Chapter 45: Great Expectations
A few weeks ago I, a notoriously slow reader, was lumbering my way through a novel with which I had fallen in love. Because I am such a slow reader, my relationships with stories play out over time, and perhaps that is why I feel so connected to the people who populate the worlds those stories transport me to. I’m with them for what feels like forever.
I was approaching the end of the novel. This saddened me. I was not ready for the story to be over, when out of nowhere, the author lost me, quickly and forever.
I will not tell you the name of the novel nor identify the author because I do not want to ruin the book if you are reading it or plan to. I thought it was terrific until the author made a decision that I felt – not thought but felt, deeply – undermined my relationship with the story.
The author killed a central character. Authors kill characters all the time. That’s what writers do and we as readers generally accept the death of characters we love or maybe only like, even if those deaths move us to tears. This death was different. One minute the character was alive and happy and the next the character was dead, having succumbed in a way that had no connection to the plot. It just happened.
I can see how the author might have concluded that killing this character was the only path to the end. Yet it infuriated me. But why? It was not the death itself. Rather, it was about how I felt when a relationship with a story that I had come to see one way suddenly became something altogether different.
E.M. Forster described the work writers do as taking readers by the hand and leading them to the mountaintop. But what happens when readers feel as if the writer has, without warning, let go of their hand just as they were approaching the summit?
I recognize that I could be describing a relationship with a person whom we think we know and who becomes a stranger. At the risk of elevating too greatly what we as writers do, should we consider the relationships our readers have with the stories we tell? And by extension, should we also be thinking of what we owe our readers and what they should reasonably expect from us?
I had chosen to read this novel because the writer, though not explicitly, had given me a sense of what I should expect. I understood what I was in for and accepted, too, some wiggle room: Plots have unexpected twists and surprises, which are often what keep us connected and asking, “what happened next?”
One of the pleasures of reading, in fact, is being manipulated. We willingly, happily, eagerly place ourselves in the hands of an author who we count on to catapult us through time and place, through the intricacies of lives and relationships. We also expect bad things to happen. We expect, say, that when the cheerful wife kisses her happy police detective husband goodbye the detective is, as one of my children says, a “target head.” As good as dead.
There is, however, a line between manipulation – which we welcome – and feeling jerked around, which we do not. James Joyce did not begin “Finnegan’s Wake” in the rat-a-tat-tat of a tabloid newspaper story only to switch to a thicket of invented language. You cannot read such novels as “Infinite Jest” or “Carrie” and think – it’s not as if you weren’t warned that it might be either baffling or terrifying. And even if the twists reveal themselves slowly – think a noir detective novel like “The Big Sleep” – authors understand the wisdom and necessity of dropping hints, of foreshadowing, because doing so strengthens our connection to the story by reminding us that we are along for the ride.
But how do we know if we’ve gone too far? How do we know when we have created one set of expectations and then ignored them? It is a question worth considering because although you may want to think of yourself as a writer who’d never do such a thing, the chances are you already have, even if you did not know it. Analytics can tell you many things, but not whether readers stopped because they felt they’d been subject to a bait and switch. Sometimes you need someone to tell you.
Years ago, when I was new to this work, I wrote a newspaper story about an elderly man in Plainfield, New Jersey who, in his youth, had been a boxer on the rise. His name was Spencer Powell but went by the nickname “Six Second” by virtue of having knocked out an opponent six seconds into a fight. The legend of Six Second Powell, alas, did not end with a title fight and when I met him he was living alone and with regret at the greatness that had eluded him.
As I write this I am looking at a yellowed copy of that story. The story is okay, which is to say I can look at it without wincing at my writing from so long ago. In it I tell the story of his rise and his plateau and then shift to the present, with him in a small apartment with little to recall his boxing career but a scrapbook. People, he said, still stopped him to recall his glory days: “A lot of fellas talk to me and tell me that I should have been up there and that’s what hurts – when they tell me that.”
That was the penultimate paragraph. I should have ended it there. But instead I went on and closed with this: When Powell goes home and thinks about how close he came to glory and what he never was, his eyes fill with tears and he wants to cry because he knows that now the chance will never come again.
I was very proud of my story and sent it to my closest friend Miles Corwin who, like me, was then a boxing fan. He called a few days later. I can still recall his reaction – You lost me with the tears. Where did that come from? Miles, a long time reporter at the Los Angeles Times and PEN Award winning author, teaches in the Literary Nonfiction Program at the UC-Irvine. When I called to ask about the story he confessed that he did not remember it but nonetheless knew what he would have done as my editor.
“I would not have told you to cut it,” he said of the out-of-nowhere tears. “I would have told you to move it up higher and provide some context. Here’s a person reflecting on his life and career. It raises more questions than it answers. Your job as the writer is to answer questions. His comment is not the end of the interview. It’s where it begins.”
I suspect that I was trying to go for something dramatic. But I did not understand how to achieve it. Instead, I had waited until the very end to throw the image of those tears at the reader, as if to say, Look how sad he is. I had told a story about disappointment, not tragedy. As a result, the tears came not as a plot twist that a reader could absorb and think, Yes that fits. Rather, they came out of the blue, like a deus ex machina ending, though not with the gods descending to set things straight, but like a character killed off for no apparent reason. There was no pleasure for the reader in the surprise, or rather the shock. How could there be when all along the expectation was for something else.
Can writers ever get away with violating the unwritten rule of reader expectations? I put the question to my Shakespeare scholar brother, James. He knew of only one.
“Shakespeare may be the only exception to the rule: don’t mess with audience expectations,” he said. “And he only did so at the height of his powers, in King Lear. In older versions of the story—including one recently on the Elizabethan stage – the story had a happy ending. Lear is alive at play’s end, and is reconciled with his youngest daughter. Imagine going to see Shakespeare’s version of this familiar story, expecting much the same, only to see Lear drag Cordelia’s corpse onstage and then watch as his heart breaks. It so unsettled audiences that by the end of the 17th century playwright Nahum Tate restored the much desired happy ending—and that’s how King Lear was staged for the next 150 years or so.
“The moral: don’t trifle with expectations, unless you are as good as Shakespeare.”