Contracts

 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?

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About Anna Elliott

Anna Elliott is an author of historical fiction and fantasy. Her first series, the Twilight of Avalon trilogy, is a retelling of the Trystan and Isolde legend. She wrote her second series, the Pride and Prejudice Chronicles, chiefly to satisfy her own curiosity about what might have happened to Elizabeth Bennet, Mr. Darcy, and all the other wonderful cast of characters after the official end of Jane Austen's classic work. She enjoys stories about strong women, and loves exploring the multitude of ways women can find their unique strengths. Anna lives in the Washington DC area with her husband and three children.

Comments

  1. says

    What a thought-provoking post, Anna. There have been lots of times in television when I felt like we as viewers were cheated. Classic example: The final episode of Seinfeld. What an awful way to end what had been such a funny and clever show! There are lots of other shows and movies that have made me say ‘Really? Seriously? That’s what you’re going with?’ I certainly don’t want to do that to my readers and I will keep this post in mind going forward. Thanks!

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  2. says

    I love the Donna Tartt quote, Anna. The last time I recall having the metaphoric rug pulled out from under me was in the first book of George RR Martin’s Song of Ice & Fire series. One of the major characters dies, and at the time I knew there were at least two more doorstop books (and more since then, and still no ending in sight). The good thing about that rug yanking was it made me realize *no one* was ‘safe.’ Which I ended up liking as I read on.

    I agree deaths or jolting twists should have a reason. At least one other character should experience growth or change as a result. And I like the thought of sadness being for catharsis rather than just for shock value. But I suppose that’s open to interpretation by each reader as well.

    I do wonder and worry about this, regarding my own work. I hope others will weigh in on the topic. Thought-provoking, Anna. Thanks.

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    • says

      Exactly, Vaughn. I haven’t read the Game of Thrones books myself, but I thought about using them as an example since I know a main character does die, and from all I hear from most readers, that plot twist actually works. It’s a tricky balance for sure.

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  3. Carmel says

    Is this mostly a dilemma for writers of fantasy/science fiction or a writer who uses dreams? (Bobby Ewing showing up in the shower on Dallas — really?) As a writer of women’s fiction, I always ask myself, “Could this actually happen?” I hadn’t thought about that making my life easier as a writer.

    Your posts are always helpful, Anna — things you say that aren’t even the main point but inspire me and give me good direction. I need to go back and read the posts I haven’t seen to glean more of your insights.

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    • says

      What a sweet comment, Carmel, thank you! So glad if you find anything I say helpful. To answer, I do think this comes up often in fantasy books, since the suspension-of-disbelief element of storytelling is so crucial there. But actually the book I was mentioning (won’t say the title since I try not to criticize other people’s books in public) where I felt completely manipulated and cheated by the main character dying was straight contemporary women’s fiction.

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  4. says

    Anna,
    Terrific post. I would only quibble with one point. I believe the author’s obligation is not to entertain, but to tell a great story. Related to this is the absolute requirement for a writer not to break the fictive dream. The “are you freaking kidding me” moment for me was the scene about 30 pages from the end of The Lovely Bones, which ruined what was an otherwise stellar book for me. I was willing to suspend my disbelief a lot for that premise, but that was too much for me. Thanks again, Anna.

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      • says

        Anna,
        I guess I should have done a better job of explaining what I meant. Certain genres lend themselves to entertainment. I write family sagas. I don’t consider myself an entertainer. My favorite authors are people like Anne Tyler and Alice McDermott. They are exemplary practitioners of the craft but I think both would shudder at the label entertainer. I’m not suggesting I am in their league as a writer but I don’t think the entertainer label applies to all writers and all genres, I hope this clarifies my previous comment. Thanks again, Anna.

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        • says

          I do understand, CG, I think I just define ‘entertainer’ and ‘entertainment’ differently. Probably should have been clearer about that myself! :) Those words are often used in a faintly negative–or at least in a this-doesn’t-have-real-substance–sense: as in, “Just for entertainment’. But that’s not what I mean, and I don’t (though of course I’m not her so don’t know) think that’s what Donna Tartt meant, either. To me, ‘entertain’ is closer to what the ancient Greeks would have used ‘induce ecstasy’ to describe–ecstasy literally means to lift someone out of themselves. Good stories, in my opinion, should always have the capacity to lift us out of ourselves and our own lives. That’s what I really mean when I say that as authors we need to craft stories that entertain.

