Monday, 4 November 2013

Do not trifle with readers' expectations

A couple of weeks ago Harper Collins published the third and final book, Allegiant, in Veronica Roth's popular trilogy. I'd actually bought a copy of the first book, Divergent, and got several chapters in when a horrible certainty came to me that Roth had sold the book as "Harry Potter meets The Hunger Games," and I went right off it.

Currently Allegiant is at number 5 in the US Kindle Store; it has 2,040 reviews with an average of 2.8 stars. Why the huge sales and the low customer ratings? Because Veronica Roth chose to end the series in a way that her readers hated. Here is a typical comment:

"I loved Divergent and Insurgent and was really looking forward to Allegiant. I don't recommend this book to anyone unless you want to be distraught and depressed for days afterwards. The first 300 pages are boring and totally detached from the plot of the first two books. The book picks up in the end only to leave the readers broken-hearted. There is no happy ending. There is no real closure. The author can do anything she wants with the final book and needless to say, I really dislike Veronica Roth as an author after reading this. Why end a once epic trilogy this way? I read books to be entertained and I was far from entertained. I recommend readers only reading the first two books and making up their own ending."

There is a compact between writers and readers; the reader will suspend disbelief, the writer will be true to the characters and the genre. How would we feel if Bertie Wooster suddenly murdered his Aunt Agatha? We would feel indignant and cheated, just like Roth's fans. I think there is an urge successful writers sometimes have to demonstrate they are really serious artists, prepared to shock and confound expectations. Doing this is generally a mistake.

It happens with screen writers, too. I still remember the final episode of MASH, where the writers, assured of a vast audience, decided to go all serious. Then there's the episode of Cheers where Sam discovers the dishy young woman accompanying an old friend is not his girlfriend but his daughter, and feels old and alone. This glum stuff is not what we watch Cheers for - we want to be amused, that's all.

It's difficult enough to write a good book without being wilful. Don't be wilful. Readers will not forgive you.


  1. It's fascinating to watch, isn't it? Same thing happened to the last Sookie Stackhouse book.

  2. I didn't know that. The Casual Vacancy disappointed a lot of readers, too.

  3. I liked Divergent a lot but I couldn't get into Insurgent because I started reading it too long after I'd read the first book and the author didn't bother to offer any sort of recap of who was who or where we were in the story. I know it's not easy to do well but it really does help to do it!

    And now I shall give this third book a miss. I like my fiction upbeat and I really can't see the point of reading something that is going to depress me.

  4. I get the feeling that most readers liked Insurgent less than Divergent. Many of the reviewers say they will give the films a miss when they come out, though they had been looking forward to them.

  5. I agree about the 'compact' between author and reader, and staying true to the tone and genre is usually wise. But on the other hand... should an author feel obliged to write what his or her readers expect? It's the author's book, after all. Readers are free to hate it, of course. But they shouldn't get to decide what happens in the book - that's the tail wagging the dog!

  6. Agreed, or authors would end up writing their own fanfiction :o)

    But I think the desire to shock, to do something unexpected just for the sake of it is unlikely to be in the best interests of the book. I also think this tends to happen when writers are at a loss for ideas.

  7. I wonder if the publishers pushed her to write a trilogy when there really wasn't one? Lots of writers seem to THINK they can do an idea over 3 books - but it's not as easy as it sounds. Look at 'Dune'. It was a great book and then the subsequent books got sillier and sillier. I can trot out quite a few examples along those lines.

  8. Possible - and she's only 25. Mortal Engines was written as a one-off, and I don't think the sequels are nearly as good. If readers enjoy a novel, they want more. I've been asked for sequels to most of my books, but it's next to impossible to write a satisfactory unplanned sequel. Too many neatly tied-up threads.

    JKR said it took her five years to complete the first Harry Potter as she had to work out the plots for the other six books in the series. That's the way to do it.

  9. When I read your first book, Lexi, I was impressed by the way you tied up all the loose ends. It was important to me to know what had happened to the minor characters as well as the main ones.

    I have pinned to my writing board "Unspoken Contract - The readers must have the answers at the end."

    For a certain short story I wrote recently I had to be dragged kicking and screaming to make sure I did just that, didn't I, David?
    And I think you were right.

    Thomas Hardy had a bad habit of upsetting me at the end. "Tess of the D'Urbervilles" is the only book I've flung across a room. You all know why, I expect! How could he... ah well, spoiler alert has shut me up.

    Lexi - love your short in "Off the Kuf".

  10. Thomas Hardy was somewhat gloomy, though wrote good poetry. Tess seemed to me a tiresome character, and Jude the Obscure even worse.

  11. How would we feel if Bertie Wooster suddenly murdered his Aunt Agatha?

    It could have happened as a tragic accident but knowing Woodhouse the circumstances would have been hilarious!

    I think there is an urge successful writers sometimes have to demonstrate they are really serious artists, prepared to shock and confound expectations

    If so I think that this is a great pity. A talented writer doesn't need to pamper to readers, but on the other hand to deliberately try to shock in order to prove something which has little relevance or interest to the reader seems stupid. Rather like a Dadaist artist drawing a moustache on the Mona Lisa.

    I think the novel is a medium for entertainment rather than protest.

    Of course this sort of thing rarely happens with romance novels where the HEA is mandatory! LOL

  12. What about the HFN ending - Happy For Now? That's acceptable these days too, I believe.

    "I think the novel is a medium for entertainment rather than protest." Agreed - and an author can slip in any number of messages while entertaining readers, if that's what s/he wants to do.

  13. Agreed. HFN can be projected to HEA in the reader's mind if they wish. HEA can mean Happy or Hopeful ever after.

    I hate novels that leave me in a depressed state of mind but am happy for authors to write such novels as long as I have enough warning to avoid them.

    I believe some folk like them. Like the Welsh lady overheard commenting to her friend outside the cinema. "It was so lovely. I cried all the way through" LOL

  14. Romeo and Juliet has had some success over the centuries, I believe... :o)