The I’s Have It

As a general rule, when you’re writing in first person, it helps to know the narrator’s assumed reader or listener – that is, the fictional person or persons that your fictional speaker is speaking or writing to.  Some first person narrators sound like a person telling their story to a single curious listener, at some comfortable time after the fact; some sound like they’re addressing a group; others use devices such as diary entries, voice recordings, letters, and the like to suggest that the story is being assembled or recorded for posterity in some fashion.

Some first-person voices are hallowed by tradition.  There’s the reader-I-married-him voice of the Gothic novel, as exemplified by Charlotte Bronte’s eponymous narrator in Jane Eyre, and by the never-named heroine of Daphne DuMaurier’s Rebecca.  There’s the noir-tinged private-eye voice of Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op, or Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe; and the confessional voice of the contemporary memoir.

The first person is not without its pitfalls, however.  Some readers hold it in visceral disregard, often so intense that they simply will not read a story if they see that it’s written in the first person.  Other readers react badly to dissonance between the perceived gender of the narrator and the perceived gender of the author.  They are unable or unwilling to suspend their disbelief long enough to accept a male narrator in a story with a female by-line, or vice versa.  And if you’re planning to kill off your viewpoint character in the end, first person will make it a hard sell.

(Well, you could always have the story being narrated by their ghost – it’s been done before – but it’s tricky to do that and still maintain suspense.  Also, some portion of your readership will inevitably be disgruntled at what they perceive as an underhanded bit of literary trickery.)

As always, weigh what you want to accomplish by using the first person against what you may lose if you don’t pull it off as well as you’d like, or if some portion of your readership is put off by it, and make your choice accordingly.


Gently Does It

Or, yet another cause of reader disgruntlement.

Readers – especially readers of fiction — don’t like being pushed to a particular conclusion.  They want to feel like they got there all by themselves.

Writers, on the other hand, often have specific conclusions that they want their readers to reach: this character is good and noble, and should be loved and respected; that other character is bad and wicked, and deserves whatever bad fate is coming to him or her; this course of action is socially useful and morally desirable and worthy of emulation; that other course of action is thoroughly despicable and morally bankrupt, not to mention just plain tacky.

The urge to make all of these things crystal clear to the reader is a hard one to resist.  But resist it we must, lest our stories end up sounding like the adventures of Goofus and Gallant of Highlights for Children fame.  (Surely I’m not the only person out there who as a young reader used to fantasize about staking out the insufferable Gallant over an anthill?)  I’ve talked before about the dangers of over-subtlety, but this area is one of a handful of places where the big danger lies in the other direction.  When you’re luring the reader to your desired conclusion, you need to be subtle as all heck about it – plant the necessary clues well in advance, but don’t point at them while you’re doing it, and for heaven’s sake don’t have your protagonist monologue about your conclusion afterward.

If you find it hard to tell whether or not you’re being over-obvious – and most of us do, at least some of the time – the answer is the same as it is for worrying about being over-subtle:  Find a trusted beta reader, preferably one who’s coming at the story cold, and ask them.

Then trust their judgment and fix the problem.

Weather, Incoming

Or perhaps not.

Today’s promised thunderstorms failed to materialize, leaving us with only high humidity, a falling barometer, and that waiting-for-the-shoe-to-drop feeling.

The resulting general disgruntlement reminded me of one of the classic errors of fiction writing, one almost guaranteed to induce a similar disgruntlement in the reader:  the failure to deliver on a promised thunderstorm.

This is how it goes (or doesn’t go.)  You have the reader, trustingly reading along.  You have your foreshadowings of trouble to come, draped all over the plot in a shadowy manner.  You have Chekov’s Gun, displayed in a place of honor above the mantelpiece.  You have your dramatic tension, wound up tight.  And then—

Nothing happens.  The foreshadowed conflicts fail to materialize – or worse, they are sidestepped or handwaved away.  Chekov’s Gun remains untouched by human (or inhuman) hands, and its presence in the story turns out to be merely ornamental after all.  And all that carefully-built dramatic tension fizzles out like a damp firecracker.

At that point, you’re left with a severely disgruntled reader, one who was promised thunderstorms and didn’t get them.

A Couple of Notes on Dialogue

Note the first:

When you change speakers, you start a new paragraph.  Seriously, they should have taught you this one in grade school, or high school at least.  I’m starting to suspect that it gets neglected because nobody expects most students to ever need to write dialogue.  O tempora, O mores, what is the world coming to, and all that jazz.

Note the second:

When you’re writing a scene with a lot of dialogue, and feel the need to throw in small bits of action and stage business to break up the steady back-and-forth, or to show one speaker’s reaction to something the other person has said, the action bit goes with the dialogue belonging to the speaker who’s doing it.  To illustrate:

Not like this:

“I don’t know what you mean,” Joe said.  Jane looked at him with disbelief.

“Sure, you do.”

But like this:

“I don’t know what you mean,” Joe said.

Jane looked at him with disbelief.  “Sure, you do.”

Don’t make your readers have to go through a scene’s dialogue twice in order to be sure of who is doing and saying what. Accidentally confusing your readers is bad.

Confusing your readers on purpose is a different kettle of fish.  I personally don’t know why anyone would want to do it, but some writers do, and those writers have audiences, so if that’s your style, then go for it.  But if you’re going down that path, not confusing anyone by accident becomes more important, rather than less.

Thought for the Day

The shape of a good story in usually implied in all of its parts, including the beginning.

It’s always a good sign when the reader is able to guess at that ultimate shape from reading the first two or three chapters, rather like a paleontologist inferring the shape of a T-Rex from a couple of bones.  Conversely, if the animal as ultimately reconstructed turns out to be wildly different from the one suggested by that first handful of bones, an acute observer may well conclude that something went wrong — either in the final assembly, or in the selection of parts.

