Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Fulfilling Your Promises to the Reader

Ever had a favorite TV show that didn’t pan out in the end? I have, a couple of times. In many cases this is because ratings went down and the production company decides it’s time to wrap things up, so the screenwriters slap something together. That’s typical. But what about a series that was planned from the start, the producers knew it would go on for X number of seasons and then it would end? You’d think they’d be better at keeping their ducks in a row. Not always.

A very much enjoyed show jilted me in the end, as a viewer. Every season they built up expectations that the two main characters had this great destiny and would change the course of the world. All the characters’ hopes built on that, every episode plot arc made sure to make mention of this fact. Decisions were based on it, lives changed. Then we got to the final season, tension building, the climax happening, and…the pivotal main character died. And the other main character faded into the shadows. There was a brief, well-the-world-went-on scene with a secondary character taking the helm. So disappointed. In fact, I felt lied to. The writers not only dropped the ball, they ran over it with a steam-roller.

The same thing has been known to happen in fiction. A writer writes a book that is then built into a series. Now, if the story wasn’t originally intended to be more than one book, the writer has something of a problem, which we can talk about another time. On the other hand, if the writer intended a series all along, they have to make sure they don’t disappoint the reader.

In an epic series, no matter the genre, there is a main story arc. This is the epic problem for the length of the series. It’s introduced in the first book, but not resolved until the last. Each volume of the series should have individual arcs that are spawned from or interact with the main problem, each volume having a sense of resolution at the end.

I’ve picked up a series, been intrigued by the overall arc to have to read each book in the series. It’s the glue that holds my interest, even if it seems to take ages to get to, or I don’t care about the individual arc of a particular volume in the series. A good main arc will do that. Writers should take care that the individual arcs are just as good and engaging, that the writer isn’t stringing readers along for the sake of producing more books.

Reader expectations need to be a consideration, especially when the writer is the one who set the bar and created those expectations. If a main character is destined to be king, they should end up as king. If someone is haunted by a horrible past, we expect to see reactions, situations, and problems arise from that past. Each volume in a series should be tight, propelling the reader toward that main arc’s resolution. It’s okay to have a twist or two, which alters the main arc’s expectations, but not at the last minute because the writer wrote himself into a corner and couldn’t figure out how to get out, or because he got tired of writing the series or about those characters.
Going back to the TV show scenario, in a recent interview the producers of the show said they had their ending figured out early on and knew the main character would die and be succeeded by the secondary character. While it may have been an attempt to assuage angry fans, I think it fanned the flames. Why? Because while yes, they did build up the secondary character to be a believable successor for the main character, they still continued to ply the audience with promises of a great future for the two main characters. Huge mistake. If a major change was in order, they needed to stop making those promises and show how decisions and events were altering the main arc.

Probably the best way to examine a main plot arc and make sure that each volume in a series is pulling its weight is to do a simple outline. Make a note next to each volume’s summary as to how it moves the main arc forward or changes it. Lay the groundwork for changes so they don’t come off as convenient escapes for the writer. Make sure you have enough material to cover your projected number of books in the series. If not, trim the number down. And above all, make sure you’re not going to disappoint your audience with your ending. The ending in a series should still be a contrast and a reflection on the beginning of the series.

Writers who have planned for these things tend to have happier readers. Now if we could get more TV producers and screenwriters to do the same…


  1. I'm wondering what show you were watching. It's not one of mine, though I have certainly been disappointed by endings. Especially endings where the writers seemed just to be tired of the whole thing and want it over whether people are happy or not.

    All the points your bring up are so valid. It really got my brain clicking as I consider a possible series of my own.

    1. Writers getting tired of their show means either the show's dragged on too long or someone needs a shot of enthusiasm. =)