August 23, 2017, 09:04:34 AM

Author Topic: Risky ideas that might not go well with readers  (Read 317 times)

Offline Yora

Risky ideas that might not go well with readers
« on: August 12, 2017, 04:15:33 PM »
While I think that originality is overrated, stories need to avoid being predictable to be interesting. If everything plays out just the way as it is expected for a story of its type, there is little to discover or look forward to.

But narrative conventions didn't come randomly from nowhere. They became conventions because they worked and still remain working. When you do something that is unconventional, it should be a carefully made decision and not just a whim. But when it does work out, it can often be a big boost for the work.

I'm curious to hear about what ideas others have had for making stories fresh and compelling by doing something differently than would commonly be expected.

A big one that I've always found very fascinating is the whole field of defeat. And I am not talking about the regular end of Act 2 setback, but the protagonist actually failing to accomplish what was pursued throughout the whole story. Both the situations of dealing with defeat and the protagonist giving up the goal are really fascinating things that appear to be pretty much completely absent in americanized Western adventure fiction. A hero giving up is just unthinkable.
I think to make this work, there needs to be a distinction between the plot and the protagonist's story. To make defeat in the plot work out in a satisfying way, it still needs to end in a proper resolution for the character. Instead of just petering out at the end of the story, the protagonist has to make a deliberate choice to turn away from the plot to get a better personal outcome. As in the classic closing line "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn." It's still reaching an end through agency. Or alternatively, if the protagonist gets completely lost and doesn't learn anything or make any personal growth, it needs to be the result of the character's own mistakes and errors that led to this outcome, instead of random outside influences.

Another idea that I think could be really fun, but which I think readers would appreciate even less, is to have secondary characters simply disappear while off screen without the protagonists or the readers ever knowing what happened to them. There's a big confusing action scene, characters get separated, and the protagonist never hears of them again. That seems like a very plausible scenario for most kinds of worlds that fantasy stories tend to be set in.
I think that perhaps this would be a bit more satisfying to readers if those characters are not simply never mentioned again, but when the protagonist or at least the narrator brings them up some more before writing them down as missing in action. Just to avoid the likely feeling that the author forgot about the character and didn't remember to pick that story branch up again. But would that be enough? This still seems like something that could make you really unpopular.
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Online ScarletBea

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Re: Risky ideas that might not go well with readers
« Reply #1 on: August 12, 2017, 04:21:22 PM »
One idea that I found really interesting, was that we were following the lives of 3 characters in different places, and then towards the end of that book we find out that they're actually the same person, at different points of their life.
It might not have worked, for me it was fantastic.

(is this a 'risky idea'?)
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Offline The Gem Cutter

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Re: Risky ideas that might not go well with readers
« Reply #2 on: August 12, 2017, 05:41:11 PM »
First, there's a big difference between defeat and giving up. In Fantasy, I think the Children of Hurin is a great example of glorious yet tragic defeat. The Spartans are defeated in 300. The rangers and Delta are defeated in Black Hawk Down. So is Rocky in the first movie. Saving Private Ryan is a defeat, in that nearly all the characters but one are killed - although the core missions of saving Ryan and defending the bridge are successful.

I struggle to imagine the satisfaction that could be gained attending to a character that gives up - and I am differentiating from stories where the character changes their goal, or the story is about the character's growth/maturity, whatever, and their discreet goals are secondary

I think to make this work, there needs to be a distinction between the plot and the protagonist's story. To make defeat in the plot work out in a satisfying way, it still needs to end in a proper resolution for the character.
The film Rush has some features of this, but takes an interesting half-way path between the two main characters' quests for supremacy and their paths as people.
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Offline Yora

Re: Risky ideas that might not go well with readers
« Reply #3 on: August 12, 2017, 09:17:12 PM »
I generally mean the whole field of "the stated task at the beginning is not accomplished by the end". Private Ryan is saved and the Persians don't conquer Greece. The goal is accomplished, even though some or all of the heroes don't survive.

What I am thinking of is the viillain getting away, the treasure not being found, the kingdom not being saved, or the mystery not being solved. But as I see it, the story of a character is not really about completing the task, but about fulfilling some desire that the character hopes to achieve by completing a task.

If the character finds a way to fulfill the desire without completing the task or by deliberately abandoning the task, then I think you can still have a satisfying resolution of the character's story.

But audiences can be stupid and complain about wanting a definitive answer for questions whose lack of an answer is actually critical to the meaning of the work. Like the suitcase in Pulp Fiction or the final shot of Inception. However, I think any work only has a real potential to be great instead of just okay if you trust in your audience. As long as too literally minded readers don't spread a reputation of it being incoherent and messy (which I guess is something to look out for while writing it) I think it's better to give something clever and complex to some of your readers instead of keeping it simple for everyone.
It's always only the works with clever depths that become classic that stay remembered.

One idea that I found really interesting, was that we were following the lives of 3 characters in different places, and then towards the end of that book we find out that they're actually the same person, at different points of their life.
It might not have worked, for me it was fantastic.

