Cherishing Reader Trust

Sexy Games by Jeffe KennedySharing with you all the Italian cover of Going Under – “translated” as Sexy Games over there. I totally want those shoes!

(Google translate tells me that tagline says “when the offense runs in network,” which I’m sure is more like “when transgressions happen online,” but if anyone knows Italian, please chime in!)

I’ve had this blog topic on my list for a couple of weeks now, since I read a book that left me both furious and fragile. With the brouhaha surrounding yesterday’s release of J.R. Ward’s new Black Dagger Brotherhood book, this seems like a good time to talk about the contract with the reader. (If you don’t know about what’s happened with this book, here is a good summary, but very full of spoilers, so be warned.) Essentially, Ward made the choice to end this book with non-HEA (Happy Ever After. By all accounts, it’s a sad ending. She wrote a Goodreads post about why she felt compelled to do this. In that, she says:

I don’t “choose” things. I don’t get to pick who ends up with whom, or what happens. I appreciate from the outside how it must appear, that the author is some how “in control,” but that is simply not my experience.

I get this. I really do. In fact, just yesterday I had lunch with a visual artist friend and she asked me about writing my heroine Amelia in The Tears of the Rose and why I’d chosen to make her difficult to like at first. That was the answer I gave – I didn’t choose Amelia. That’s how she came to me. Also, though, I’ve always been fascinated by the effects of physical beauty on a person’s character. At the beginning, Ami is spoiled, self-centered and totally buys her own press. Over the course of the story she grows up and, I hope, redeems herself. Many readers corroborate that they were cheering for her by the end. Some readers didn’t get that far. I could have made it easier on myself by making a different choice, but this was the story I wanted to tell.

So, my point is that, while authors don’t “choose” certain things, we are ultimately in control of how we go about fulfilling the Reader Contract.

In romance, that contract is always always always that there’s an HEA or HFN (Happy For Now) at the END OF THE BOOK. Plot threads can be left open, but the lovers must be at least temporarily united.

Otherwise it’s not a romance.

Period.

Do all books need to end this way? No. But then they’re *not* romances, you feel me? (Little BDB joke there for you.)

Okay, so this is what happened to me.

I read a debut book by a self-published author. I mention this last because I think it’s key. She gave me a copy and I read it with every intention – if I liked it enough – of pimping it far and wide. And I loved it! Smart, sexy, compelling heroine, interesting conflict. I was so happy that I’d be able to spread the word for her.

Then I reached the end.

Now, first, before the actual ending, some new conflict arose. It didn’t make me nervous as a reader so much as flag a potential problem. As a writer I’m sensitive to story structure and this new conflict felt both somewhat contrived and out of rhythm with the action of the story. It occurred at a place where I expected the existing conflict to peak and start resolving. But no.

THEN.

Then the hero and heroine have their big falling out, they’re estranged and the heroine gets a call that something terrible has happened to the hero and

BOOM

The End.

Because, of course, there’s a sequel.

One that I will never read. I very likely won’t read this author again because now I can’t trust her. The betrayal cut that much deeper because she did write such a great story, seducing me to be invested in the characters. I read with great anticipation for how she’d resolve their conflict and I ended up feeling almost physically ill from the disappointment.

Seriously. I couldn’t believe how upset I felt. This wasn’t a deliciously tragic ending or a book that haunted me with the emotional resonance – The Prince of Tides is one of my all-time favorites – this was a smack in the face. The author didn’t care about our contract, which is why I mentioned that she self-published it and therefore didn’t have someone to warn her about this.

As writers, I know we sometimes rebel against genre conventions. I felt compelled to write Ami’s story the way I did but I *could* have chosen not to.I made a deliberate choice, knowing that it would be a risky one.

But I would never betray reader trust in this way. It’s not edgy or artistic or meaningful. That kind of thing is disrespecting the emotional investment readers trust us with.

A very real thing that we should cherish.


Comments

Cherishing Reader Trust — 18 Comments

  1. Pingback: Jeffe Kennedy » Cherishing Reader Trust

  2. I hadn’t heard about the uproar over the Black Dagger Brotherhood. I’m one of the five people who hasn’t read the series (it’s on my TBR list, I swear!). While I’m a person who doesn’t have to have a neatly wrapped up ending to a story or movie, I know I’m in the minority on this.

    However, what I have come to understand and respect is the contract we make with the reader (or viewer, thinking about the How I Met Your Mother debacle). As you stated, people read romance because they’re expecting a happy for now ending, at the very least. I think it’s fine if a writer doesn’t want to do a traditional happy ending. But then don’t call it a romance, because it isn’t. And readers will feel angry, bitter and cheated.

    By the way, kickass Italian cover!

    • I don’t have to have a neatly wrapped up ending, necessarily, but I do need a certain fulfillment of the implied promise. The How I Met Your Mother debacle is a really good example from a different genre and medium. It’s easy to lose perspective on the expectations from the other end of the creative experience – that there ARE expectations, in some cases.

      Thanks on the cover – totally kickass!

  3. I agree with Reese. If you don’t want to write a happy ending to your story, don’t call it a romance. The happy ending is the reason I read romance. If I want a story that ends in sadness and angst, I’ll read a literary novel. Or watch the news.

  4. I stopped reading BDB a few books ago, had loved the series but then she undid some well established things between two of the major characters that I had really appreciated in an earlier book and I basically said, I’m done. I totally agree with your point about the contract with the reader – well said. Personally, I was in awe of Amelia’s character arc in TEARS OF THE ROSE, because by the end I was absolutely on her side. Love that series!

    • I fell off a few books ago, too, Veronica – in part because she moved away from satisfying my romance itch while still dangling the romance promise. And yes – that undoing really upset me, also! Thank you for the kind words on TEARS. That was definitely a risk, so I’m grateful that it worked, at least for some!

  5. Regarding the novel you read with the cliffhanger ending…I’ve only read one series that follows a single couple (in fact, I still haven’t read the final book). So I’m curious about how writers who write successful single couple series manage to keep readers engaged through three or more novels.

    • You know, I think I blogged about rereading the JD Robb series to see how she did it. I think the emotional arcs need to be more subtle and the plots have to rest on something besides only the romance.

  6. Great post!
    I have refused to read the next book in a series a few times because I was betrayed that way. And one time I stopped reading a book right during the first chapter where a character had suddenly ‘off screen’ done something without explanation that in previous books was told he would never ever do.

  7. The plot description of The Mark Of The Tala was tailor-made to appeal to me, so it was no surprise that I loved it. With The Tears Of The Rose, I started it with that whole question of “how in the heck is she going to make this girl like-able?”, but I *wanted* to see that happen and I *trusted* that you could pull it off, which, of course, you did :) I don’t actually read much “romance”, mostly fantasy, but even there a “satisfactory” ending at least, is generally expected/delivered (with notable exceptions, most of which I don’t read). Even Lurlene McDaniel’s books, in which one of the main characters almost always dies, had endings which were, if not happy, satisfying in a hopeful sort of way.

    • That makes me so happy, Evergreen, that I managed to live up to that trust! I think your point about even fantasy having the “satisfying in a hopeful way” endings – with notable exceptions – is a really good one. Even mysteries and thrillers usually end with good triumphing over evil.

  8. The only reason I kept reading Tears was because I trusted you to take me through Ami’s transformation, and you did! I love that. As for BDB, I missed the uproar, probably because I stopped reading a few years ago. I know a lot of people like series that go on and on and on, but I’m not one of them. Doesn’t matter how good the writer is.

  9. Pingback: In Romance We Trust - The Contemporary Romance Cafe

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