Hello, everybody! I know there are some of you out there who are really looking forward to the next post of the “New Canon” series, but there are some minor hurdles that need to be dealt with before we can post it. Not to worry, though! It’s day will come.
Until then, however, I have a topic I would like to discuss, specifically, the writer/audience contract – also known as making promises to the audience.
I suppose if I’m to discuss the issue I should give it some definition first. As a writer draws the audience into the story, they introduce themes, challenges and elements to their stories that, through their presence, make promises to the reader. A successful writer must keep these promises in mind, and fulfill them somehow, to have a successful story.
For example, let’s say we have a strong-chinned, dashing rogue of a hero who has set off to save the country. Now, the hero of our hypothetical tale has a rival, someone he met from time to time through the first half of the story, and they worked as foils for one another, gave each other conflict and drama. Now let’s say that halfway through the story, said rival moves to another country and simply drops out of the story without any resolution to their tale, and instead the hero ends up facing off against a nobleman he’s never met before in his life.
The writer, by introducing the rival, and the drama involved between the two characters, has made a promise to the audience. He has promised that a.) The rival is important to the story and b.) the rival plays a prominent, nay integral role in the outcome, the ending, of the story.
By dropping the rival character, the author has broken his promise. He has shattered the contract. Even if the nobleman is a good character, the audience won’t care because the trust in the author has been broken.
This element of the writing process is one of the most important things for writers to consider when plotting their stories, and ending them. What promises has the author made to their audience? Sometimes, realizing that a promise the author has made isn’t being addressed will give that author the tool they need to finish their story properly. Sometimes, realizing that a promise that has been made cannot be kept will also be a tool for revision. An erased promise is always preferable to a broken one.
This is an issue I’m considering in my novel “Jaine.” I have been asking myself these questions. What promises have I made? Can I keep them?
One particular promise is a major stumbling block for me. See, not all promises are plot promises. Some promises are made in the writing style itself. I’ve written the majority of my book from inside the head of one of my two main characters, Robert. Since the other main character is currently inside Robert’s head too, this has worked out fine. But having written so much of the story from this perspective means that I have promised my readers that this perspective is the only perspective I’ll tell the story in. And yet I find myself needing, for the sake of the plot I currently have in mind, to step outside of that perspective and into another.
I find myself having to judge how important this promise is. Do I have to go back to the drawing board for my plot, or is it a promise the audience will let me break? I haven’t figured it out yet. But I may have made this easier on myself if I had considered my promises earlier and done something about it then.
A recent example of the failure to fulfill promises with the audience can be seen in the game Mass Effect 3. (For the curious, you can see my review of the game Here – For those of you wishing to avoid spoilers, skip the paragraph after this one.) The Mass Effect series, having run for three entries now, has made a lot of promises to its audience: 1.) The plot is fairly straightforward, understandable, and makes sense. 2.) The choices of the players matter, and have a lasting impact on the game’s world and narrative. 3.) The players can chart their own destiny, forming vastly different outcomes based on they way each person plays their game. 4.) The core themes of the games focus on unity, tolerance, and overcoming nigh impossible odds.
But when the ending comes, it fails to fulfill these promises to the audience. The events surrounding the ending become cluttered, full of plot holes, statements and actions that make little to no sense, especially when compared to the established universe of the player’s experience up to this point. Every ending is nearly identical, with minor changes. The choices each player has made up to this point matter either very little or not at all. Almost nothing changes based on the entire series’ sequence of choices. Due to the similar endings, all of which end in the death of Commander Shepherd (and no, the shot of a chest breathing at the end of the “Destroy” option doesn’t count), the player’s choice is reduced to nothing. The elimination of the Mass Effect Relays sends every planet in the galaxy into virtual isolation, utterly dropping the theme of unity and coming together. For that matter, it’s difficult, in the end, to discern whether or not Shepherd even truly wins (as I discuss in my personal Blog Post on the topic).
If you read My Review of the game, it becomes apparent quickly that I adore the game, the series and everything that it means to me. But that emotional investment is also what made the broken promises at the end hurt so much. The game’s developer, Bioware, broke its promises. Their writing failed to deliver.
In most stories, whose endings fail to live up to their beginnings, the reasons for their failure almost always boiled down to this core concept. Think of stories in “The Matrix” trilogy, “Signs,” or the video game “Borderlands” and many others .
To put it simply, Authors need to keep in mind their promises to their audience. There is no faster way to break the emotional ties and investment of a reader, viewer or player than breaking that contract. For more thoughts on the Writer/Audience contract, listen to This Podcast Over at Writing Excuses.
Are there any examples of broken promises in stories that you would like to share? Any stories you feel truly fulfilled its promises? Share in the comments below!
Have a great day,
– Edward L. Cheever II