Saturday, August 22, 2009

The Return of Preference v. Weakness

Original post on this topic: Preference v. Weakness.

About a month ago, before taking a brief hiatus from the blogosphere, I posted on preference versus weakness, or what the audience expects but doesn't get from a story. Is the omission a weakness in the story, or just a misapplied expectation?

By expectation, I don't mean what any reader can reasonably expect of any story: an intriguing premise, good writing, interesting characters, a solid plot. Big splashy action pieces or the minute dramas of everyday life, stories must draw readers into their worlds.

That's why I read stories -- to be taken somewhere else -- but where I am taken depends on the story itself, and some journeys I've enjoyed more than others. Some writers are excellent guides. Even if I don't enjoy the journey because the subject matter is difficult or the ending is hard or less than uplifting, a skilled writer can lure me down an unpleasant path, and I willingly follow, not because I want to be depressed but because I must know where the path leads. I can mentally prepare myself for the worst, because I'm being led by a writer who knows the way.

On the other hand, some writers need guides themselves, having tangled their tales in plot threads or lost their stories through gaping plot holes. I've been there myself. Unfortunately, it's not a typical tourist trap, though the cost can still be high, and, no, it doesn't come with a t-shirt.

So, what happens when a book doesn't meet my expectations?

There might be a variety of reasons it doesn't do so, from poor marketing -- the jacket copy or the cover picture has little or nothing to do with the content -- to a build-up that fizzles out by the end of the book, from weak motivations for character actions to improbable situations (improbable for the world the author has created), from promises made early in the book that aren't fulfilled later to overwriting (florid detail and emotion, or action scenes that stretch into the ridiculous) or underwriting (so bare-bones that setting and characters are not established), and so on. Those are weaknesses.

Preferences might include a happy ending instead of a depressing one, a character who lives when he should have died (or vice versa), a certain pair of characters ending up together romantically instead of with other people or with no one, the good guys winning, characters making wise decisions instead of bonehead ones. Personally, I like crisp and clear action/fight scenes; most fights end a lot sooner than most Hollywood flicks would have us believe.

If I my preferences aren't met but the story is solid, preferences go out the window. As long as the internal logic of the story holds, and as long as the writer has done his/her job, then I can still be satisfied with the book, even if I'd rather certain elements of it had been different.

The same concept holds for movies. Stories are stories. Whether or not their core is solid and dramatic, they depend on their tellers, and it's up to us to make sure we tell the stories well.

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