Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The One Hard-and-Fast Rule of Writing and How NOT to Break It

Okay, this subject has been percolating in my mind for a little over a week now. I started thinking about it mostly because I was angry about something that happened on one of my favorite TV shows. It was one of those things where they killed off a character (and hence a story line) that I really didn't want them to kill off. I was so angry! And of course, that was mostly personal preference. I simply didn't appreciate where they went with it. And that's just how it goes sometimes.

But, the more I thought about it, the more angry I became. Not just because of where they went with the plot, but because of everything that came before. They broke the one cardinal rule of writing that, as far as I'm concerned, ALWAYS applies.

“There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”--W. Somerset Maughham
So what are the "rules" of writing. As the quote above says, there really aren't any. There are plenty of established and well-respected "rules" in writing, but as our Disney pirate friends are known to say, "They're really more like guidelines anyway." With pretty much any "rule", you'll find a story--be it a book, short story, film, or TV show--that has broken that rule and been better for it. Let's face it: it's art. You always make it your own. Some things work, other things don't. We all know all of this.

But.

There is one rule I feel always applies. Never betray your readers' (audience's) trust. Now, that may sound like a no-brainer, but writers do it way more often than you might think. How, you might ask? By setting up certain expectations, and then failing to deliver on them.

 
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Most people like plot twists, assuming they are well done. They like a story that takes them by surprise, and there's nothing wrong with that. We all enjoy a great plot twist. (As a writer, I usually see the twists coming, because I can see how the story is being crafted. It's always a pleasant surprise for me to...be surprised.) But there's a huge difference between throwing an awesome twist into the mix, and not delivering on foreshadowed promises.

Let me illustrate.


Example #1: One major example of this on TV is when you have these high school dramas that are based all around YA romance (think 90210, One Tree Hill, Dawson's Creek, Vampire Diaries). They always start the series out moving toward getting the main couple together. Usually they're both dating other people, but they get together within the first season. Then, to extend the series, there's drama, and they date other people or have other obstacles to their relationship. But the audience always knows who is meant to be together in the world of the series. Then, if in the end of the series, they don't end up together, the audience is disappointed. But, more than that, they feel betrayed. Now, more often than not when this happens on TV, it's because one of the main characters (the actor playing them) leaves the show, or there's a scheduling conflict. Something like that. And it really sucks because it has nothing to do with the story, but with an outside technicality. Yeah, total suckage.

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Example #2: A bookish example of this is the Millenium trilogy. (Book 1 is The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.) Now, I've ranted about this series before, so for those who have already heard me gripe about it, my apologies. Bear with me. So the first book in this trilogy had a great whodunit mystery in it that I thoroughly enjoyed. The second two books went downhill quickly, though. They weren't well-written. At all. And the characters had few, if any, redeeming qualities, which made them hard to stick with. But, I stuck with them because of an unspoken promise the author had made: that the two main characters, Lisbeth and Bloomkvist, would eventually end up together. I just kept thinking that if the ending was handled well--if it was really sweet or just really compelling--that it would all be worth it. Yeah, not so much. As an author myself, I could actually identify the point, about fifty pages before the end of the trilogy in book 3, where the author simply changed his mind. He introduced a woman--a new character the audience didn't know, care about, or was invested in--and married Bloomkvist to her. Lisbeth ends the series alone and lonely. Yeah, I threw that book against the wall and have been posting angry tirades about it ever since. DON'T DO THIS TO YOUR AUDIENCE!!!

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Example #3: Now, let's look at a slightly different angle to illustrate the flip side of things. The Princess Bride. I've only seen the film, but everyone's pretty familiar with that one, right? There are two main plots in the film. The major plot is, of course, the romance of Westley and Buttercup. The major subplot has to do with Inigo searching for revenge for the death of his father. Now, despite the fact that it's a subplot, Inigo's story is actually the more powerful one. The most satisfying scene in that movie is where he gets to confront Count Rugen and finally get revenge (really  justice) for his father's murder. Think about that. There is not a single twist that happens in that whole subplot. There not anything surprising, or unexpected. So why is it such a powerful story, that everyone loves and looks forward to? Because the writers set us up for it. Completely. Near the beginning of the film, not long after we first meet Inigo, he tells Westley all about who he is. We learn what happened to his father when he was a child, how he's dedicated his life to vengeance, about the Six-Fingered Man, the phrase he's practiced every day for twenty years, how passionate he is about it, and how it's defined him as a human being. Immediately we are rooting for his success. And to see him get it is beyond satisfying. If Rugen had killed him, or he simply hadn't gotten the chance to confront his father's killer, or someone else had killed Rugen first, it wouldn't have been the same story. In fact, everyone would probably have hated it.

This is what I'm saying. Tell your story however you want. If you don't want to deal with romance, or don't want a certain plot twist to happen, fine. It's your story. Don't let anyone tell you how to write it. But don't set your audience's expectations up and fail to deliver. This betrays their trust and they will no longer read your books, watch your show, or see your films.

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This is what happened with this T.V. show. And why did they do it? For one, because they could. It's probably the biggest show in the world and if they alienate a few million viewers over this, it's not going to put much of a dent in their ratings. Just a douchy thing to do all around. I mean, you're the head writer/show runner of the biggest show on TV and this is what you chose to do with a gift like that? Secondly, the show prides themselves on killing off the characters everyone loves the most. It's a shock-effect. If it was just that, I might be okay with it, but the writer flat out said he didn't want to "deal with romance" on the show. So I go back to, then why did you set us up for it?

There's a lot of anger on the web about this, and I guarantee they're going to lose a lot of viewers over this. And like I said, it won't really affect the future of the show, but still. Everyone should learn from the situation. Don't betray your audience like this. Write your story however you want, but if you set it up a certain way, make sure and deliver. Your audience is a gift. Don't abuse their trust.

How do you feel about this debate? Do you think writers have the right to do this to their audience?

4 comments :

  1. Sure they have the "right". But it's not good writing, and it'll almost always lose the interest and trust of the audience.

    Really curious now- which TV show are you talking about?

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    1. Agreed. You're right: it's a free country so they have the right to do whatever they want, but as a writer, it outrages me because it's just messing with the trust of your audience, like you said. The show is The Walking Dead, and there's a lot of anger over their mid-season finale right now. Thanks for stopping by, Caitlin! :D

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  2. I'm pretty sure I know exactly what show you're talking about - I've been seeing outrage all over the web. That the writers didn't want to deal with a romance is just a terrible reason to kill a character off, no question about it. I believe writers have the right to do what they want, but they're betraying their audience when they make a move like that. And it's just lazy. :/

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    1. I totally agree! Ultimate laziness. I've been reading a lot of theories online about how they might bring her back. Though I don't want to get my hopes up because chances are that isn't true and I"ll just be disappointed, they DO make some really interesting points. It would be kind of awesome if the whole thing is just a hoax the writers (and actors and everyone else who's in on it) are playing on the fandom, though I seriously doubt it. If that does turn out to be the case, I'll have to eat my words. And this post. Thanks so much for stopping by, Jennifer! :D

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