#writerproblems: Expectations & Payoffs in #Storytelling

As readers, we build  upon our knowledge of previous stories to create expectations. If someone tells us their story is “Thomas the Tank Engine meets Dracula,” we  expect some sort of life-sucking creatures living among talking vehicles. If someone says they’ve done a retelling of, say, “Alice in Wonderland with some Resident Evil thrown in,” then we expect a heroine stumbling into another world filled with zombies, puzzles, and big bad monsters.

As writers, we want readers to know they’re going to like our book. We need to show them the book has stuff they like. That’s why we cling so to the subgenres and the comparisons. “If you like Beauty and the Beast, you’ll love this! If you like ghost stories, you’ll love this!”

But there’s a problem with such expectations: They have to pay off in a way readers will accept. Is it safe to delay those expectations, or derail them entirely?

Let’s look first at delaying them. Take Sara Waters’ The Little Stranger.

Riveting trailer, isn’t it? Eerie, dramatic, a ghost story through and through. The tension builds from the first second to the last. I saw the trailer while checking Facebook for pictures of my niece and nephew. The trailer popped up on my feed, and I was hooked! I NEEDED to read the book before I see the movie…eventually. (Hey, babysitters are expensive.)

71bBVB2Q8LLThe prose is beautiful, of course. Waters walks readers through Hundreds estate one step at a time. We see every wall, every room, every window, every garden. We feel like we’re there.

But unfortunately, this is also part of the problem. For a story advertised as “A chilling and vividly rendered ghost story set in postwar Britain,” it takes 150 PAGES for the paranormal element to reveal itself.

Think about that. What if it took Alice fifteen chapters to find the rabbit hole, and you spent the first half of the book just gabbing with her sister? What if Poirot wasn’t called to investigate a murder until the tenth chapter, the previous chapters all about him enjoying London? I’m sure he’d be fun as a tour guide, but come on–that’s not why I picked up his book.

Beautiful writing or no, if a book is categorized as under a specific genre like ghost story, then it’s fair to expect that genre dominates the book.  It’s not like Waters’ characters had to see blood on the walls by Chapter 2, but I’ve no doubt that in all their wandering through the house in the first 150 pages Waters could have dropped a few peculiar touches to promise us readers that yes, the ghostliness is coming if we just hold out a little bit longer.

The same problem arises with likening a story to one we already know. Several reviews called Sarah J. Maas’ A Court of Thorns and Roses a retelling of Beauty and the Beast,  and many of the elements of the book pay off to that expectation: girl Feyre kills a wolf who turns out to be a Faerie, so she’s told by a Faerie High Lord named Tamlin she must come to his court as a consequence. His court’s cursed by an evil queen, and Feyre’s love of Tamlin is a key to breaking the curse. She breaks the curse, the queen dies, they all go home, the end. Not a bad following of B&B, sure. BUT: this is Book 1 of a series.

Beauty and the Beast ends with that broken curse (no matter what Disney says). Where is there to go?

Helter Skelter, apparently. In the second book,  A Court of Mist and Fury, we find out Tamlin is actually a really nasty possessive jerk and one of the evil queen’s henchmen who is another High Lord is secretly a really nice guy who’s been dreaming about Feyre for years, so they get to fall in love and have lots of sex and so on.

Say WHAT?

Hearing a story is akin to Beauty and the Beast establishes a very specific set of expectations in the reader’s mind: thoughtful female, misunderstood male cursed in appearance, and their love conquers all. Maas builds the relationship of Feyre and Tamlin with every touch of love and understanding, right down to the moment Feyre’s paintings speak to Tamlin’s inner struggle in helping his people. When Feyre faces the evil queen, she says time and again she’s fighting for her love, Tamlin.

