cause I don’t want to offend anyone.

    If you want to read moralizing, read any of Ayn Rand’s novels. Of course she was a philosopher (make that a political philosopher) and the whole purpose of her writing was to moralize.

  13. Lots of people have said we should ‘cast for longer than 15 minutes. It was Oletta, I believe, who said “you guys ARE that smart.” And that’s what got me to thinking that a reversal of the tagline would be funny.

    Then I thought about how it would be funny because it was offensive.

    And THEN I thought about how that, in and of itself, was probably a good kick-starter for a topic.

  14. Re: Brandon’s complaint about How to Train Your Dragon — what he saw as “the kids learned flight in 15 minutes” I saw as “compression of time for the sake of the climax.”

    Remember, the first go-round it took the Vikings weeks to get out to foggy area and back. I can’t imagine their assault hitting the beach in less than a couple of days. Which means that Hiccup and Astrid had a lot more time to train the rest of their team than we saw on-screen.

    The second thing to note is that most of those captured dragons had already been tamed, to some extent, by Hiccup.

    I think that this problem could have been fixed nicely if Hiccup had been shown passing out handfuls of grass, bits of smoked eel, and fish-treats to his friends. “Follow my lead. Oh, and somebody grab some rope. You’ll need something to hang on to.” That would have illustrated that their ability to quickly fly dragons grew out of Hiccup’s long period of investigation with Toothless.

    For me, though, I think my brain just wrote all that in on the fly. I was glad the movie DIDN’T expressly tell me how they learned so quickly, because I already knew Hiccup had what he needed to pass all that along in a hurry.

  15. Great episode, I just finished it. I especially enjoyed the part where Dan discussed the Civil War storyline in Marvel Comics, and how it gives one philosophy (political or otherwise) a ham-fisted advantage over its opposition in the narrative.

    I personally dislike a lot of the political overtones in movies and books for that reason. They just come across as cheesy and pathetic, and always leave a bad taste in my mouth. I thought it was just when I see a lot of left-wing overtones in dialogue, but this summer I read a right-wing “thriller” and it was just as bad.

    Like you pointed out in the episode: if it’s true to the character, true to the story, true to the moment, and there’s a philosophical realization, then fine. But being beaten over the head with it makes for some crappy fiction. At the end of the day, John Scalzi said it best: if you want to send a message, write an email.

  16. Heinlein is bad for moralizing. Especially his later books (I imagine this was because he was Safe From Editors (see tvtropes))

  17. I’m pretty hard to offend, but you guys hit on the things that do offend me, especially the straw men and open moralizing. I’ve always said I hate simplistic solutions to complex controversial problems.

    Of course, there are those people who are just going to be offended, no matter what. If anyone read the comic books series “The Desert Peach” by Donna Barr, she put “Anyone who’s offended deserves to be” on the cover.

  18. The fact that writingexcuses only podcasts for 15 minutes (ish) is one of the BEST things about it. It forces the hosts to get to the point and it gives the listener a better chance to actually digest and make use of what’s being said. Most people are going to retain less than 15 minutes of an hour long discussion anyway. If it’s short to begin with it’s not a hassle to re-listen (which I’m sure any serious listeners do).

    That’s from a practical standpoint. If we were talking about extending the ‘cast time for entertainment purposes then I can certainly see why we’d be happy if the mics got left on for a while longer.

    At the risk of sounding like a fortune cookie:
    Entertainment is good but common. Useful instruction is rare.

  19. I hate it when authors write like a broken record. “Street Game” by Christine Feehan did that. I love the Ghostwalkers series, but in this book the main characters spent 300 pages arguing about their relationship instead of rescuing the General. And it was the exact same argument, word for word, cycling over and over. Douglas Adams did it a lot too. I love his stories, but I don’t need to read the same sentence four times on the same page. I got it the first time!

  20. “Anyone who’s offended deserves to be”

    Excuse me, but what does that even mean? I looked up the comic, and I am not offended by it, but how does being offended by something result in deserving to be offended by something? Further, is not offence merely a reaction? The phrase is complete rubbish.

  21. “On moralizing – I don’t mind it, after all many speculative fiction stories (I talking to you high-minded sci-fi) are filled with morals, they are practically modern parables. It what TVTropes calls the Broken Aesop, the moral that feels forced or when you really look at the story, the author seems to have missed the obvious and failed basic ethics by pushing the wrong moral lesson 0r even the contrary moral lesson.

    One thing that really bothers me is the Complete Monster bit. The best example is Batman: Returns. While Heath Ledger did an excellent job as The Joker, the way the other characters referred to him (the so called good guys) as someone that could not be understood or reasoned with allowed for the Broken Aesop that the End Justifies the Means.”

    Wrong. A “broken aesop”, as defined by tvtropes, is a story which tells a moral but ends up contradicting that message in doing so. The Dark Knight does NOT do this by labeling out the Joker as evil/insane. It does not refer to morals which are (or are perceived to be) ‘failures of basic ethics’.

    Also people who read tvtropes are small-minded individuals who will listen to the whims of the peanut gallery so long as the peanut gallery is clever enough. Do not bother with that sight unless you wish to remain a limited thinker.

