Thursday, June 14, 2012

Paying off your readers

This always sounds like a no-brainer when it's said, but... the writer has to deliver on his/her promises to the reader. The corollary to this being: if you are telling a story, you have made promises to the reader. You've promised them that your story will be interesting, fun, action-packed, an emotional roller coaster, thought-provoking, hilarious, and exciting. Some of those, at least.

Most importantly, worth the hard-earned money they put down for it.

Because if I wanted unrelenting grimness where nothing ever improves, I could turn on the news and get it for free. Hell, I could get it 24/7 on five different channels. If I wanted to wallow in a directionless mire, I could get up from the computer and... well, okay, never mind.

Characters need to move toward a goal, in the story, and how you go about doing that is a how-to-plot book unto itself. Build-ups, setbacks, side-tracks, they all play into getting to the payoffs. The climaxes. Sometimes, they're the climax of the whole story -- but they don't have to be.

These are a few of the things that can go wrong.

There's no escaping the final confrontation
Character did not take an active role in the climax
Does Frodo let Sam take the ring into the Cracks of Doom to destroy it? Did Ron Weasley kill Voldemort? No. If your character has been working toward doing something, he must do it. If it's a major decision to be made, he must make it. The work must be done and the consequences must be suffered.

When presented with all the evidence, Neo decided to  join the fight against the Matrix. He didn't whine about going back to his cubicle job; he chose to step up to his responsibility as the one who could defeat the Matrix. The big action sequence was, in a way, not the climax of the movie. Once he'd made his decision, we knew how the action sequence would go. (Well, we knew that anyway because it was a Hollywood blockbuster, but that aside...)

This brings up a good point: it may be that your main character's climactic moment is not the big action sequence -- but if your readers are invested in the big action sequence, they're going to be disappointed if there isn't a big action sequence. Which leads me to the next failure.

Writer chickened and skipped the scene
Tolkien didn't write the Ents' attack on Isengard. No, I don't know that he chickened out, exactly, but it's a big missed payoff. Peter Jackson knew that he couldn't get away with skipping it in the movie.

I can't get away with skipping a major scene the readers are invested in, either. It may be tough to write -- the research you might need, the complex fight choreography, the emotions you need to subject yourself too -- but it's a finite thing. It can be tackled like any other scene.

Teased the audience until they stopped caring
The X-Files teased us with hints of a relationship between Mulder and Scully for how many years? Milked it for all it was worth. And when they threw one last near-miss tease at me during the first movie, I finally said "Whatever." Stopped caring. Walked away from the show. 

Teasing is good. Teases keep your readers reading and your watchers watching. Don't think that you can delay the payoff forever, though. They're keeping count of how many times you threw a monkey wrench in the works.

Payoffs aren't a simple thing, admittedly. They often frame major plot points, but they can come in many shapes and sizes. I'm not covering much, in this post. I'm sure I will get back to this. Needless to say, it's been pressing on my mind due to some long-term payoff scenes I had to write in Disciple, Part IV. And I was worrying about the above points.

What are some of your favorite movie or book payoff scenes?


Sam F. said...

When Rhett Butler finally proposes to Scarlett O'Hara in GONE WITH THE WIND. It takes 600 pages, but it's worth the wait!

Also, the kiss between Ron and Hermione. Talk about waiting forever...

Christine Tyler said...

Yes yes and yes.
I just...yes.

Barbara Foster said...

Er, Tolkien did write about the attack of the Ents on Isengard. He just did it in a flashback. Remember Pippin shuddering at the memory of the Ent who was set on fire?

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