23766623Yet in Chapter 1 of Mist and Fury, we’re hearing that Feyre is vomiting and can hardly sleep. Tamlin’s as much of a wreck, but they don’t talk. They’re going to get married, but Feyre is dreading the wedding so much she’s praying to be saved. This calls in Rhys, that other High Lord who was once the evil queen’s henchman. He carries her off to his court, and from this point we realize just how traumatized Feyre is from her trials under the evil queen. Chapter by chapter we see that Rhys is the one who truly understands Feyre, noble and kind, willing to put all he has on the line for the sake of protecting those he loves.

Gosh, this sounded familiar to me. The first impression of a brute, a cad, a wicked man who surely cares nothing about others, but upon second look is actually very kind, noble, self-sacrificing….

Hey, that’s Pride and Prejudice!

Rhys is the handsome, brooding Mr. Darcy in faerie form, deeply misjudged by Feyre in the first book because she’s so taken with her Mr. Wickham–I mean, her Tamlin. Only as she spends time with Rhys/Mr. Darcy character does she see the depth of his goodness, and therefore more clearly sees Tamlin/Mr. Wickham’s truly vile nature.

At first, I couldn’t understand why Maas simply hadn’t called this series a re-imagining of Pride and Prejudice. Readers would have walked into the series with the correct expectations. They’d have known Tamlin was all wrong for Feyre, even as the relationship grows in Thorns and Roses.

But those correct expectations come at a cost: killing the surprise.

Readers want to be surprised. They want to not know what’s going to happen next. But they don’t like a bait’n’switch pulled on them, either. So, I went back into Thorns and Roses to see if Maas had put any foreshadowing of the relationship breaking.

Sure enough, I find a few spots.

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Shortly before Tamlin and Feyre talk about her art, she is wondering if she should live elsewhere so she doesn’t distract Tamlin from fighting rogue monsters.

[Tamlin] laughed, though not entirely with amusement… “No, I don’t want you to live somewhere else. I want you here, where I can look after you–where I can come home and know you’re here, painting and safe.” (206)

This is exactly what he expects of her in those first chapters of Mist and Fury–to be content painting on his estate forever and ever. He pushes this so hard he even locks her in the house so she can’t escape.

The last chapter of Thorns and Roses shares a good deal of Feyre’s pain after taking two innocent lives during the evil queen’s trials. Even when she’s back with Tamlin, she feels that something’s come apart in her.

Tomorrow–there would be tomorrow, and an eternity, to face what I had done, to face what I shredded into pieces inside myself while Under the Mountain. (416)

Maas sewed the seeds for this relationship’s end, but with expectations centered around a Beauty and the Beast kind of story, readers like myself were all too keen to ignore those seeds. Yet if Maas had allowed marketing to tie her series to Pride and Prejudice, aaaall that romantic tension between Feyre and Tamlin in Thorns and Roses would have been a waste of time.

I wish I had the answer to this writer’s problem. I want readers to read my stories like The Stray” and The Boy Who Carried A Forest In His Pocket” and not feel duped or betrayed. (Click on the titles for the free downloads, by the way. Be sure to share your thoughts on them, please!)

 

Perhaps it’s the reader’s responsibility not to think writers are going to follow a paint-by-numbers approach for a genre or a retelling.

But it’s equally the writer’s responsibility not to depend on that genre or retelling as a selling crutch. Your story has been and always will be more unique than that.

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A #summer of #writing & #motherhood, part 3: Imagination is, Like, Hard.

I turn off the midday movie, a common part of our summer schedule. Biff and Bash run off with helicopters, koalas, Batman, and garbage trucks in a complex story of friendship and adventure on Mystery Island. Blondie remains prostrate on the couch.

“What are we doing now?” she asks like clockwork.

You can do something. I’ve got to finish grading these papers.”

She lets out the sort of long, dramatic sigh only a firstborn daughter can give. “I think I’ll just lay here until the tv is back on.”

“You find yourself something to do, or I’ll find some cleaning for you to do. Got it?”

“Uuuuuuugh. Fine.” Stomp, stomp, glare at Mommy, stomp, stomp to her room.

