Tuesday, November 10, 2009

What Do We Owe Readers?

I've been thinking about this "What do we owe readers?" business for a little while, and while I think Chris more or less summed up my feelings on the matter, I've got a bit to add.

I think we owe readers what we promise them. A story makes promises early and often and what we owe our readers is to follow through on those implied promises. And that's pretty much it.

The cover art makes a promise, as does the blurb on the dust jacket or the back of the book and whatever author quotes might be found. Hopefully whoever wrote the blurb was able to communicate the essential promise of the novel. We writers should pray that they do, because that text can return your book to the shelf before any reader ever even sees all those pretty words we wrote.

With any luck, the potential reader has made it past the cover unharmed, or has had the book recommended by a friend or a reviewer (who have already made promises to this reader over which you have no control whatsoever) and doesn't bother to inspect it. Then your reader goes and orders a latte and sits down to read the first few pages before she decides to buy it. (My reader is female and she orders a latte. I don't know who your readers are or what they order.) This is where our promises start.

From the very first sentence, our stories tells its readers about what kind of story it is, and what they ought to expect from it. Assuming the readers make it past the first few pages, they're going to expect that we deliver on those promises. And that, I think, is what we owe them.

Consider the opening of the first Harry Potter novel (which I happen to be reading to my daughters at the moment). In the first ten pages you get: a buffoonish family, a coterie of silly wizards, and a baby with murdered parents and a great destiny. What do these pages tell readers? They promise that this story is going to be a story about magic and wizards, that it is going to contain farce, and that in its pages, a boy will discover and confront his destiny.

Say what you like about the Harry Potter books, but one of the reasons these books are so satisfying is that they deliver exactly what they promise. Rowling has told her readers precisely what to expect from her story and then she follows through. Give me that and a character I can root for, and I'll let you get away with plot holes, narrative gaps, and pedestrian prose until the cows come home.

I'll quibble with Chris on one point--I don't think you owe the reader an ending. Well, let me be a bit more precise: you always get an ending (every story stops sooner or later), but you don't always get a conclusion. And I'd argue that you don't always owe one. If you promise the reader a conclusion, then you have to deliver one, but if you never make such a promise, then you don't.

Consider Kelly Link's magnificent story "Magic for Beginners." The story claims to be a description of an episode of a television show, which focuses primarily on the personal lives of a few teenagers who spend most of their time watching a television show of the same name. The story makes no implied promise of a payoff; it doesn't adhere to a traditional narrative structure. It instead wraps up its readers in its crafty mysteriousness, drives them out to into the woods blindfolded, dumps them there, and then drives off cackling. Readers at the end of this story are left to wander in those woods. The story has no conclusion; it just stops. But I'd argue that while it doesn't conclude, it ends at a beautiful moment. Kelly Link knows (my guess is that she knows it intuitively) when to stop, when not to explain, understanding that in the worlds she creates, to explain is often to ruin.

To further illustrate, let's look at a story that fails catastrophically to deliver on its promises. When I was a teenager, I read the first few volumes of Stephen King's Dark Tower series. I loved 'em. He wrote four of them, waited for a long while, and then wrote three more. And at some point in the interim, he totally forgot what it was he was supposed to be doing.

The book opens with a stellar, simple premise. A gunslinger is chasing a man in black. We don't find out for a very long time why he's chasing him, and we don't care. But this is the central story that spans all seven volumes: the gunslinger chases the man in black in a world that has moved on. This world is connected to our world somehow. Fair enough. But in setting up this premise, King has made a huge promise: at some point, the gunslinger needs to catch this motherfucker. And guess what? He never does. After twenty years and seven books, the gunslinger fails and we're never told why.

That's pretty inexcusable. I read an interview in which King described the ending he provided. (And here, okay, I see that there's an exception to the notion that all stories end. The Dark Tower doesn't actually end at all. If you followed it to the last page, you know what I mean.) He claimed in this interview that his ending was the only possible conclusion. But this is madness. There was only one possible conclusion to this story and for reasons we may never guess, he deliberately chose not to provide it.

But there are other crimes here. Long about the sixth book, King goes off on an insane metafictional tangent in which King himself and his books appear in the narrative. I have no problem with metafiction. I love it and have indulged in it myself. The problem is that at no time in the first couple thousand pages of this massive story was there any hint given that metafiction was going to come into play. This was not in the contract. It's as bad as if you were reading a Sam Spade mystery and at the climax you discovered that the murder was committed by the Loch Ness Monster.

I could go on and on, but the bottom line is that The Dark Tower is a deeply unsatisfying story for the simple reason that it breaks all of its promises. Mr. King, sir, I fell in love with your story and then it broke my heart and pawned the engagement ring.

So that's my answer. What we owe the readers is what we promise the readers. No more, no less. Readers, like lovers, will forgive a great many sins as long as we remain faithful to them.

Edit: Now that I think about it, I can't remember if he catches the guy or not; it's all kind of a blur. Does anyone know? Either way, when he finally gets to the Dark Tower, it's a pretty big letdown.


  1. Another good example of a bad payoff is L. Ron Hubbard's (yes, I know) ten-volume opus, Mission Earth. It started out as a well-written (as far as I knew), rolicking space opera, and kept that up for 6 whole books, but in the seventh book, it turned into a thinly veiled Scientology text, a screed against psychologists. I was a teenager, and that was the first time I remember using the phrase, "What the FUCK?"

  2. When she walked into the room, she brought the bad day with her. She had three humps and an elongated head. I could tell she was trouble from the small boat that hung around her ankle.