Tuesday, July 10, 2007

What Does the Writer owe the Reader

Eleanor was on a panel about this at WisCon, and she talked about it here . It's an important question and I really wanted to come back to it. Eleanor's post included the following:

"Ellen Kushner said writers owe readers the truth, which I guess is true.

I would say the writer owes readers -- and herself -- the best job she can do.

I tend to believe that the writer owes readers a work that will make their lives better, something they can use in dealing with life."

I agree with all these points, especially the second one, and yet...I want to say something more.

I guess for me it's contextual. What story am I trying to tell? Who is the character I'm currently writing? When is the story set? And where? Those are all the sorts of things that will determine what I owe the reader in a given piece. Most importantly of all, what am I trying to achieve with this story?

Sometimes, as in the case of the hard science fiction shorts I wrote for middle school students, it's conveying good, real, science in a way that lets student see the gears move. Sometimes, I owe the reader a true representation of my core beliefs. Sometimes, if the character disagrees with me, I owe my reader the best arguments I can make against those same beliefs. Sometimes I just owe the reader a damn good ride, or some laughs.

It's good to write truth. It's good to give a reader something they can use to make their lives better. It's good to make a reader laugh or cry or think deeply. But you don't have to do it all at once. No one story should have to carry everything the writer hopes to accomplish with their fiction.

Picture a story as a boat. Yes, there are great ships that can ferry a life's work across an ocean—stories that can do everything. But there are also submarines and canoes and even surfboards. Stories that touch you beneath the waterline of the subconscious, or that glide silently across the lake of the mind with a single smart thing loaded amidships, or that just give you a hella ride through the surf. Every single one of them has its proper place and purpose and that's important to remember.

The key isn't to do everything every time, it's to do what you want to do this time to the best of your ability, and it's okay if all you're shooting for in a given story is one pure silly smile. Don't let yourself get trapped into thinking beyond the needs of the story.

Thoughts? Comments? Questions?


Anonymous said...

The implicit contract between writer and reader came up a lot at CONvergence this weekend. I remember saying that the reader should be given the story that they think they are being given (i.e., not what was done in the movie Vanilla Sky a few years back, where a mind-f*^k mystery turned into a scifi in the last three minutes.)

Kelly Swails said...

Yeah, I hear ya, Y. As a reader, I want different things from different stories. I don't want my chick-lit to try to be heavy and preachy and I don't want my espionage novels to be fluffy. Sure, it's good to laugh/cry/think with every book, but it's unrealistic to expect everything from one story.

As a writer, I think it's crippling to expect any one story to "be perfect" and "have everything." Just write the story that's in you; it'll connect with someone out there.

Mostly when I read, I just expect to be entertained and not treated like an idiot. If a book accomplishes that I'm usually set.

Anonymous said...

If the story's immersive, I'm usually satisfied. That's as broad as a description as anything else, though, I suppose. Hmph.

That twist on Vanilla Sky sounds like a lot of anime, Sean. No matter what the concept of the series, they often finish with tentacles. Eeck.

For a weird thought, if one story could write everything, there wouldn't be anything more to write. And that would bloody suck.

Kelly McCullough said...

Ryan, love that final note. I hadn't thought of it and it make for interesting contemplation.

Sean, yeah, the implicit contract stuff was interesting, I think there's a post in there somewhere when I have more time.

X, good points.