There’s a lot of talk in the writing/publishing world about contracts. Author/Agent contracts, publisher’s contracts, advances, foreign rights, non-exclusivity clauses. But those aren’t actually the kind of contracts I wanted to talk about today. I want to talk about the most basic contract of all in the writing business–and it’s not one you sign in triplicate after getting a lawyer’s advice. It’s the fundamental, unwritten and unspoken contract between you as an author and your readers.
I have pages and pages of favorite quotes on writing. But my favorite of all, the one I come back to time and again when I struggle or find myself slogging to put words on the page is this one from Donna Tartt: “The first duty of the novelist is to entertain. It is a moral duty. People who read your books are sick, sad, traveling, in the hospital waiting room while someone is dying. Books are written by the alone for the alone.”
That, for me, perfectly sums up the essence of the unspoken contract between author and reader. Readers are trusting you to entertain them to the best of your ability. And I think it’s our job as authors to work hard to never violate that trust. So what does that mean?
In writing this post, I was struggling to answer that very question. Because never violating a reader’s trust doesn’t mean never challenging your readers or taking your story in a direction that surprises them. What I finally decided is that it means that as an author you never make the reader promises–either overt or implied–that you don’t fulfill. If you’re writing a category romance novel, your readers–99.9% of them, anyway–are going to expect a happy ending. They’re going to feel betrayed if you don’t give them one. In that case, just the selection of genre in itself is in a way a strong promise to the readers.
But what about in grayer, less clearly-defined areas? I think in essence fulfilling your part of the author/reader contract means that the storytelling choices you make should be for strong, solidly-grounded reasons. You never make the reader feel as though the rug has been yanked out from under their feet for no good purpose. Basically, at no point should your story make the reader want to scream, Are you freaking kidding me??
I’ll give you an example–as long as I’m on a roll from my last month’s post of TV-show critiquing–does anyone out there watch Fringe on Fox? To summarize quickly for those who do not: For three years, viewers followed the will-they-won’t-they relationship of Peter and Olivia, the show’s two leads. Finally, towards the end of the third season, the two of them declared their love for each other and became a couple. (In, I might add, one of my favorite tv show episodes ever). Then at the end of Season 3, Peter abruptly disappeared. Not as in went missing, simply blinked out of existence, having been ‘erased from the timeline’. He (in a somewhat sketchily explained manner) returned at the beginning of this season, season 4. But no one–Olivia included–had any memories of ever having known him.
Now other Fringe fans can feel free to disagree, but that, for me, was a perfect example of an “Are you freaking kidding me?” moment in storytelling. We spend 3 years watching relationships evolve–not just Peter and Olivia’s, but Peter and everyone else’s on the show. Only to have the writers abruptly hit the ‘reboot’ button and send us all straight back to square one.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the show ratings hit an all-time low this past year. I think viewers felt as though they had had the rug yanked out from under them. As though the journey they had invested in up until that point had been rendered suddenly meaningless. The fundamental writer/reader (or in this case viewer) contract had been broken, leaving viewers wary of trusting the show again. After all, why invest in Peter and Olivia and the rest of the cast (agonizingly slowly–it took almost the whole season) building back up what was lost, when the writers might well decide to simply hit the ‘reboot’ button and yank the carpet out from under us all over again?
(For the record I have liked many of the episodes this season–and yay for a miraculous, if sadly short and final season 5!–I’m just saying that I don’t think that particular storytelling choice served an otherwise excellent show very well).
I can think of other examples. I remember reading a very popular book and being outraged to discover that the main character dies 2/3 of the way through. It’s a tricky issue, of course–because in every story, bad things happen, characters do die. And as authors we’re doing our stories and our characters a huge disservice if we try to protect our characters from harm and allow nothing bad to touch them. But what I think it comes down to is that readers need to feel satisfied, not cheated, by your storytelling choices, even when bad things do happen. If your story makes them cry, they should be crying cathartic tears–not ones of frustration or outrage. Hold sacred the promises you make to readers, and remember the contract. It’s not a written one, but it may be the most crucial of your career.
What about you? Can you think of instances where you felt like your trust as a reader/viewer was violated? Or am I completely off base with all of this? Do you like having the rug metaphorically yanked out from underneath your feet?