When Blondie’s alone in her room, she could be doing a variety of things. It used to be staring at toys staring right back at her, but now there’s creativity humming in the air…

…sort of.

I walk by her room: she’s holding a palm-sized concoction of little Lego pieces. “What’s that?”

“It’s an ice cream maker!” She explains the function of every miniscule button.

“Oh neat! Will you put it in the Lego treehouse?” She received a treehouse Lego set for her birthday. After Bo had put it together, it sat as is in her room until her backpack fell upon it.

She looked at the pieces, scattered in her storage box. “But it’s broken.”

“You could rebuild it.”

“I don’t know how.”

“It’s Lego, Kiddo. You can rebuild it however you want.”

Her face scrunched, pulling dimples out of hiding. “But it’ll be hard.”

Breathe, Mommy, don’t roll your eyes–oh hell, roll your eyes. “You can build an ice cream maker, you can build a treehouse.”

This same halt comes at her desk, too. Our big seven-year-old has her own desk, perfect for coloring, writing, drawing, creating…

…sort of.

secrets_lg“Can I play computer games today?” She calls after reading a few chapters from her latest library acquisition, Secrets According to Humphrey. (A series right up your gang’s street, Lady Shey!)

“Not today.”

“Then what am I gonna do?” Her whine mimics the slide of a finger along violin strings. It grates, it stings, it makes me want to just close the door without a word and let her survive on her own until dinner.

“Why don’t you work on another Spoty the Dog story? Or your research on Egyptians and tornadoes? Or do one of those coloring projects Grandma gave you? Or do your word search? Or do SOMEthing?” Insert a dramatic gesture towards the desk surface, the only clean surface in the room.

Blondie continues to bury herself in toys. “I dunno,” she mumbles from under a pile of puppies.

Even when I try to get the imagination rolling, Blondie’s got a knack for burying it. While her brothers easily role-play themselves into stories about cars, or ponies, or planes, or astronauts, or animals, or any number of things, she tends to simply latch onto them rather than starting something herself. One morning she said she wanted to make a puppy school; after helping her make a school and little picture books for her puppies, what do I find? Puppies in a pile, her head in her hands, eyes on a Lego book. Why? “I’m too tired to play.”

Writing’s rather like that.

Story-creation is “fun,” but it’s also work. Bloody hard work. You have to take an entire world filled with people and places and screw-ups and miracles and somehow come up with the right combinations of the right words in the right order to help people you don’t know see what goes on inside your brain. We all know that the first draft is shit, of course it’s going to be shit, and yet we can’t help fighting with ourselves over each and every word we put onto the blank space. It’s just so, so much easier for it to stay inside where we can fine-tune it to our heart’s content, and daydream about our glorious debut on the publishing scene, complete with awards and carpets and active-wear models hanging on our arms. We are each of us filled with worlds, but the act of drawing those worlds up and out of us can seem like an impossible action. You may as well locate the physical point of my soul, or make Biff eat oatmeal. It ain’t happenin’.

Which is why as both a writer and a parent, I have to watch my expectations. Yeah, that first draft is bound to be horrid, and know what? It may take a while to even write that first draft. Maybe some character sketches, setting freewrites, and mini-scenes need to come first. I did this for writing Middler’s Pride, and it seems to be helping with Beauty’s Pricetoo. I’ve yet to start the story itself, but I’ve got over thirty pages of just, stuff. It’s all useful in the end, because in the end it gets me in the groove to do the impossible: create.

I walk by my daughter’s room. She hunches over her desk, pencil dancing about. “Need anything, Kiddo?”

“Mommy, wanna see my inventions?” Blondie stands up. Insert a dramatic gesture towards the desk surface.