Most readers are more acute observers than you might think.  And writing a story whose front end promises something that the rest of the story doesn’t deliver is a prime route to reader disgruntlement.

Further Causes of Reader Disgruntlement: Tone/Plot Mismatch

Sometimes, clothing the plot of one kind of story in the tone of a different and contrasting kind of story can  produce startling and unusual effects that give pleasure to the reader.  Other times . . .  well, at other times, the reader is more likely to conclude that the writer was trying to be clever, and failing.  This tends to make the reader unhappy.  (See John Scalzi on the failure mode of clever.)

This was brought home to me when I watched the 2009 film Duplicity, a complexly-plotted movie about corporate espionage and double-dealing which left me sufficiently disgruntled that I spent most of a long drive home from the movie theater trying to figure out what had gone wrong.  My ultimate conclusion, at least as far as my own disgruntlement was concerned, was that the tone and the plot of the film didn’t match. The tone was romantic comedy with a side order of intrigue, while the plot more properly belonged to a Cold War era spy thriller in the Le Carre or Deighton mode — the sort of film that gets shot with a monochrome filter and you count it a win if anybody even vaguely likeable is still alive when the credits roll.

The proper ending for a romantic comedy/caper flick is for the sympathetic characters to finish it up drinking champagne and eating strawberries and chocolate in bed on high-thread-count sheets in a luxury hotel someplace with no extradition treaties. Nothing else counts as a win. With a Cold War spy thriller, just having the sympathetic characters (if there even are any) come out of things alive at the finish is enough to keep it from being a stone downer, and alive-and-together is enough to count as a win.

Similarly, the reader of a Cold War thriller will accept betrayals and skullduggery and sympathetic people doing morally-ambiguous things because the fate of nations is at stake — if things go wrong enough, it won’t just be a few people sold out and bleeding, it’ll be whole armies of them, and civilians as well.  The reader of a romantic comedy is unlikely to be as accepting.

(Does this mean you should never play mix-and-match with tone and plot?  No.  It means that if you’re going to do it, be certain you can carry it off — and keep in mind the consequences of the failure mode.)

Causes of Reader Disgruntlement: #2 in a Series

Readers get disgruntled when they feel like they’ve put more effort into reading your book than they got pleasure out of it.

(It’s always important to bear in mind, when you’re thinking about this, that there are all sorts of readers deriving all sorts of pleasure from what they read, and you have to be able to distinguish between genuinely disgruntled members of your own audience and readers who are disgruntled because your book wasn’t written for them.  The latter aren’t your problem, no matter how much they may sound like it sometimes; the former are your problem, because you’ve failed them somehow — and while you probably can’t fix it in the book they’re unhappy about, you can try to do better in the next one.)

Anyway.  A common source of the more-effort-than-pleasure problem is unsatisfying characters.  The need for satisfying characters sometimes gets mistranslated as a demand for likeable characters, or for admirable ones (the phrase “positive role model” comes into play a lot here), or for ones with which the reader can identify.  In fact, the reader will happily follow along after a character who is none of these things — an unlikeable scoundrel who has little or nothing in common with the reader — so long as that character is interesting.  An interesting villain will hold the reader’s attention better than a boring hero, any day of the week.

How do you make a character interesting?  That’s a bigger problem than a single post can handle, but here’s one idea for a start:  give your character important things to do, and have him or her actually do them.  A proactive character is an object in motion, and objects in motion draw interest.

Causes of Reader Disgruntlement: an Intermittent Series

(“Intermittent” meaning, “I’ll deal with them as I think of them.”)

We will assume, for the moment, that you don’t want your readers disgruntled; that you want to keep them pleased with your work so that they will, you hope, keep wanting more of it.  I will grant that there are writers whose goal, at least for a particular piece of writing, is something other than pleasing the reader — the desired effect may be a justifiable anger at the system, or a fuller understanding of the futility of it, or something else along that line — but for the purposes of this blog I’m assuming a less rarefied, but more common, goal.

One of the primary causes of reader disgruntlement is simply this:  The reader feels that the author has not fulfilled the implied promises he or she made at the start of the story.

For an example, let us consider a popular novel in the romance genre.  I’m using romance as an example not because I have anything against romance novels — far from it; I read them even though I don’t have the knack of writing them — but because a typical romance novel is as formal in its structure as a sonnet.  There will be A Heroine; there will be A Hero; the primary action of the novel will involve their relationship, its Trials and Misunderstandings and Ultimate Consummation (with all-out steamy sex or with a single significant kiss, depending upon the overall hotness level of the text); and there will be a Happily Ever After.  A story that lacks one of these things may be a failed romance novel, or it may be something that only looks on the surface like a romance novel — but readers who picked it up and read it in the understanding that what they were getting actually was a romance novel are not going to be pleased.

They will, in fact, be severely disgruntled.

It’s possible, of course, that the author of the story intended to subvert the romance paradigm in exactly that manner — but the intended audience in that case is not the community of romance readers, but the community of readers who derive pleasure from subverted or inverted or otherwise tinkered-with paradigms.  (Who can get just as disgruntled if they’re promised a subversive experience and don’t actually get one.)  Someone who’s been promised a steak doesn’t want artfully manipulated tofu, any more than a committed vegetarian wants to be slipped a piece of meat unawares.

About the only way a writer can get away with not delivering what was, by implication, promised is by giving the reader something even better — and not just any something even better, but the kind of something better than a reader who had his or her mouth set for the original dish is also going to like.

(Nobody ever said this job was going to be easy.)