(is this a 'risky idea'?)
If not handled well, I could see this easily being regarded as a cheap gimmick that comes from nowhere on the last pages.

I think it basically is a plot twist. And like all good plot twists, it needs to give added meaning to the work as a whole. It would have to make a difference that gives the readers real added value. If you can do that I can see it as making for a quite interesting experience, but it certainly sounds challenging.
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Offline cupiscent

Re: Risky ideas that might not go well with readers
« Reply #4 on: August 12, 2017, 11:26:41 PM »
I'm doing a writing course with Cat Pacat at the moment, and in this month's webinar she was talking about using and subverting traditional plot structures - like the Hero's Journey and the classic three-act structure. She noted that because these structures are so pervasive, they feed audience expectations, so you have to be careful with how you mess around with them, but you can get big payoffs from doing so successfully. So, for instance, she was talking about how The Hunger Games basically exactly follows the Hero's Journey, while quietly undercutting it at every stage. (Katniss doesn't refuse the call, she volunteers to save another; the mentor is a drunkard who refuses to help; etc.)

I think my bottom line here is that, like everything with writing, you can do some really powerful stuff by doing something different, but you have to craft it with great care for audience expectations, for what you're promising, and for what you're delivering. So if the end is a tragedy, you have to shape the book in such a way that that tragedy is still a satisfying conclusion to the book you've written, otherwise you get a lot of disappointed readers. (There are established plot arcs for tragedies; the trick would be to follow one of those while making it seem like you're following a heroic arc, but have enough of the scaffolding showing that the ending isn't a total surprise, the reader realises they should have seen it coming.) Similarly, if you're going to change priorities halfway through, seeds have to have been planted of that or the reader's going to be annoyed that the book they were invested in has disappeared.

Planting the seeds is important. In the example ScarletBea mentioned, I felt that the seeds were very strongly planted: I'd suspected what was happening from about halfway through the book, and things just got clearer and clearer from there.

Offline The Gem Cutter

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Re: Risky ideas that might not go well with readers
« Reply #5 on: August 13, 2017, 04:04:10 AM »
I'm doing a writing course with Cat Pacat at the moment, and in this month's webinar she was talking about using and subverting traditional plot structures - like the Hero's Journey and the classic three-act structure. She noted that because these structures are so pervasive, they feed audience expectations, so you have to be careful with how you mess around with them, but you can get big payoffs from doing so successfully. So, for instance, she was talking about how The Hunger Games basically exactly follows the Hero's Journey, while quietly undercutting it at every stage. (Katniss doesn't refuse the call, she volunteers to save another; the mentor is a drunkard who refuses to help; etc.)

I think my bottom line here is that, like everything with writing, you can do some really powerful stuff by doing something different, but you have to craft it with great care for audience expectations, for what you're promising, and for what you're delivering. So if the end is a tragedy, you have to shape the book in such a way that that tragedy is still a satisfying conclusion to the book you've written, otherwise you get a lot of disappointed readers. (There are established plot arcs for tragedies; the trick would be to follow one of those while making it seem like you're following a heroic arc, but have enough of the scaffolding showing that the ending isn't a total surprise, the reader realises they should have seen it coming.) Similarly, if you're going to change priorities halfway through, seeds have to have been planted of that or the reader's going to be annoyed that the book they were invested in has disappeared.

Planting the seeds is important. In the example ScarletBea mentioned, I felt that the seeds were very strongly planted: I'd suspected what was happening from about halfway through the book, and things just got clearer and clearer from there.
My analogy to creating anything involving customers is a restaurant meal. You can make new dishes and desserts, innovate drinks and appetizers - but do not violate the expectations of the meal. Drinks and appetizers, then perhaps salad, main course, dessert, and coffee or espresso.
People will not accept major deviations, and the ones they will accept they will only accept in discreet components of the whole.

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Offline cupiscent

Re: Risky ideas that might not go well with readers
« Reply #6 on: August 13, 2017, 04:20:14 AM »
My analogy to creating anything involving customers is a restaurant meal. You can make new dishes and desserts, innovate drinks and appetizers - but do not violate the expectations of the meal. Drinks and appetizers, then perhaps salad, main course, dessert, and coffee or espresso.
People will not accept major deviations, and the ones they will accept they will only accept in discreet components of the whole

I totally agree, but you can take it further. I think you can violate the standard expectations of a meal (like the order, or like which elements belong in which category) but the customer needs to have come in expecting that. If you set up a haute-cuisine place, you can get crazy because that's what the customer expects - they will actually be disappointed by anything too standard. But if the sign says "McDonalds", the audience gets suspicious when you start getting fancy. Do you know what you're doing? Are you sure?

Transpose it to writing: Make sure the things your book delivers are the things you were promising. If you plan to deliver wild surprises, make sure that was clear at least in principle from the outset.

