August 28, 2017

Should you ever mislead your readers?

I’m reading Barchester Towers at the moment, by Anthony Trollope. Barchester Towers is the follow-on to The Warden, which I reviewed a few weeks ago.

At the end of Chapter 15, Trollope makes an unusual author interjection in the story, commenting on the nature of storytelling.

I think what he has to say is fascinating, even if I don’t fully agree.

See what you think… (the bold emphasis is mine)

“And here perhaps it may be allowed to the novelist to explain his views on a very important point in the art of telling tales. He ventures to reprobate that system which goes so far to violate all proper confidence between the author and his readers, by maintaining nearly to the end of the third volume a mystery as to the fate of their favourite personage.

Nay, more, and worse than this, is too frequently done. Have not often the profoundest efforts of genius been used to baffle the aspirations of the reader, to raise false hopes and false fears, and to give rise to expectations which are never to be realised?

Are not promises all but made of delightful horrors, in lieu of which the writer produces nothing but most commonplace realities in his final chapter? And is there not a species of deceit in this to which the honesty of the present age should lend no countenance?

And what can be the worth of that solicitude which a peep into the third volume can utterly dissipate? What the value of those literary charms which are absolutely destroyed by their enjoyment? When we have once learnt what was that picture before which was hung Mrs. Ratcliffe’s solemn curtain, we feel no further interest about either the frame or the veil. They are to us merely a receptacle for old bones, an inappropriate coffin, which we would wish to have decently buried out of sight.

And then how grievous a thing it is to have the pleasure of your novel destroyed by the ill-considered triumph of a previous reader, “Oh, you needn’t be alarmed for Augusta; of course she accepts Gustavus in the end.” “How very ill-natured you are, Susan,” says Kitty with tears in her eyes: “I don’t care a bit about it now.”

Dear Kitty, if you will read my book, you may defy the ill-nature of your sister. There shall be no secret that she can tell you. Nay, take the third volume if you please – learn from the last pages all the results of our troubled story, and the story shall have lost none of its interest, if indeed there be any interest in it to lose.

Our doctrine is that the author and the reader should move along together in full confidence with each other.

Let the personages of the drama undergo ever so complete a comedy of errors among themselves, but let the spectator never mistake the Syracusan for the Ephesian. Otherwise he is one of the dupes, and the part of a dupe is never dignified.”

My assessment

I don’t completely agree with Trollope, but I think there is an important truth here. When you’re telling a real human story, the twists and turns matter more than the eventual outcome. In many stories the outcome is largely predictable. The message of the story comes from character change along the way.

‘Who changed’ is a better question to ask at the end than ‘what happened’.

Focus on the twists and turns in your story. Highlight the points of confusion. The times you have made mistakes, or misjudged people. Writing about those things makes finding the ‘perfect’ story of smaller consequence.

Rob Drummond

Rob Drummond runs the Maze Marketing Podcast and Maze Mastery. Rob specialises in content production, ad creation, storytelling and CRM systems. He has two published books, Magnetic Expertise and Simple Story Selling, affordable on Amazon.

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