“Your relationship with the reader is sadomasochistic.” – David Brin
The mark of a good book is that the reader can’t put it down. You want your audience to read rather than sleep, to ignore their work and choose your book over their friends and family. You want them to engage with your world so much that it becomes more real than their own.
Part of this is giving them what they want but making them wait for it. David Brin used the example of a murder mystery reveal or ‘parlour’ scene, to which there are three possible responses from the reader:
2) I saw that coming a mile off.
3) Of course! I’m so stupid, I should have known!
The writer is aiming for response 3, but if they let the reader actually know in advance then that reader will in fact be disappointed.
This ties directly into the ‘happily ever after’ issue that I referred to last week. All readers need some sort of closure – cliff hangers are the most frustrating thing in the world, and you can really only pull that trick once or twice before you start losing people. The question is, who are you writing for and what does that audience actually want in terms of closure?
‘Happily ever after’ is one of the most common tropes in writing because people like it. It may not be realistic but people don’t read fiction for realism (that’s not to say you can afford not to make your characters believable – there’s an important difference between credibility and realism).
I have to confess that this is something I struggle with. Despite being a generally upbeat person, I can’t seem to get away from writing tragic endings. Whenever I run roleplay games they usually end up with mentally traumatised characters, if not TPK (total party kill). I’ve yet to write a book in which all the protagonists survive to the bitter end and it’s usually my favourite character that bites the bullet. George R.R. Martin Syndrome.
Killing off protagonists is a noble tradition and a useful weapon in the writer’s arsenal. Ending on a tragic note is not necessarily a bad thing, provided it brings closure, but all the time? Sadomasochism aside, you shouldn’t traumatise your readers otherwise they won’t come back. I doubt I’ll be watching any film with the marketing line ‘From the director of Revolutionary Road’, for example.
Clearly I need to sit my muse down and have a word. ‘Happily ever after’ is an acceptable ending.