Offline Fallen One

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Re: Risky ideas that might not go well with readers
« Reply #7 on: August 13, 2017, 01:45:57 PM »

I struggle to imagine the satisfaction that could be gained attending to a character that gives up - and I am differentiating from stories where the character changes their goal, or the story is about the character's growth/maturity, whatever, and their discreet goals are secondary


 What if they realize that their goal is not worth the price they'd have to pay in order to achieve it? For example, Captain Ahab realizing that his obsession with Moby Dick could only end in tragedy and becoming a more reasonable person (I know he's not the hero of the story; it's just an example).
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Offline The Gem Cutter

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Re: Risky ideas that might not go well with readers
« Reply #8 on: August 13, 2017, 03:59:17 PM »

I struggle to imagine the satisfaction that could be gained attending to a character that gives up - and I am differentiating from stories where the character changes their goal, or the story is about the character's growth/maturity, whatever, and their discreet goals are secondary


 What if they realize that their goal is not worth the price they'd have to pay in order to achieve it? For example, Captain Ahab realizing that his obsession with Moby Dick could only end in tragedy and becoming a more reasonable person (I know he's not the hero of the story; it's just an example).

Sure - I can imagine a reasonable Ahab, but then he's no longer worthy of a book. And even if he was, the book is no longer about an obsessive man who puts his duties as captain behind his obsession. Pursuing the whale at all costs stops being a viable metaphor for ambition or possession, etc.

The stories in books and film are necessarily interesting - Lord knows the world is full of boring people, situations, and outcomes, and no one wants to spend money and precious time to read about them or watch them fumble through another dull day. There's a host of real people whose true stories and actual lives are as dull as the day is long - so if what one wants is truth, it's everywhere.

So - the story has to be about something - and whatever it is, Ahab's path from folly to wisdom or Ahab's pursuit of his obsession, it needs to be entertaining. And I can imagine one might write both of those stories very well and achieve that goal. But they would be fundamentally different. Imagine a story where Dr. Frankenstein realizes the moral implications of his work - or somehow manages to sidestep them? What if Dr. Frankenstein's monster was not scary, but bright and charismatic and innocent and naïve? Well, that's A.I. or Bicentennial Man - both good stories, imho. But they're not Frankenstein.

My point is you cannot have it both ways - you can build a tale where some assumptions and conventions are turned around - but whether it is a character-driven tale like Bicentennial Man or a plot-driven tale like Frankenstein, the audience needs a reason to show up - some drama and conflict, and achieving it will require a plot structure, and that structure will follow one of several major groups of patterns - and you will arrive where you started - at the form you are questioning and wondering why. Roller coasters share a pattern - because their form provides the energy and the energy makes the ride fun - and people don't show up to admire the engineer's talent or the builder's skill. They want a fun ride.
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Offline Lanko

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Re: Risky ideas that might not go well with readers
« Reply #9 on: August 14, 2017, 02:56:41 AM »
I once posted around here about a story idea where we accompany the heroes and the villain's POV. No grey villain, one who really felt he was entitled to everything and wanted to see a map with only his kingdom's name in it. Simply because. But who's also extraordinarily intelligent and cunning, no cackling madman.

Then the heroes start to fight him, at through success and failures, they have one decisive battle, like the usual Act 2 Gates of Death stage. But after the big setback the heroes don't actually regroup and learn or have an insight or a force of will breakthrough. The setback was simply too big and instead they run for their lives.

We give the impression they might do a counter-attack or defeat the villain with some new thing, but the villain predicts it and in the end hunts and kills all the heroes and wins. This would happen at the end of the story, be it a standalone or book 3 of a trilogy, not at the beginning of the middle. No one else would rise and no sequels would be done.

Because sometimes evil wins, good people don't rise or do nothing and the best choice is to wait for it all to crumble under its own weight as time passes and to unnoticeable meanwhile.

It was pretty much a consensus that nobody would want to read a whole book a whole trilogy to have an ending like that, but I wouldn't mind writing it at some point even if infuriated readers. Others would probably be surprised.
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Offline The Gem Cutter

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Re: Risky ideas that might not go well with readers
« Reply #10 on: August 14, 2017, 03:31:30 AM »
I just read a book with exactly that outcome, the last of a series of series (3, 2, and 3 books long, respectively). Pretty shocking. There better be another series is all I can say. Not satisfying.
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Offline Eclipse

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Re: Risky ideas that might not go well with readers
« Reply #11 on: August 14, 2017, 06:46:09 AM »
Is that not called Horror?
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Offline S. K. Inkslinger

Re: Risky ideas that might not go well with readers
« Reply #12 on: August 14, 2017, 09:02:32 AM »
Is that not called Horror?

That's pretty much the only type of stories where you expect everyone (or at least the main characters) to die at the end.  ;D
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Offline Yora

Re: Risky ideas that might not go well with readers
« Reply #13 on: August 14, 2017, 11:58:08 AM »
I also like the idea of protagonists who aren't the most awesome people everywhere they go. Who blend into the crowd of other warriors and scoundrels and don't become famous figures of legend.
Though I guess the worst that could happen is that some people call the story not sufficiently epic or heroic enough. But it did work really well with Indiana Jones.
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