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  5. says

    I agree with you and all your commenters: an author has a duty to entertain. But that can have a lot of meanings. Maybe you are very devout and a character who prays a lot and calls on God is entertainment. It isn’t for me, whips me right out of a story, but for another it is. Maybe you like hot-and-heavy, totally explicit romance, or streaming blood and gore vampires…yech for me, heaven for you (and in both cases we’re really into “can it really happen?” but that’s where a good writer can make you believe).
    It all boils down, in my mind, to respect, and I can buy the writers of Fringe getting jaded and saying “oh to hell with it, just get him out of the show”. No respect for the viewer, the story, or the characters. Worse, no respect for their craft, and that’s not excusable. I’d like to add to Donna Tartt’s quote by saying you owe it to yourself and your readers to respect your work and what you’ll serve up to your readers.

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    • says

      That’s a really good point, Lee. I like what you say about needing to respect our work–that’s really the foundation of what we owe our readers, isn’t it.

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  6. Deb Boone says

    I thought Donna Tartt’s quote was thought-provoking, but it was clarified it beautifully in one of your comment posts:”Good stories, in my opinion, should always have the capacity to lift us out of ourselves and our own lives.” (Anna Elliott)
    Yes!!! A good story does exactly that–it moves us, it has the power to change us, and often continues to resonate long after we have put it on our ‘keeper’ shelf. Thank you for a good reminder of the “contract”. I’m going to paste that above my computer.

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  7. Lisa Threadgill says

    Anna,

    Very good post, and Donna Tartt’s quote says it well. I am always conscious of the promises I make when I’m writing, because a promise unfulfilled disappoints, and that is something I want to avoid. :)

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    • says

      That’s my feeling, too, Lisa. I think leaving a reader feeling disappointed or cheated is much worse than having a reader simply not care for one of my books.

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  8. says

    One book I read “pulled the rug out” at the end of the story. It was set in the Washington, DC and about a murder in the Supreme Court. All the way through, we got the investigation into whodunit. Then we hit the end of the story, and the murderer is revealed: It was a random killing. The investigation through the entire book promised that it was going to be one of those characters, and then it failed on its promise. It was such a “Are you kidding me?” that I have never read that author again.

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  9. says

    Hi Anna,

    Thanks for the thought-provoking article. What is entertainment?
    I believe it is a subjective term.

    As a reader, it means being able to escape into another world, hopefully one that doesn’t make me cry, but engages my attention and leaves me feeling good with plenty of endorphins zipping along, as if I just savored a hot fudge sundae or played a game of tennis and won. “Wow, that was good!” feeling.

    As an author, when I write a book, I don’t focus on the reader yet (sorry). I focus on if it is interesting and engaging enough for me to spend all that time and effort in writing it, hahaha.
    Then I pass it by my family and friends. If they are entertained by it (laugh, cry, etc.), then I’ve accomplished my goal – to engage their attention and to entertain.

    Since fiction is a subjective art, where different people are “entertained” by different fiction genres (as Lee S. mentioned), it can be perplexing if you think what you wrote is entertaining, and another person may not think so. But that’s all right, I say. Someone might like oatmeal for breakfast, while someone else might like eggs and bacon.

    Everyone is different! That is what we were taught in art class – we all saw the same tree that they were painting, but the artwork that came out of that class was quite varied and different. That is why one author can write on a certain topic and make it morbid and full of death scenes, while another takes the same topic and writes sweet love scenes and happy endings, etc.

    I personally love happy endings.

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    • says

      Patty, I definitely focus on myself as the first reader of my story, too, when I’m writing–I think you have to, in order to really uncover the core of the story you’re trying to tell. Plus there’s that old saying about if no one else likes your book, at least you’ve entertained yourself. :)

      You’re absolutely right, every reader is different and will both bring something different to the table when they read a book and see something different in the story. That’s the magic of reading, really, just as the magic of writing is that every author will tell their own unique tale.

      And I love happy endings, too. :)

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  10. says

    I want to let you know I enjoyed your article on Contracts. I am new at writing for others I published one book. However it is a book about my Grandfathers Notebook. He wrote the notes, short stories, and poems in his own handwriting. I wrote a short history of his life in the front of the book. He was a cowboy in the late 1800s and early 1900s and taught himself how to read and write he was orphaned at age 8. I feel this is his book and not mine. I wanted to publish it for people to realize what he had accomplished in his life, even though most cowboys of that period never learned to read and write. He over came much and still left this legacy behind. His writing is very legible.