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“It’s a Wood-Chopper Movie Starter!” The steps blur together while she talks, for I’m just lost in this image: where did this come from? I see more plans for inventions on her desk: wake-up calls for dads, dog feeders, pool starters. My heart swells, and I remind myself I can’t force this kid to be creative the way know how to be creative. If she’s going to explore her imagination, she should do it on her own terms. I can’t wait to help her tap that mad-scientist vein in that curly head of hers, unlock all its potential–

“So when can we build this? We’ll need some really big logs, and some springs, and the log’s got to come into the house, and…”

–sort of.

Ah, well. I still love it.

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Blondie with her trusty assistant Sledgehammer & top-secret Inventions folder. Shhhhh, don’t tell!

Lessons Learned from Neil Gaiman: Some Questions Ought Not Be Answered.

As a child, I spent most of my time with cozy mystery writers like Agatha Christie, P.D. James, Colin Dexter, Ellis Peters, and, of course, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. By saturating myself with mysteries, I grew accustomed to quick character development, red herrings, plot twists, and, of course, explanations. A good mystery must show the whodunnit, howdunnit, and whydunnit. If the mystery isn’t solved, then the protagonist is clearly not worth his weight in pages.

It’s with this mindset, cemented over, oh, a couple of decades, that I entered the fantasy worlds of writers like Diana Wynne Jones and Neil Gaiman via film adaptations of their stories.

While both films take great liberties with the stories, I saw enough to get hooked on these writers for life.

Now I’ve got to admit something shameful: The first time I read Coraline–before motherhood and writing were serious endeavors–I was deeply disappointed. All these kudos on the back cover about how awesome the story is, it’s the new Alice in Wonderland, blah blah blah. Gaiman doesn’t EXPLAIN anything! What IS this button-woman? Why rats? Did no one else ever notice that giant door? Surely other people lived in the flat before that. Humbug, I say!

Five years later, I hope I can say that hearts change, and that what I felt about the book before: that was a humbug, as George C. Scott’s Ebenezer Scrooge put it.

Does this mean I discovered the answers to those questions? Nope.

It means I’m okay with there being questions unanswered.

Current culture revels in creating backstory questions the initial stories were not asking:

What made Michael Myers so evil? See the movie!

When did Anakin Skywalker turn to the Dark Side of the Force? Answers revealed!

How did Hannibal become Hannibal the Cannibal? Find out now!

Why do magic ladies go bad? Disney’s got the goods on The Wicked Witch of the West and Maleficent

Everything has to be explained. Everything has to be known.

Part of what makes fantasy fiction so enjoyable is its unknown, the extant of not-like-reality it contains. Neither the film nor book of Coraline explain what’s with the door between worlds, why there’s only one key, why sewing buttons into a child’s eyes keeps him/her in the other world, or even what the Other Mother is.

Because guess what–a kid don’t care. Coraline knows the Other Mother has her parents. She knows the Other Mother uses buttons to trap kids. She knows the Other Mother wants that key.

When I studied point of view, I realized just how vital that ignorance/acceptance trait is with a child character. While the writer knows how the world works, he can’t imbue that knowledge into the child. The child takes in the world as it enters her immediate perception, and she absorbs what impacts her personally. Coraline initially enjoys the Other Mother’s world very much, but when she’s asked to give up her eyes for buttons, she prefers her own home. Only then does the predatory nature of the Other Mother’s world become clear.

Mysteries thrive on what’s hidden: a character’s past, a buried piece of setting, and so on. But what’s hidden must also be exposed in order for a mystery to fulfill its promise to readers. Even mysteries for children will do this, as I’m currently learning from Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit for the gazillionth time, as it’s my kids’ favorite movie.

coralineCoraline, however, is not a mystery as far as the genre’s concerned. It is a perilous adventure through a dark fantasy land, something which kids are not often exposed to. The world both excites and tests the protagonist, and because the protagonist is as young as the readers, the readers share in the experience.

As Reality often proves, there just simply isn’t an explanation for everything that occurs in our lives. We have to learn how to accept the unknown as it comes as well as how to overcome it. These require courage, strength, determination, and wit–all traits Coraline uses to survive the Other Mother’s world.

No explanation required.