Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Fantasy Sage Speaks: The Contract

So, last week I started talking about the bits and pieces I've picked up on how to keep readers happy.  Since I'm not all that much closer to finishing the current book on the review list (For the Sake of the Future.  It's big. I'm liking it. Hopefully review next week!) I shall now lay down the wisdom on tip number two: The Contract.

You're writing a book.  You are the master of your own world. Inside the realm of your word processor you are a GOD! You are accountable to no one but your own whims and desires. You can make everything precisely the way you like it, take the tale anywhere, make your characters do anything! BWAHAHAHAHAHA!

Hmmm... Well, okay, this is true, sort of. Or I should say, if you strive to be a good (and by good I mean able to satisfy readers) writer, you stuff the part of your mind that's cackling like an evil scientist into the closet, lock it in there, and throw away the key.

See, there is an unspoken, unwritten contract between you and the reader.  You set the tone of this contract by how you begin your story. By the time you've introduced all the characters and laid out the major plot points your readers expect you to follow through on those plot points and keep those characters in character. This is not to say you can't introduce new plot points or that your characters can't change. You can do both, but you have to satisfy the contract with your readers, which means finishing up those original points and doing the work necessary to take the reader along with the character when they change, if you want to keep happy readers.

In the last Fantasy Sage column I wrote about plot, and how JK Rowling did a fantastic job with building her plot so that by the time the last book came out she had a ravening horde of readers ready to jump over the corpses of their friends just to lay hands on the book. (Or maybe that was just me...*whistles innocently*)

Anyway, what she didn't do was fulfill the contract she set with her readers.  By the end of Half Blood Prince, the readers were expecting a good versus evil showdown wrapped around a high quest fantasy and a final clash between Harry and Voldie.  She did give us the final clash: a muddy,convoluted, confusing, and anti-climactic final showdown, but it was indeed there.  The high quest fantasy, in the hands of even a marginally competent fantasy writer (which I think as of that point in time we all assumed she was) should have been an absolute blast. Instead she gave us moping and camping, filled with bad writing, and worse logic. As for the good versus evil showdown, it's just not there. In an effort to make sure there's no clear good or evil, she purposely makes sure that Harry's casting the only magic ever defined as Dark Arts by the middle of the book.

From my own take on the book, and from several critical reviews I agreed with, I'd have to say the issue was by the time Rowling got to Deathly Hallows she wanted to write one thing (a treatise on the acceptance of the inevitability of death) instead of what she told us she was going to write (a good versus evil battle to the end).  Her part of the contract was not fulfilled, and, though kids still love Harry Potter, she lost a lot of the grown-ups with that book.

Another great example of I-promised-to-write-you-something-and-decided-to-write-something-else-altogether is The His Dark Materials series by Philip Pullman. The first two books were great, but by the time he got 'round to book three he forgot he'd set up an epic clash of faith versus science and decided that introducing a completely new plot point involving unicycling mutant elephants (at least that's how I pictured them) was in order.

Result: unhappy readers.

So my author friends, how do we work with this? How do we not make the same mistakes? Well, if you took the advice of the first column and figured out your plot before you started writing (or at the very least, before you published), you've probably got half the battle taken care of.

Keep that plot in line. If you go astray, and you certainly may decide to do so, give it a really, really careful look, especially if you've already published books in the series. And if you do go astray, wrap up the loose points, no matter what. And do them proper justice. Just because you've gotten bored with the your original set up does not mean your readers have. They want to see the action.  Single biggest complaint about The Amber Spyglass: the big battle everyone was waiting for happens off-screen.

Here's the other advantage of keeping your plot in line: if you do a good job plot wrangling, you're much less likely to find yourself in a situation where you have to dumb down your characters, make them start doing things they wouldn't ordinarily do, or mucking about with them in any other way.  Readers will often forgive a wonky plot. They rarely forgive having a favorite character lobotomized and turned into an idiot puppet by the author.  The most recent example I can think of for this is Dragons of the Hourglass Mage, where for reasons that I can only assume rhyme with honey, Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman decided to resurrect Raistlin, yet again, took the story back twenty years, and tried to fill in a part of Dragons of Spring Dawning that had been kept silent.

And they bombed at it. If, when they wrote Spring Dawning, they had any idea of how Raistlin got to where he was, it was pretty obvious that by the time they wrote Hourglass Mage they had forgotten it. So they started from scratch, apparently deciding that the fans wanted a new, softer, less-sarcastic version of Rasitlin, and they killed his character.

Once again this resulted in unhappy fans.

So, be careful with your set up, be aware of the promises you are making your readers, and fulfill them.  If you're lucky enough to have fans who review your books and discuss them, pay attention to what your fans are expecting. Sure, you don't have to give them what they want, but if you know what they expect, what they think you've promised to tell them, you can do a much better job of keeping them happy.

If you find yourself in love with a totally cool idea, write it down, play with it, but if it doesn't fulfill your contract to your readers, put it in the drawer for the next series. There's always time to write new books with new adventures and new promises later on down the line. Once again, it's much easier to get a happy fan to go and buy that new book and new adventure than it is to woo one back later who you annoyed when you didn't tell him the story you said you would.

Other Fantasy Sage Posts: Magic, Plot, Power Balance


  1. Keryl, great post and a truth that a lot of writers miss. I did myself until someone pointed it out to me--rather indignantly because I had BROKEN that contract.

    Those promises are very important and one serious mistake is not to even realise we've made them.

  2. I certainly agree with you on the principle. I don't think Harry Potter qualifies, though. Even though much of the rising action in Deathly Hallows was meandering, we did in the end get the climatic duel, and I, with a few nitpicks, liked it.
    The example that comes to mind for me is Shashi Tharoor's "Great Indian Novel." The book is an interpretation of 20th century Indian politics through the lens of the Mahabharata, with Nheru, Bose, Indira Ghandi etc as characters in the epic. Then, on page 4andfreakin'18, Tharoor springs on the reader that interpreting 20th century Indian politics through the lens of the Mahabharata is wrong because India is a multicultural society. He snapped the contact in two. It filled me with a sense of betrayal and being swindled.

  3. @Dave*, Yikes! Yeah, that's just not cool at all. Do you think it was an intentional 'screw you' type of thing, or was this just sloppy writing?

    As for DH... I liked it when I finished reading it. And I don't hate it. But I do feel like she set up one story and wrote the absolute minimum necessary to satisfy that story. From my read on it, the contract break was as much the story as having turned her characters into cardboard cut outs of themselves. And because I'm a fantasy wonk, the epic fail on her magical system (which was already awfully shaky) was the bullet to the back of the head of a terminal story.

    @J.R. This is something I've been debating about a lot lately. I'm hoping the current direction I'm going isn't a huge break with the book I just wrote. That'll be the main question for the beta readers. Which is why I love the beta readers, I can ask them things like that!