By Hannah Krynicki
Have you ever experienced the Wince Factor?
It goes like this: One evening you are enjoying a new “family” movie with younger friends or siblings, chuckling at the jokes and sobbing at the tragic moments (and, as a writer, probably analyzing every element of the story). All at once, a jarring image flashes before you and the younger children. Mortified, you snatch the controller, but it’s too late. The kids around you have already witnessed that gratuitous bit of evil, and as the oldest person present, you feel responsible. For the next week, you shudder every time you think of it. I call this infamous image “the Wince Factor.”
Now here is a pretty puzzle: not all Wince Factors are bad. You’ve seen the good ones. A well-placed Wince Factor can bring a sense of credibility to your story and keep your readers on the edge, wondering just how the characters will deal with this. The bad Wince Factors, however, have the biggest reputation. Most are so dreadful because the guardians, especially parents, are trusted with the job of protecting young hearts. When the bad Wince Factors turn up, they feel as if they have failed.
Director Peter Jackson once joked that while working out fantasy action sequences, “You actually turn into a psychopath.” That’s probably the great fear of every Christian writer. No one wants to be remembered as the psychopath who wrote junky gore and wrapped it up with a bow labeled “Young Adult.” All of us must come to grips and to terms with questions about darkness and gore.
How much is too much? Should I use the Wince Factor or not?
As a writer of YA fantasy, I know just how true this is. My latest WIP is a war story, inspired by the history of Richard III of England, and it’s rife with battles and tragedy. Some of my other works deal with dark magic and its ramifications. As if that is not enough pressure, I have nine younger beta-readers siblings who read and/or hear every word I write. I’ve wrestled with this question and come up with two guidelines for mature content and pretty much anything else in writing: Purpose and Edification.
I must ask myself why I am putting something dark or violent in a particular story. Does it move the plot along, give us an accurate picture of the setting, help with characterization, or do anything useful at all?
For example, recently I told my sister (I call her Dr. Encyclopedia) that I was contemplating killing a main character. You can imagine her excitement. She said that it was a wonderful idea, hurrying on to list poison, swords, or daggers as possible demises. People would never see that one coming.
I was hesitant. One of the first rules of scene-writing is to have a purpose for each and every component of the story, and I told Dr. Encyclopedia so. Everything must have a reason.
“If I am putting in a Wince Factor just to keep the audience from falling asleep and add some “kaboom,” chances are that my style, not my story, is the part that needs renovation.”
Likewise, if the Wince Factor is the best tool to accomplish an important task, such as forcing a lazy hero-to-be to man-up and take action, maybe it can stay after all. Think of the term “inciting incident.” Remember Star Wars, Eragon, and all those other hero-quest stories? Without the first Wince Factor—losing their families—the young protagonists may never have started their journeys.
Now we come to the second criterion:
When I decide that my Wince Factor of choice is essential to the story, I face the second problem: how much shall I describe?
In my first full novel, Son of Ren, I was tasked with the peculiar challenge of writing a scene in which one major character kills another, and I had to keep it appropriate for kids 10+. I had read many books in many genres, and I already knew that the content really depends on the audience. Teenagers can handle more violence or darkness than younger kids, and adults can handle more than teens. That’s why students wait until high school to read The Grapes of Wrath and The Great Gatsby.
I have a basic rule for everything I read, write, and watch: If it does more good than harm, it can stay. In writing, this means that the darkness or gore shouldn’t bother the readers so much that the benefits of a good story are lost on them. Writing is meant to edify, not tear down. Andrew Klavan’s teen sci-fi Mindwar is a great example: the Wince Factors have just enough detail to keep things interesting and teach a good moral, but they don’t terrify most readers over the age of twelve. Sometimes the most powerful way to tell a story is to show darkness for what it is or to let a main character get knocked around. Analyze the pros and cons, step into the audience’s shoes, and rewrite if necessary. Hey, worst case scenario, you can always change your intended audience to older readers who can get more out of the story.
Your writing doesn’t have to be as graphic as a Mel Gibson film to create realism, depth, or drama. Readers can still love your ninja-elves, even if you don’t describe every sweeping stroke of their blade. Baddies can still be terrifying, even if you don’t let your audience see their methods of torture. The key to writing well is (news flash) good writing. Master the craft of stringing words together just like Dickens, Austen, or any other classical writer, and like them, you won’t need to frighten the audience to keep their attention. On the other hand, a juicy Wince Factor may be just the right tool to breathe life into your work.
Wince Factors, like money, art, and all other inanimate tools, are not automatically good or bad. They can bring life to your work or terrify the life out of your reader. They can teach valuable lessons or give nightmares.
Use them wisely.
Hannah Krynicki has been a storyteller since she first learned to talk, and she fine-tuned the craft over many more years of story-making. Her debut novel is Son of Ren. When this INTJ is not mapping the kingdoms and fighting the wars of her fantasy worlds, she bakes ridiculously large batches of cookies, reads Tolkien, and directs family remakes of her favorite movies. She lives with her wonderful parents and younger siblings in DFW, Texas.