When Do You Lose Interest?: Positive and Negative Hopes for Readers
Have you ever had a TV show or book series or some other storytelling medium that was really fantastic, and you were a huge fangirl/boy, and all of a sudden you realize that it just starts to drag or you’re having to make yourself watch it, or you just don’t care anymore?
I was talking to Lauren about the new season of Downton Abbey, and how she was having trouble making herself watch it. She loved the first few seasons. She was rooting for Mary and Matthew to get together, and there was still hope that things would work out for all of these characters. And then this season… not so much. Everything that she told me about the new season was negative. She was hoping that no one got attacked, that these secrets wouldn’t be found out, that this other thing wouldn’t happen, and so on. Notice a pattern? She was only talking about things she hoped wouldn’t happen. There’s something wrong there.
As a reader or a viewer or consumer of media, you really need positive hopes and dreams and goals for your books, shows, etc. Even if the characters are in a bad place, or facing problems that are so far above their pay grade that a happy ending seems out of the question (looking at you, Supernatural), you as a reader need to have hope and something to look forward to.
Using Supernatural as an example, I know that any given episode has a high chance of breaking my heart. However, I can also hope that there will be really funny pop culture references, or it might be a meta episode, or Dean might suddenly decide he loves Taylor Swift (it’s canon now!), or any number of other good things. And of course, sometimes you just want your heart to be broken in a well-done way. Feels are not a bad thing.
The key is that all of these things are positive hopes. Things that I can hope for versus things that I’m like, “Oh please, please don’t let this happen. I hate it when that happens.” Part of the reason why I’m five episodes behind on Sleepy Hollow is because I’m so annoyed with the character of Katrina, that I’m like, “Please don’t let her do something stupid this episode.” And yet, I know she will.
The same thing happens with books. Everything starts off well, you fall in love with the characters, there’s an interesting hook, problems start showing up, and you’re filled with hope. Then, things start to drag. It feels like the characters are just treading water, or the romance is getting lost in all the side plots, or half a dozen other things that can go wrong. The point is, you get to a point where, as a reader, you put the book down and have to make yourself pick it back up.
As an editor, I’ve become very, very sensitive to the point where I put down manuscripts and wander off to do something else. And a vast majority of the time (well, provided the beginning works for me and I’ve fallen in love with the characters) the problem comes when I stop having things to hope for. When I’ve lost track of what the characters truly want and/or I feel like they’re not making any progress towards those goals.
Writers, check back next week for more thoughts on character goals. And Readers, what makes you decide to put a book down?