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November 12, 2013

Handling Readers: Expectations and Disappointments

Angry bear with text: When Readers Get Angry

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.

Lessons Learned:

  • 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.

Lessons Learned:

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?

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What do you think?

36 Comments on "Handling Readers: Expectations and Disappointments"

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Serena Yung
Serena Yung
Darn it. I was going to read Allegiant soon. 🙁 I think I’ll still like the series though, no matter how it ends. I was going to watch Ender’s Game later too, though I haven’t yet read the book. Yes, it’s very annoying when we raise expectations that we don’t realize, and it can be irritating to the author that he or she can’t do certain things for fear of generating unwanted expectations, because we want the freedom to experiment, though we do understand why the readers would feel that way. There’s also the problem of different readers interpreting the same thing differently and therefore expecting different things, lol. But as you said, you won’t be able to please everyone, so we’ll just have to try our best to meet expectations in the story. For one of my novellas, one friend said she had high expectations for the ending and feared that her expectations wouldn’t be met, but they were. :D. So she was happy. On the other hand, another friend was disappointed with my story because it didn’t meet HER expectations. XD. One size cannot fit all. But in this case, fortunately, I think I can change it to satisfy both of these friends. But it’s not always the case that we can satisfy more people by adjusting things like this, lol. Ah the problem with holding opinions that the reader doesn’t like…eek. There’s the delicate balance of wanting to be honest yet not wanting to make the readers… Read more »
Davonne Burns

This is actually something I’ve worried over greatly with my science fiction series. I’m very hesitant to label it YA since the themes are much darker and the action more explicitly violent than any YA I’ve read. I’m afraid that labeling it YA will lead to certain expectations such as a romance or other popular YA tropes. I don’t want to mislead people into thinking this is a light fun read. Hunger Games was light in comparison.

The ending is not what most people expect and I’ve had quite a few people very upset with me over it. But, I’m not changing the ending. It has to end that way for the series to go forward. I foreshadowed it from the very first chapter and throughout the book.

In all honestly I write to please myself first and foremost. If other people like what I write that is awesome, if not it’s not my problem. I’m not going to be upset with them or try to convince them why they should like my novel.

I didn’t care for Divergent and won’t be reading the rest of the series. Ender’s Game is on my list of Top Ten All Time Favorites and even though I myself am a bi-sexual I don’t care what Card thinks. I still like his books and think he’s an exceptional writer. His opinion of me doesn’t change my opinion of his books. 🙂

Juli Page Morgan
My daughter loved the first two books in Veronica Roth’s Divergent series, and was one of those who couldn’t wait to get a copy of Allegiant. When her husband surprised her by buying the book, she shut herself up in her bedroom and went on a reading marathon! I called her the next day to see how she liked it, and was surprised when she said it disappointed her more than any book she’d read. I had read Divergent on her recommendation, but it just wasn’t for me, you know? So I had my daughter tell me what happened in Allegiant since I wasn’t worried about knowing the ending. I must admit I had a “Whoa, really?” reaction, but as a writer, I realize that a story goes the way it wants to go, no matter how shocking it might be. My daughter understands that to a certain extent after listening to me go on about my own books (and bless her heart, she deserves a medal for that! LOL) so I was curious as to why Allegiant disappointed her so much. She told me that she felt she had been led a certain way throughout the first two books, only to have the rug yanked out from under her in Allegiant. It’s not that she wanted a pat ending, one she could have seen coming from, say, the middle of book two. But she felt the ending of Allegiant was done solely for shock value and sensationalism. She brought… Read more »
Kathryn Jankowski

The issue of reader expectations is one I’ve discussed with my editor. I don’t have a happily-ever-after ending, though I do make it clear there’s room for hope in the book(s) to follow. So, it’s very important to approach my story with a very keen eye for not building expectations that will be dashed and lead to reader disappointment.

I’ve read DIVERGENT but nothing more. It might be interesting to read the trilogy and see what–if anything–was misleading.

Taurean Watkins
I haven’t been following either author example in the post above, but the internet being the internet, you can’t help but see some pieces of the outcry… While I can’t comment too much on the Roth situation (As I’ve never read the series, but I remember the HUGE buzz when the first book came out) I will say I never thought it was (Primarily) a romance, as while I haven’t read the series, I know from the blurbs on the book, and (Since we count covers that the author may or MAY NOT have had say in) they didn’t scream “Romance” to me, either. I can’t speak to OSC, because aside from not having read him, I have more personal things regarding his demeanor and some of his views (Beyond the obvious) and I don’t want to get caught in the drama however tangentially. As far as the movie of “Ender’s Game” goes, I don’t get the angst regarding that, it was (And continues to be) a popular book, in spite of the movie, no different than “The Book Thief” being a popular book in spite of how the film version goes down. I hope good for the author and fans, but we still have the book. I can understand a reader’s mixed feelings when an author who may have politics (BEYOND raw government) that clash with yours but still wrote a book you LOVED. But I do feel fans take that WAY TOO FAR sometimes. Authors aren’t the only… Read more »
Carradee
With Orson Scott Card, there’s some added drama in there because he’s regularly quoted out of context, so that people in general read something other than what he actually said. (Example: He’ll engage in “What if…?” extrapolations from reality—which is part and parcel of being a sci-fi/fantasy writer—and he’ll be quoted on the extrapolation as if that’s what he actually believes will happen, without the context of “This could happen”—which is all he’s saying to begin with. Or the quoter will omit significant phrases or clauses that completely change the tone.) A lot of sci-fi and fantasy authors are Mormon. I frankly respect that OSC willing to stand for what he believes—which, from what I’ve seen, is something he brings up in theological essays. I’ve read a lot of his fiction, and none that I’ve read has been hateful or cruel to those with different stands than he has. If you’re not interested in what an author believes or don’t want the author to disagree with you, why would you check out their theological essays or personal blog? *scratches head* I fully expect authors I read to hold perspectives that I disagree with or find offensive. As long as the author doesn’t attempt to shove those things down my throat, I don’t care. Some things, if I encounter them, will cause me to avoid your work, but that’s because they’re hot buttons for me. I’m aware they’re hot buttons, and I do my best to avoid situations wherein I’ll get… Read more »
Carradee

Just an update, years down the road: My mother’s family allegedly wanted her to abort me. I don’t know if that was true. My mother “did fine” in the sense that my origins were irrelevant to how she treated me.

And, now that I’ve read Allegiant, I do believe the complaints stem from the series getting branded with the incorrect genre.

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