    I am just learning how to put my own stories and memoir, into book form and I need all the help I can get. I loved what you said about” if no one else likes your book you have entertained yourself.” I have been entertaining myself for many years and now I want to publish some of my own works. So I really appreciate your advise and your blogs. I love happy ending too.

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    • says

      Your grandfather sounds like an amazing man, and how wonderful that you are sharing his legacy with others! I for one would love to read his story. Best of luck to you in your future projects!

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  11. says

    A contract with the reader certainly is written from your opening lines. It should be honored.

    But.

    Giving your reader exactly what he or she expects, without surprises, is a breach. A story is not a Hershey bar or a line dance at a wedding. Those you expect to be the same every time.

    A story is a story. You expect to be satisfied but you also want be moved and to see things differently. You can’t do that with an utterly familiar formula.

    Only shaking reader expectations, at least a little bit, will fulfill the promise and purpose of a story.

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  12. says

    Great article and it has hit on a raw nerve with me. The one book I, as a reader, felt completely cheated at the end was Piccoults My Sisters Keeper. I know many of your readers love it and I have to say it is the one book that completely divided the book group I was in a the time.

    I am not going to give out spoilers, except to say that we had been taken on this huge emotional journey…will she? won’t she?…and the end was a complete and utter cop out. The rabbit came out of the hat and at that point I threw the book at the wall. I didn’t want a rabbit, I wanted the situation that we had lived through to resolve within the known facts. Certainly shake reader expectations but don’t cheat them.

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    • says

      I haven’t ready any of Piccoult’s books, but I know exactly the kind of thing you mean. I think maybe it works for some readers but not for others–and obviously I’m a fan of being really careful not to outright cheat reader expectations.

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    • says

      MY SISTER’S KEEPER was exactly the book that came to my mind while reading this post. (Also the TV show LOST, but that one’s more by reputation than anything, since I didn’t actually watch it myself.)

      I had mixed feelings about the ending of MY SISTER’S KEEPER, but at the end of the day, I’m with Donald Maass: there’s a line between breaching the contract and providing the unexpected, and the writer needs to stay on the right side of that line, or else you may not have broken the reader’s trust, but you may have disappointed them nonetheless.
      Kristan Hoffman´s last blog post ..A busy weekend

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  13. says

    I think those exact words came out of my mouth when I watched that episode of Fringe…

    Delivering on expectation while not being predictable is a difficult line to walk, but I think this problem is at its worst when an author becomes nervous about where the story is going. They either reach out wildly and end up with something that doesn’t seem to have built organically from what comes before or they look at a choice they’ve made and chicken out and take it back. It’s those disjointed places that make readers feel betrayed. You can talk a reader into pretty much anything if you hold them by the hand and take them step by step.
    Kandace Mavrick´s last blog post ..Don’t Do It. For the Love of God. Save Yourselves.*

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    • says

      Kandace, you make so many really good points here! I really like what you say about the key being to lead the reader step by step. And glad I wasn’t alone in my response to Fringe’s reboot! :)

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  14. says

    I agree 100% with your take on the relationship b/w author/writer. One recent example for me is ‘In The Woods’ by Tana French. It was a long novel to boot. The one expectation was that the main question would be solved of what happened to the kids in the woods. The other wtf moment for me was when the two principles, who I believed would continue in their professional relationship as partners as well as perhaps moving forward with the personal one that was well played with during, ended! Completely floored me. I could go on…

    As far as Olivia and Peter – I was a bit glad they took that route. First of all, I believe that it was a scripting decision made in the context that the relationship felt forced on screen. I don’t think it ever played right, not because of acting, but because of their characters. It came off as: Olivia was with him because it was necessary for her as a human being to just feel grounded and whole etc., which of course is a very natural relationship context in real life, but don’t we know – who want all that reality?? Anyway, besides the fact that I think it was a pure popularity and script decision, I didn’t like them together, it made me ‘cringe at fringe’, and so when he ‘disappeared’ for a while, I was quite alright with it. Just my take.

    Cheerio and all other kinds of cereal connotations cocoa-puffs!!!
    Bree´s last blog post ..Maudlin Melancholy of The Collective

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    • says

      Bree, I have heard that complaint SO often about that book! You are definitely not alone there.

      So I’m guessing you weren’t thrilled by the recent Fringe season finale? ;-)

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