  22. I’m right there with you on the Broken Promise. I picked up the Royal Assassin series by Robin Hobb because I was expecting assassins who would presumably be royal, or perhaps go around killing royals.

    The main character goes through a pretty neat training montage, and then spends the next three books of the series not killing a single person on camera. Once, he’s sent out to drop poisoned bread for some zombie-analogues. That’s it.

    I was waiting the whole time to see badass scenes (like in the Night Angel series, which was the series that Royal Assassin should have been), and ended up getting a boring, overly long story about a castle full of idiots who couldn’t tie their own shoelaces.

  23. Hey folks! Long-time listener, occasional commenter. Not sure if this is the best place for this, since it’s totally OT, but I just wanted to share something exciting: my very first publication! I just had a flash scifi piece (“Palindrome”) published by dailysciencefiction.com. :D Thanks for the weekly help and encouragement, Writing Excusers! (now I really am out of excuses :) )

  24. Hey, this is the first time I had come to this site and got here through a link from Brandon Sanderson’s blog. I like what I heard on this page’s podcast and I’ll try to make it back here occasionally for more of them. Thanks for the good advice I heard today! :D

  25. Because you asked for it.
    The moon is the closest natural object to the Earth. It was the first point of exploration once mankind looked beyond the boundaries of their own world. As such, it was also the first to be colonised when mankind reached out into space. The moon could be mapped and predicted, sorted into known quantities that could be used to adapt. Lighter gravity meant that heavier loads could be handled with less machinery, while the thinner atmosphere required enclosed cities to contain breathable oxygen.

    But, of course, none of that mattered to the people still on earth, the ones who chose to stay, or had not yet left their homeworld. Those that cared to know were aware of the facts, but for most, all they saw when they looked into the sky was the moon.

    The full moon.

    Jerry and Lorna stood on a hill outside the city, kissing deeply in the light of that full moon. Reluctantly, they pulled back, smiling at each other, an expression of passion and bloodlust. Then, hand in hand, they shifted to their lupine forms. Sleek bodies, bipedal, humanoid, furred like wolves, with canine muzzles and hands tipped with claws.

    Claw in claw, they loped towards the unsuspecting city.

    Ok, so the hard sci fi and the romance in particular are weak, but nobody said it had to be GOOD.

  26. Here’s a broken Aesop for you: The new Alice in Wonderland.

    The story sets up with Alice running away because she doesn’t want to do what everyone expects her to do. She gets to Wonderland where she first fights her predestined path, but then proceeds to do…exactly what everyone expects her to do. In the end I was a little confused over what Wonderland experience was supposed to teach her.

  27. Did anyone else find it ironic that on the podcast where they ARE that smart that they had to *ahem* “snap their fingers” for three minutes to remember what they were going to say? Still, great podcast, as always.

  28. Good episode. I get annoyed and sometimes angry with straw men especially if the character is supposed to be intelligent and has the stupidest talking points.

    Also, stock characters. Beautiful, smart girl who fights against female roles in society. White men abound, but no minorities…and lesbians abound, but never is there a gay man to be seen. Fantasy novels do this all the time. Robert Jordan’s wheel of time has many lesbians, but no gay men for some reason. Ursula Leguin had a whole series where everyone, I think, was an islander. It was kind of refreshing.

    Oh, Capital cities that are the only important place in the country drive me crazy. This is probably why I got picky about the fantasy novels I read now.

  29. I have to say that the book that offended me the most was Wicked. I went in expecting an interesting rewrite of the Wizard of Oz. I’ve read the Wizard of Oz, and I enjoyed it, and I was hoping for an interesting and related experience. Instead, I got a book full sex. I made it through the first two chapters, and then took it back to the library.

    I think this qualifies as offending the reader a lot more than breaking promises does, although it is a form of breaking promises. But I was offended because there was a truck load of content that is offensive to my morals, which excluded me as a reader. That is what offense is all about; it is some kind of content that excludes a significant amount of readers because it is contrary to their culture, morals, ideals, etc.

    Breaking promises is just bad writing. (Though a writer might find it offensive, it is more about quality of content than about content.) A writer can do an incredible job, but still offend some readers.

    Another example of a book that offended readers would be Dan’s I Am Not a Serial Killer. That book did not offend me, but I do know a few readers that thought a religious person would write something clean, without any violence. They picked up Dan’s book because of his religion, and not because they were interested in genre. The important thing to keep in mind is that Dan excluded a significant subset of his readers because of the content that was in the book. That does not mean it is a bad thing; he did this in order to maintain the artistic integrity of the book. The fact that they were offended isn’t what’s important to us, what is important is that there is a certain group of people that are not going to by his book: People that get offended by explicit violence. Sometimes you have to offend people in order to produce a worthy work, so this is an example of how offense can be a good thing.

    Where offense is bad is when it is happening by unintentionally, or without literary purpose, or with the express intent to offend.

  30. I have to agree about Wicked, actually. The concept, seeing the events of Wizard of Oz from the Witch’s point of view, was a good one. But, somehow, between prologue and first chapter it fell apart. The prologue, from what I recall, suggested that yes, this is the Wicked Witch we’re familiar with, at least the one in the Judy Garland movie.

