Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Cheating the Reader

by Annette Lyon

Imagine a story that leads, slowly and inevitably, toward the final climactic battle. The tension is building. The stakes are high. The bad guys are on their way.

The battle arrives.

Your protagonist takes a back seat and watches most of it. He's worried and afraid, but not really participating.

That is, until a critical moment, when all might be lost. The hero steps in, knowing he might well die as he acts to save the day.

In the end, the battle is won.

But the reader then learns that the action the hero took was not only unnecessary to the victory, but actually made the winning side worse off and victory harder to come by.

Feel a bit cheated? Thought so.

When you put together a story, you're making a silent contract with your readers. Their obligation is to suspend their disbelief enough to give you a chance to tell a great story.

Your obligation as the writer is to do your best to carry out a story that's satisfying. That doesn't mean every reader will like your work. Hardly. But it does mean that you can't promise to give your readers one thing going in and then deliver something else.

It means that if you're building up to a climactic battle, the battle should be, well, climactic.

It means that your hero or heroine should be in the thick of things, taking part, and not on the sidelines observing and reacting.

It means that if the hero is willing to sacrifice everything, including his very life, his sacrifice needs to make a difference, have some significance to the story.

Now if your story is of the Thomas Hardy variety, your reader will know to expect a dark story with tragedy in it. So if the hero's sacrifice means nothing, that might actually work. But if you've done your part right, your reader will know pretty early on not to expect a Disney ending.

The battle example above is from an actual book that's part of a series, from a book several into the series. The author had made a very clear contract with the reader on what to expect with the previous books.

This ending wasn't what the writer had promised previously. Instead, I, at least, finished the book with a sense of disappointment and unease. Of irritation that I'd been brought through hundreds of pages for this.

The traditional hero story is one where the hero prevails, makes a difference, grows, and returns triumphant. If you're going to break those expectations, that's fine. Just be sure your readers know that going in.

For example, if you're calling your book a romance, then the hero and heroine must get together in the end. (If they don't get together, again, that's fine. That's a legitimate storyline. But you shouldn't call it a romance.)

If you're calling your novel a mystery, then the murderer better be revealed before the last page. (If the detective ends up being the last victim and the reader closes the cover without knowing his identity, you haven't written a mystery.)

As Chekov reportedly said, if you show a gun on the mantel in Act I, it had better go off before the end of Act III.

Don't want anyone getting shot? Don't put the gun on the mantel.

Don't build up to a big fight if you're going to let it fizzle out before it gets started. Don't have your hero observe the climax; make him participate. Don't set up a huge issue that your hero will face . . . but then have it turn out to be nothing after all.

Know what you're promising your readers and don't cheat them.

You want them buying your next book, not throwing this one against the wall in frustration.

1 comment:

melissa c said...

I like this advice. I noticed with the book I wrote that I ha a few different story lines that went along with the main story line. It's hard to tie it all together before the end of the book without making the book last forever.

Obviously, it's my first book but as I sit here and think about it, I could have done a few things differently. I think I'll go back and tie it all together better.