Most of us suffer from self-doubt in some way. Those of us doing NaNoWriMo might have reached a point in our story where events aren’t playing out as cool as they seemed in our head. Or maybe NaNo’s going great, but we’re not sure we can keep up the quality.
In our blogs, we worry about writing “duds” that will lead to mass unsubscriptions. If we’ve successfully written one book, we worry about being able to repeat the feat. If we’ve released a popular story, we worry the next one will disappoint readers.
I’ve talked before about how success raises the stakes. Two stories in the news lately reiterate the dangers of reader expectations.
The release of Allegiant by Veronica Roth led to protests and anger from some disappointed readers. The release of the movie Ender’s Game based on the book by Orson Scott Card led to protests and boycotts by some people.
Events like these can flame our feelings of self-doubt. As a post (no longer online) by Tessa Gratton shared:
“I can’t stop myself from disappointing people. Not only because that’s the nature of writing and story-telling, but because I’m opinionated and political and loud. If you ask me what I think about something I will probably tell you.”
She’s right. We will disappoint some readers at some time. Whether we’re at the contesting, querying, submission, or published stage, we know that writing and reading enjoyment are subjective.
Every great story out there has one-star reviews. Many movies that critics love, viewers hate (and vice versa). We can’t please everyone.
That can be a depressing thought. Or we can accept it as a fact and shrug and move on. However, I also like digging into examples to figure out if any lessons can be learned.
Lessons from Allegiant
Note: I have not yet read Allegiant, so I’m speaking merely of the reaction to the book, not anything about the story itself. Given all the discussion, I’ve been spoiled about the ending, but I won’t reveal specifics here.
Allegiant is the final book of the Divergent series. Series are always tricky to wrap up. Stand-alone stories need to wrap up a book’s worth of loose ends, hints, expectations, themes, bad guys, subplots, possibilities, etc. That’s hard enough as it is, but series often have to wrap up many books’ worth of loose ends.
A Mismatch between Expectations and Reality
In the case of Allegiant, many readers’ reactions to the book seem to be a mismatch between expectations and reality. Many readers expected an X type of ending for the series, and the story instead delivered a Y type of ending.
I read an article by the author on why the story ended the way it did (which was planned from the beginning). She made a clear case for how the ending fit the character arc and themes she wanted to explore.
So where did things go wrong? Did she succeed in hinting enough at the path of that arc through the series? Did she focus on that theme over the other themes? Or did unintended character interactions or themes emerge that misled reader expectations?
Expectations from Unintended Themes
As I haven’t read the book, I don’t know enough about where things might have gone wrong. However, in many cases like this, unintended themes are partially to blame. We often don’t realize all the themes we’re hinting at in our stories.
If a series seems to have a recurrent theme of hope, a reader would expect it to end on a hopeful note. Or if a book seems to focus on the power of love, a reader would expect it to incorporate a “love is stronger than anything” ending.
These subtextual promises can be tricky to fulfill, especially if the author doesn’t know they’ve created them. Or maybe the author thinks they fulfilled the promise, but maybe they didn’t fulfill it enough for readers. One person’s bittersweet “hopeful” can be another person’s “depressing.”
Expectations from Genre Labels
Sometimes, marketing decisions can cause problems for an author’s intentions. From what I’ve been able to see, Allegiant was marketed and labeled “Young Adult Romance.”
That label leads to definite reader expectations. A story that ends satisfyingly—but not “fairy tale happily-ever-after” or at least “happily-for-now”—should not be labeled a romance unless disappointed readers is the goal.
Nicholas Sparks doesn’t call his cancer-patient-falling-in-love-before-dying stories romances. He calls them love stories. (Which is partially intended as a dig against romances, but I won’t go there. *grin*) That’s the right call for the marketing of his stories. By using a romance label, the marketing people behind Allegiant set expectations among readers—expectations that might not be met.
- Use beta readers and ask questions. Like I mentioned in my post last week about reader-character connections, we can ask our beta readers what they thought the story was about, or what the message of the story was. We can write up our themes and big ideas and ask our readers (post-reading) if they picked up on those or if they thought the story was about a different idea.
- Be careful with our marketing. Our covers, back-cover blurbs, and story openings all contribute to expectations for the type of story. In the case of genre stories, the label implies an ending as well.
Lessons from Ender’s Game
The book Ender’s Game is a classic science fiction story. Many, many readers loved the book. (I count myself among them.) The fact that the huge twist ending has managed to be unspoiled in the general consciousness for close to thirty years is a testament to how much the readers respected the story.
Respect. That’s really the issue behind the protests of the movie.
Orson Scott Card has come out strongly against gays and LGBT issues in general. Many readers feel differently, and they have a hard time balancing their love of the story with their dislike of the author’s beliefs.
Those readers who disagree with his stand (which goes beyond words and into time, money, and effort) feel disrespected. They’ve lost trust in the connection they felt with him for writing one of their favorite stories. His stand hurt people.
The Power of the Author-Reader Connection
This isn’t about whether his stand is right or wrong. This isn’t about the right of people to take a stand. This isn’t about anyone’s right to disagree. However, it is about the power we authors have with those connections we form with readers and the damage that can occur within that connection.
Like the readers’ reactions to Allegiant, people’s reactions to Orson Scott Card comes down to what artists owe their audience and what the audience owes artists. That can be a tricky question.
I don’t think Veronica Roth owed her readers a happy-joy ending, and I don’t think her readers owed her a happy-joy reaction to an ending many didn’t find satisfying. Likewise, I don’t think Orson Scott Card owed his readers a renouncing of his beliefs, and I don’t think his readers owed him acceptance despite their differing beliefs.
Honesty, Integrity, and Compassion
Tessa Gratton’s post summed up these issues well:
“I believe the only thing I, as an author, owe readers is what I also owe to myself: honesty, integrity, and compassion. And the only thing readers owe me is the same. …
Books are real. I can destroy the world – and aliens – and readers – with only my imagination. And that’s power. That’s responsibility.”
She doesn’t have an answer to this issue and neither do I. Many feel Orson Scott Card’s stand lacks compassion, but if he renounced his beliefs now, many would suspect he was being dishonest. On the other side, I’ve seen some imply they’re boycotting the movie not because of their integrity, but because it’s the trendy thing to do. Three approaches, three problems.
If I refused to consume a product every time I disagreed with an artist or company, I probably wouldn’t have anything to eat, wear, live in, or do. *smile* But there are times when we feel passionate enough about something that we want to take a stand.
Maybe the best we can do is ensure that whenever we take a stand, whether we’re on the artist side or the audience side, we’re taking that stand with honesty, integrity, and compassion. We can disagree with others and still be respectful.
All We Can Do Is Our Best—and That’s Not Something to Doubt
We can’t avoid disappointing people. The world is filled with individuals with unique goals, desires, and beliefs, and we can’t be all things to all people.
However, if we’re honest with our marketing, readers’ expectations will be a better match. If we maintain integrity with our story, the pieces will better add up to the whole we intend. And if we have compassion with our readers, we’re less likely to damage that connection.
All of those added together mean we’re doing the best we can. And that’s all we should expect from ourselves—no matter what our self-doubt says. *smile*
Have you followed the Allegiant or Orson Scott Card debates? Do you think the authors could have acted differently to avoid the issues? What do you think authors owe readers? What do you think readers owe authors?Pin It