    Then the rest of the book was unaccountably wierd and dark and with a heavy focus on sex at the beginning. I slogged through it for a while, but it wasn’t as interesting as I had expected. I cheated a bit by looking it up on Wikipedia, and wasn’t impressed with the plot summary of events to come. Maybe I deserve that for cheating, but the book just didn’t inspire further view.

    Maybe one day I’ll try again.

  31. There are so many good books out there that do NOT require you to muster up the courage to have another go at them in the vain hope that you’ll find something to like…

    If I ever put a book or a series down because I’m bored, or offended, or not enjoying myself it’s pretty much The End. I have no shortage of wonderful things to read.

  32. @Oraymw amd @Jace – I didn’t even try to read Wicked because I knew I wouldn’t like it. I’m a huge Oz fan from childhood, I’ve read the entire series over and over – they hold up to adult reading and I recommend them highly. I can handle an Alternate Universe treatment of Oz to some extent, but I knew that Wicked would go too far for me. (Part of the problem may be that the original books are outstanding, and I have yet to see an AU treatment that was near as good as the original.)

    This doesn’t mean I consider Wicked a bad or unworthy book, or that I’m offended by it, it’s just not for me. I enjoyed the same author’s treatment of Cinderella, Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, but I’m not so close to the original material, and I tend to root for ugly stepsisters.

    And Howard is right. There are so many incredible and excellent books out there that I will enjoy, I read those instead. It was so liberating when I realized I don’t have to read the books that I “ought” to read if I don’t enjoy them. (Brandon, I laughed out loud at the “dog will die” line in Evil Librarians).

  33. @Oraymw

    I’m not going to argue about what you or someone else finds offensive or not, but I think that you have to agree that it is far better to realize that you don’t want to read the material in a book by chapter two than to wait until the beginning of act three when it begins to close in on the climax.

    In my personal opinion if the material you write might be offensive to many readers than it is best to put it in as early as possible so that the readers have a fair warning and you’re not wasting their time.

  34. Hum, I though the book Wicked was very entertaining. However to each their own. Everyone has their own tastes.

    Personally when I’m writing something, I write from my heart. I write the sort of things that I would want to read, if someone else would dare write them, and I never worry about my words being offensive to anyone. If someone is offended my something I write from my heart, than that is their own little problem. Not mine. So when I start uploading some of my stuff to my blog in the not too distance future and you don’t like that one of my stories might have an oversexed gangster with sweet-tooth or a sarcastic cigar-chomping pearl diver on her way to prison for a murder she didn’t commit, well don’t say I didn’t warn you. If that offends you, than I guess you’ll just have to do like that ex-marine therapist says in that GEICO commercial , and take yourself down to mamby-pamby land and get yourselves some self-confidence. :P

  35. I don’t really have much to add, but I wanted to compliment Brandon on the great job he does avoiding all of these problems in his books. Sazed in Mistborn struggles with his own faith and has his own personal revelations, but I never felt “preached at.” And the only way Jasnah could be a better diversity character is if she was a black lesbian on top of powerful woman atheist (haha) but she never comes across as a token. She’s just a smart, capable, powerful woman who doesn’t believe in God. If she has some weird conversion that will be a let-down, but only if it’s done in the wrong way (which Brandon won’t do because she’s my favorite character from WoK. Yeah, because those two statements are logically connected . . . haha). Anyway, just wanted to say “Bravo, Brandon” on skillfully navigating what is a complicated issue in writing fiction!

  36. Oraymw- If you want an experience similar to the one you had when you read The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, check out some of L. Frank Baums others in the series. There are quite a few of them. I think Marvelous Land of Oz is the proper sequel. Cheers!

  37. @James: I see your point. I am glad that the writer quickly and clearly corrected my assumption about what he was writing about. My point is that offense is something that turns off a certain subset of readers. Whenever you offend readers, deliberately or otherwise, you are cutting off a certain group of potential customers.

    @Oletta: I’m not saying that writing something from your heart is wrong. What I am saying is that if you novels contain things that are offensive to some readers, then you are going to lose business. While we all want to maintain artistic integrity, if we are in this to make money, then at some point we need to question how much we are willing to estrange our readers.

    My point is that I’m not questioning the artistic quality of Wicked. I am merely pointing out how the offensive content of that book affected its ability to persuade me to buy it. There was at least one (and probably significantly more) people that did not buy the book because of that. And like Howard, I’m just not going to waste my time reading a book that I’m not going to like. There is just too much literature out there competing for my dollar.

    Any author that is considering potentially offensive content needs to keep in mind the way that it is going to affect the perception of their books. The author needs to maintain artistic integrity, while questioning what the offense really contributes to the book.

    Dan is a great example of doing this right, in my book. He could have toned down the violence. He could have removed the supernatural stuff. But he felt that it would not be true to the artistic integrity of his book to remove things that could potentially offend some group of readers.

    I guess my rule of thumb for myself is to use offensive content sparingly and only when it is significant, but to not shy away from writing something that is difficult. The difficult path often leads to something that is more meaningful and true.

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