by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky
During the initial drafting of Divided Elements, I realised that I needed more eyes on it than just mine. As an untested author, I was unsure whether I was on the right track, whether the story idea was genuinely interesting, whether I had the chops to pull it off. To that end, I joined two online critique groups and found a local critique partner with whom I could exchange ideas and chapters. Feedback is critical for any writer, but sometimes reviews and critiques can seem like a version of ‘how I would write this book’, rather than ‘this is a problem for your story’. In this post, I talk about how to manage reader expectations to avoid the former criticism…
Honest feedback and constructive criticism from other writers and readers can be incredibly useful in identifying technical areas for improvement, such as:
- plot holes
- crutch words
- writing flaws (spelling, grammar, punctuation,etc)
Feedback, especially when critique partners are also assessing your WIP as readers, can also become more subjective. Personalities, reading preferences (genre, style, audience, etc), and whether they are in a good or bad mood when it comes time to reading that particular chapter, can all impact on how these readers assess:
- Your characters – are they likable, sympathetic, competent, intriguing?
- Your world – is it believable, over the top, too dominant, too generic?
- Your plot lines – is the midpoint what they expected/wanted, does the ending satisfy their need for a perfect resolution of plot?
This is where the subjectivity of reviews and critiques becomes tricky. Yes, you need to write for your readers. But you also need to write for yourself.
This is your project, your creativity on a page, your piece of soul and worldview in ink.
Your responsibility as an author
That being said, you also have a responsibility as a writer to not mislead your readers. Readers may not like your characters or enjoy your world, but that is something that will become apparent early on in the story. It’s okay for this to happen, because at the beginning of the story, the reader’s investment in the book is still low. They may have only spent half an hour reading your novel before realising it is not for them.
No harm, no foul.
But what happens when a reader gets halfway through the book, or worse – to the climax, and their expectations or desires for the story are thwarted? They’ve been rooting for the protagonist to enter into an epic sword fight with her arch nemesis, but at the final moments she is disfigured and loses all of her strength and sword-wielding abilities, ruling out this plot line…
Or they’ve been reading eagerly through the chapters, enthralled by the developing attraction between the two main characters and awaiting that moment in the climax when they just know the two are going to finally put aside their resistance and actually admit they love the other, but just before the peak of this build up, one of the characters dies…
These are the sort of things that can send Goodreads review into vitriol territory – Hell hath no fury like a reader scorned.
Now, while it is not the author’s job to pander to reader desires – it is the author’s job to manage reader expectations. That is the whole purpose of a story – to take a reader on a journey with the author (and the characters) – and to set parameters within which plot twists and key events will be surprising, but in a way that enhances the reader’s appreciation of the story.
Managing reader expectations
The key to this is managing reader expectations from the start.
This is why the start of a book is so critical – it not only establishes the characters and the world – it should also establish the style, tone and theme. In a way, the start of your book is its constitution – the set of rules and laws by which your book will abide from beginning to end.
George R.R. Martin did this expertly in “A Song of Ice and Fire” – *** WARNING – Spoilers for those who have been hiding under a rock, living in another universe, living a life without television or internet and do not know about GAME OF THRONES ***
– when he killed off Ned Stark early on in the piece he illustrated his story’s constitution – indicating that killing off beloved characters was not something he would shy away from. Because it happened early in the piece, readers and fans were able to forgive him this (they were still orienting themselves to the story), and future instances of untimely deaths (they were, by then, used to his sadism).
So, dear authors, by all means introduce plot twists and intense character arcs and story surprises in your novel – just ensure that you have adequately prepared readers for the possibility of these things by successfully establishing your story’s constitution in the opening chapters where you introduce style, tone and theme.
Have you ever been disappointed or infuriated by a story plot point later in the piece? Has an ending ever made you regret picking up the book in the first place? Tell me about it in the comments section!
I agree, killing off main characters has a place and a way. I don’t like G.R.R. Martin’s writing, but that is subjective and personal. Still, killing off one of the main characters early, may not have worked for me depending on how attached I was becoming to said character. Another example is a book I read a couple of years back where the two main characters went through hell throughout the book, and then in the last chapter, the author killed on of them, for no apparent reason. I was so very disappointed I never touched any of his books again. There are always cases where a death at the end can be accepted, for example as an unavoidable sacrifice at the end of the story. For me, that’s fine because that’s what makes a dramatic finale. Killing characters for no reason doesn’t make drama, it creates frustration and loses readers. I’d say that it’s the same for killing off an MC early. If it happens as an unavoidable plot device, then I can accept it. Otherwise–and especially if it’s the author showing off authorial ‘I can do whatever I please, shut up and accept it’ godhood powers–they go on my ‘never buy again’ black list.
It’s a fine line between author autonomy and reader satisfaction! It’s tricky because a lot of reader expectations come from genre baggage and tropes – a cozy mystery demands that the plucky amateur sleuth solves the crime, a thriller demands the antagonist gets the upper hand at a crucial stage – mess with the fundamentals and readers get irate. But, if you set up in the beginning (with tone and foreshadowing) that this is a cozy or thriller with a difference, then that gives you a bit more licence to tinker at the edges of these core expectactions…