The Townhouse of Ideas

Betraying The Reader’s Trust

Previously, I mentioned my three “rules” of writing, which are:

“Rule” 1: Never bore your reader.

“Rule” 2: Never betray your reader’s trust.

“Rule” 3: If your ending doesn’t satisfy the reader, they won’t come back to read your next novel.

My husband and writing partner said to me: “You’re going to have to explain the second one.”

Yeah, I do have to.

Let me list ways of betraying the reader’s trust:

1/ Not playing fair with the reader. Dorothy L. Sayers said that a detective novel must play fair with the reader by giving the reader all the clues needed to solve the mystery.

If you’re writing a mystery novel and you do the following, you have betrayed the reader:

a/ If a character that’s hardly in the novel did the murder, or a character that’s introduced late in the book did it.

b/ If the ending depends on esoteric knowledge that the average reader doesn’t know.

For instance, a detective knows all the symptoms of dying by an obscure poison, but we know nothing about that poison. Now, in the internet age, we might be able to do research about obscure poisons, but in the olden times, if you couldn’t find the time to go to the library and spend hours reading up on obscure poisons, you’d probably feel cheated by the ending of a story like that.

c/ If you fail to mention an integral element to the mystery.

For instance, if your villain stuck the body in the fridge for about an hour before putting the body in the living room, screwing up the coroner’s time of death, but you failed to mention that the apartment had a refrigerator large enough to store a human body.

I can think up more, but you get the idea.

2/ Changing a character’s character alignment in order to make the character follow the plot. I call this the “Game of Thrones” problem.

3/ You come up with a crazy, convoluted plot, but the truth is, all your characters are dead. Guess which TV show botched that plot.

4/ The plot has several complications that the reader is reading the darned thing to figure out, but they all kind of fade away without adequate resolution. 

I got hooked on a manga once that had this problem. I won’t say the name of it, as the manga fans would hate me, but the plot complications were like this:

a/ Two young men loved the same young woman. We expected a big confrontation, but that subplot just petered out.

b/ There was a big mystery that we expected the young woman to be instrumental in solving, and… that didn’t happen.

We sat there, volume after volume, waiting to learn the big secret and how she would solve it.

The secret’s origin was boring, and the solution to it was a big shrug. What was worse, the young woman had nothing to do with solving the mystery!

Wicker Man Studios - Betraying the Reader's Trust

5/ The audience has expectations concerning how the plot will conclude—and you leave them disappointed. While it’s wonderful for an author to defy the audience’s expectations, you must come up with something even better than the audience had in mind or else the audience will get annoyed.

WandaVision had this problem. (Spoiler alert ahoy!)

The show was set up as a “can you, True Believer Marvel fans, solve the mystery before the casual viewer can?” Every week, there were “Easter egg” clues. The hardcore fans followed the clues diligently, and came up with some bitchin’ fan theories. Now, we all know that some easter eggs do not hatch. But with WandaVisionnone of the easter eggs hatched. Even the casual viewership figured out who the “big bad” was pretty quickly. 

Now, some people will yell “fannish entitlement” concerning the letdown that the fans had, and will say that the Marvel fans shouldn’t have concocted such wild fan theories. But the whole ad campaign, the marketing campaigns, and so on, were aimed at the hardcore Marvel fans solving the mystery of WandaVision before everyone else. The fans were actively encouraged to be one step ahead of the rest of the audience, as if to say, “What about you, viewer? Can you stay one step ahead of the other viewers? Do you see what’s coming?”

We expected Nightmare, and/or the X-Men (or at least one or two of them). We ended up with a “boner” joke. That felt like a real insult to the “True Believer” Marvel fans.

Now, maybe getting out the judgment hammer isn’t totally fair to WandaVision, because I understand that COVID screwed with them being able to make the series the way they’d hoped to make it, but… you see what I’m talking about, right?

Many viewers were fine with the series, as Elizabeth Olsen’s performance was inspired, but others still felt let down.

6/ The author changes genres on the audience in order to exploit the audience’s emotions.

I was watching a movie once that seemed to be a feel-good movie…

…and then, for no reason, tragedy occurred. It just came out of nowhere. I’m a person who gets emotionally attached to a book or a movie, so if the screenwriter had played it right, I would have gotten teary-eyed.

Instead… I laughed my head off. I’m sure some people would call me a monster, because the ending was soooo tragic, but the screenplay writer had done nothing to gain my trust! And if the rest of the movie had gone back to being a feel-good movie, I guess maybe I would’ve shrugged. But a tragedy that comes out of left field just to exploit my emotions is a betrayal of trust, so I ended up having a fit of the giggles instead of getting sad.

You can’t use the emotional hard sell on an audience member if you haven’t gained their trust by establishing the idea that tragedy might happen. You know, little clues here and there, along with a little foreshadowing. If you don’t do that, but you expect the audience to shed tears, the audience might join me in shaking their damned heads at your ending.

There are other ways to betray your audience’s trust, like killing off the most interesting characters and leaving the boring ones, but I think you get my drift.

So… I guess I’m saying this: The audience remembers an authorial betrayal. Once-bitten, they become twice-shy concerning trusting you as an author again.