The sun shone high Ranger Rodriguez tipped his hat to his opponent. The townspeople were quiet, watching as Buckaroo Bangman saluted his opponent. The two horsemen remained in the center of the street, when both men were tossed long-handed mallets and a ball was tossed into the middle of the street.
“Isn’t this supposed to be a shootout?” Bangman said. “We’re cowboys, after all.”
“Author thought it’d be funnier if you two played polo,” said the sheriff. “Like you’re just a pair of dandies.”
“But, I’ve been overcoming my fear of holding a gun again for the past 100 pages,” Rodriguez said. “Why, I’ve been puttin’ my hat on cacti in the desert and havin’ my hand shake while tryin’ to practice shootin’ again. What about my character journey?”
“I burned down a whole village!” Bangman said. “I’m a despicable villain! I’ve earned a far worse end. The reader’s goin’ to just toss all of us and this book against the wall.”
The sheriff tucked his thumbs into his suspenders and glared at the two men. “It’s polo or nothin’, boys. You wanna finish the book so Rodriguez and the cyborg school marm can finally get hitched, you gotta play.”
Rodriguez and Bangman took their mallets and saluted. Then, with the first crack of mallet against ball, the final polo duel began.
There is a great magic to snuggling down with a new book or movie, having heard the wonders of the story, and anticipating getting swept away in a wondrous journey. You begin the characters, and walk along with them, anticipating what will happen next, hoping you are right, or hoping the author has a grand surprise.
Then, the story loops, and you find yourself going down either an unexpected pathway nothing like what you expected, or too predictable to enjoy. Your carried along in a journey you don’t want to be part of anymore, and find yourself seeking a way out. Yet, you have the insatiable need to finish this story, to see if it ever comes back to the journey you thought you set out on. You want to go back, but you can’t. Instead, you find yourself at the end of the book, spilled out on an unknown shore, disoriented, and wondering how you let yourself be led here.
This was not the story you were looking for.
When I read Life of Pi, I had seen the movie trailer, read the back of the book, seen it on lists, and thought I’d give it a try. The story I imagined was something like The Alchemist, a simple, allegorical journey which celebrates the perseverance of the human spirit, makes you think, and makes you want to be a better person. I thought Pi and the Tiger would survive together on the sea, becoming best friends, and uplifting each other – basically, if you took Castaway and replaced Wilson with a tiger.
The first part of the book was interesting and fun, and fulfilled my expectations. The rest of the book was this bleak, nihilistic survival story on the ocean, full of violence, hatred, and cruelty, and never friendship. Then, in the very end, I felt betrayed by the book (to give a spoiler: there is no cuddling with the tiger), and thought, “All of this, for what?”
Maybe I grew up too much with The Jungle Book (cuddling with wolves and a bear, not the tiger) and Winnie the Pooh (Tigger seems rather good at hugs).
This was not the story I was looking for.
Even Star Trek: Into Darkness wasn’t what I was hoping. I still enjoyed the movie, but was greatly disappointed when Benedict Cumberbatch went from being John Harrison – a mysterious, interesting super-human, to Khan – a white version of a character previously played by Ricardo Montalban. I think we all felt a bit betrayed. Then, when Kirk and Khan had to work together, I thought, “What if, in this alternate universe, Khan is given the opportunity to be a hero and he and Kirk end up being friends?” What a great opportunity to really show a great difference between the two timelines of Star Trek.
Then, Khan smashed a guy’s head in.
While I enjoyed the movie, it was not the story I was looking for.
Even the Sound of Music is not the story someone might expect. An uninitiated watcher will view the first half of the film, full of fun songs, smiling children, a touch of romance, and the safety of stability, and then they are whipped around and find the Von Trapp family running for their lives from the Nazis. I grew up with the film, and have watched it many times, but it’s still rather dark toward the end. (My siblings and I had it on the two-tape VHS edition, so we’d usually just watch the first tape, and skip the end.)
More recently, many have felt betrayed by Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman. I’ve decided not to touch it, and let To Kill A Mockingbird to stand alone. Go Set A Watchman has a dubious origin, but is still being bought out of curiosity, only to have the Atticus Finch we know and love betray our cultural trust. One book store has even decided to let readers who did not know what they were getting into return the book. (For some books, I wish you could return both the books and the memories of reading it.)
Every writer or filmmaker makes a promise with the audience of what the story is – this is a fantasy, this is an adventure, this is not going to end well, this will make you cry in the end. The author builds trust with the audience – even if the plot has unexpected turns, it is still the same world, story, and genre. Then, if the story is not what the audience was looking for, the trust is broken, the reader betrayed, and the relationship hard to repair.
As a writer myself, I find myself sitting back now and then to ask myself, “Does this betray the reader’s trust?” While I have to be true to myself, I have to be true to my audience, to the level of quality and the type of story my audience expects.
In The Pippington Tales, for example, I try to err on the side of romantic comedy versus on the side of darkness and despair (a tiger in my world would probably be cuddly). If I am going to do something unexpected, I need to create subtle tracks of it in the world and the story, and build to the surprise. If the surprise is just dropped like a stink bomb, the reader is going to wrinkle their nose and toss the book away.
I might be a new author, just beginning my career, but I still feel a responsibility to the hundred or so people who’ve taken a chance and bought my book. They are with me, at my computer as I work, because they are as much a part of my book as I am.
(By the way, I hope this is the blog post you were looking for.)
- What books or movies have twisted away from your expectations?
- What do you do with a book which is not what you expected?
- How do you keep your own writing on point and within what your readers are looking for?
- If you were a stormtrooper on patrol, looking for a pair of droids, and saw an older gentleman, a young man, and two droids cruising into town in a landspeeder, would you fall for a Jedi Mind Trick?
- If you could choose a classic Star Trek villain for the upcoming film, who would you pick and why?
- Do you think J.J. Abrams will uphold our trust or break our trust in Episode VII?
Disclaimer: While, I like the thought of cuddly tigers, I am not the most cuddly person myself – I will hug friends I haven’t seen in a long time, but I won’t hug at every greeting.
Side Note: I was listening to this segment from All Things Considered on NPR the other day, and I think it’s a good demonstration of the type of fire the project for my internship is trying to prevent in the state of Utah.
If any writers out there need some information on how forest fires work, I can help you out.