The Contract with the Reader
Buried in the 300+ comments on the previous Arrow post is a really good discussion on the contract with the reader. We’ve talked about the romance contract here before, but as Pam pointed out, all stories make contracts with the reader/viewer, not just romances.
Here’s my comment on the promise to the reader:
I’ve been thinking about series storytelling (film and books) and the idea that the first page/scene is a promise you make the reader/viewer. I absolutely believe that: the introduction to a story makes a promise to the reader, says this it what this story is going to be about, here are the people to root for, here’s the genre, the mood, the setting, the tone, everything. And then people read/view that promise and decide whether to sign for the story and by extension, the series. If you’re writing a stand-alone novel, that’s fine, you’ve only locked yourself in for that story. But if you’re writing a series, that’s a long-term promise that I think you almost have to shift. Not break, but gradually steer into the direction you’re finding works better if you begin to see a problem. A lot of long-running series in both books and film never break the promise, but they run the risk of going stale, so evolution is important and change is often good. I think the problem comes when the perception is that the promise is broken, that this is not the story the reader/viewer signed on for, that the writer was doing a kind of bait-and-switch. And I think that’s where the assumption that Arrow is about Oliver-Diggle-Felicity comes in, that the promise this show made was that it would primarily be about Oliver Queen fighting crime. As I remember, the pilot had a lot of relationship stuff going on, too, but I read that (my story-goggles) as subplots, the things that would make Oliver’s life more difficult, not the thing the story was about. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that some people may have seen it as a relationship drama, so that when episodes focus on relationship issues like the Clock King episode did, they don’t see a fragmented story that has gone too far and broken the promise, they see exactly what they’d been promised.
I think that’s why, when you’re telling a story, you have to nail the essence of that story on the first page. The books that start with the protagonist staring out the window thinking about her life, or with the author explaining the character’s back story, miss the opportunity to open the door to the reader and say, “Come on in, this is the kind of party this will be,” and establish it firmly in the reader’s mind so that while the reader can still write her part of the story into the white spaces, she can’t say, “No, it’s not about the main plot, it’s about the subplot.”
Then Sarah B replied
I don’t mind if a story I read or watch doesn’t work out like I want, emotionally speaking, as long as I can believe in the direction the creator has taken it. Buffy and Spike are the couple dearest to my heart, but Joss never let them have their happy ending. But I could understand why he wrote the show the way he did, the characters generally stayed true to themselves, and the resolution had an inner logic and truth that fitted with the world he’d created, even if it made me sad. Stephen Moffat also famously does terrible things to beloved characters, and he’s still a brilliant writer . . . .
It’s all about the narrative for me, even if I love F[elicity] and Diggle more than anything else (except maybe the salmon ladder..;) ). When that the story is working, I’ll accept whatever the writers throw at me. I’ve been a Doctor Who fan all my life, and no other show’s writers are more likely to stomp on your heart! Except Joss Whedon, maybe. So, I don’t need to be happy, just convinced.
I love that last line especially:
I don’t need to be happy, just convinced.
I think it’s the double tap of successful stories: establish a clear contract with the reader/viewer and then tell the story so that it makes sense to that reader/viewer in terms of that contract. I hated it when a character I loved died on Person of Interest, but I understood why it happened, it didn’t violate my contract with that story. Beth dying in Little Women ripped my adolescent heart out and fed it to the cat, but it was part of the contract Alcott established. I think a lot of the controversy over Wash’s death in Serenity was really a discussion of a broken contract because it was by no means implausible that one or more of the Firefly team would die horribly in battle, but it was, I think, an unspoken contract for a lot of people that the deaths would mean something. There’s a difference between “This is plausible within this story world” and “This is the story I signed on for,” and I think a lot of Firefly viewers thought they contracted for a story with innate justice.
But the new thing that came up for me was the idea of story focus as part of the contract. One thing romance writers have to do when they first start a novel is to determine if the romance is the main plot, or a subplot that’s almost equal in importance to the main plot. It’s tempting to try to have both, but you really do have to pick a lane or your plot goes all over the place. You can start with the same basic premise and plot, but that plot told as a mystery with a romance subplot will be different from that plot told as a romance with a mystery subplot. You allocate story real estate differently, the aspects of the plot change with the approach. Again, quoting myself (I have no problem with arrogance):
Leverage established from the beginning, I think, that it was first a show about community and then a show about the cons. The two were inextricably linked, but if the focus had been on the cons, they wouldn’t have pursued Nate’s alcoholism at such depth and would instead have used it as a liability and a complication for the cons. Instead, even though Nate has a raging alcohol problem, it doesn’t affect his ability to run the cons. What it does have an impact on is the team, which is why they try to help him. The center of the story is the team, and the team is explored through the cons, not the other way around.
Or take Person of Interest, which was established as an Equalizer/Crime-of-the-Week story in the first season, which then evolved into a Equalizer-against-secret-government-agency story, which then evolved into a Equalizer-against-forces-beyond-your-wildest-dreams story. There are intense personal relationships within that story, but none of them are romances. (I consider Reese/Zoe a team-member-with-benefits because it’s clear that’s how they consider themselves.) The stories evolved, and as they evolved and the danger grew greater, the team established relationships that went bone-deep, we’ll-die-for-each-other levels, but the show always kept the central promise: this team will fight for the helpless against the powerful forces that try to hurt them. The way they’ve defined “helpless” and “powerful forces” changes, but the promise stays the same, this show is about the fight between good and evil, not about relationships. The fight forms the relationships and drives the relationships, the relationships do not drive the fight.
So I’m thinking that that contract with the reader extends to emphasis, too. It’s not enough to say through the events of the first scene in a novel, “This is a romance and a mystery,” you have to establish, “This is a romance with a mystery subplot” or “This is a mystery with a strong romantic subplot.” Because if you don’t establish that, the reader will decide for you. I screwed this up completely in Wild Ride in spite of my readers and my editors pointing out this very problem, and I will not do it again: Making that contract clear is crucial to the success of your story.