Playing Fair

I know I’ve talked about this before, but now and then I read something which shows me plainly that not everyone got the memo. I can just about understand it. Playing fair sounds almost quaint, doesn’t it? So 20th or even 19th century. Certainly everyone already knows that life itself isn’t fair, to which I can only say “Hallelujah!” Let’s be honest, here–most of the time life’s unfairness actually works in our favor. Or as Shakespeare nailed it some years ago, “Use every man after his desert, and who shall ‘scape whipping?” Yet fair play is alive and well in one place at least–the act of writing. It has to be. Readers will put up with a great deal, but one thing they absolutely will not forgive is cheating.

You can get away with it in movies and tv, up to a point. The techno-babble works in Star Trek because the fans are trained to expect it. In horror movies, after the monster has been shot with a bazooka, dynamited, passed through a meat grinder, mixed with asphalt and turned into parts of the Highway 101 overpass, most still get that thrill and fright when he nonetheless pops out of the closet just before the credits roll, instead of shouting, as by all rights they should, “Oh, come on!” If it no longer works it’s not because it’s a stupid, lazy cheat, but because it’s cliche.

Readers, on the other hand, tend to be a little more  fussy, and rightly so. By long tradition, there’s an unwritten contract between writer and reader: “As a reader you trust me with your time and attention and as a writer I promise not to bore or cheat you.” If a reader has read and enjoyed other work by you they’re more likely to give you the benefit of the doubt, but new readers almost never do. The burden of proof is on the writer, and once you’ve demonstrated yourself untrustworthy, that’s it, game over. Chekov’s rule “If you show a pistol in Act 1 make sure it’s fired by Act 3” is also true in reverse: “If you fire a pistol in Act 3 make sure to establish its presence in Act 1.” The hero can’t suddenly produce a pistol that no one knew about to get himself out of a jam. When he pulls the pistol the reader should be going, “Oh, of course” and plunging ahead instead of stopping to ask “Where’d that come from?” and being kicked out of the story.

Ethics and the Golden Rule aside, writers play fair with the reader out of self-interest and that’s a lesson I’ve long since taken to heart. One case in point was the very first story in the Lord Yamada series (and unlike the Eli Mothersbaugh stories, when I wrote the first Yamada story I knew it was going to be a series), “Fox Tails.” While I’m not ashamed of any of my stories, this is one in which I tried something a little different for me and I’m very happy with the way it turned out. Yet in the writing of it I ran into a technical problem, which relates directly to the notion of fair play: without giving away too much, I’ll just say that there’s a point in the story where my hero needs to realize that one of the several people he’s dealing with isn’t human. My problem was that at the time he had no way of knowing this. I spent several days mulling the problem but was coming up short on solutions. Yamada couldn’t just pull the information out of thin air; it’s always important to play fair with the reader, but in a story like this, essentially a detective/mystery story, it’s absolutely crucial. Yet I just could not figure out a legitimate way for him to discover what he needed to know in the context of the story, and he had to know before I could write the ending I wanted. The story had pretty much come to a standstill.

Finally, when I was editing dialogue in one key scene and not even thinking about the problem, I suddenly realized that another character had just handed my hero exactly what he needed to know, and in a manner that made perfect sense within the story. That was a huge relief, because otherwise I would have had to write the story another, (imo, not nearly as good), way because the alternative was to cheat, and that was no alternative at all. All this by way of demonstrating the lengths I’ll go to avoid pulling a fast one on the reader.

Simply put, I don’t cheat. Still, even that’s not always enough. It’s not often that a review gets under my skin, but one time it did happen was when a reviewer accused me of exactly that: cheating. Now, responding to reviews directly is a waste of time at best and self-defeating at worst, and is almost never a good idea. If a story doesn’t work for someone, then the story doesn’t work for them and no amount of arguing is going to change that, and to try only makes you look foolish. So I didn’t. Yet I did and to this day I do take exception to the reviewer’s complaint that I’d withheld vital information from the viewpoint character and thus the reader, and that this was a betrayal of that unspoken trust.

So. Did I withhold vital information from the viewpoint character and thus the reader? (Cue Evil Laugh) Absolutely! I did it with full knowledge and intent to deceive. Aha then! You cheated! No. I did not. Contradiction? Not even close, because the character who withheld that vital information likewise did it with full knowledge and intent to deceive. There’s the difference. It was in that secondary character’s interest to do exactly as he did, and for him to do otherwise would have been a betrayal of the character as written. Furthermore, it was clear in context, even to the viewpoint character, that we hadn’t been given the whole story. Yet because of his own intense desires the viewpoint character ignored that, and paid the price. If the viewpoint character was fooled, it was because he allowed it to happen, but I honestly never expected the reader to be fooled. While it’s true that the reader had no more or less information than the viewpoint character had, it’s reasonable to expect that the reader was also free of that character’s compulsions. The reader has advantages that the viewpoint character does not, and I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect the reader to use them.

Which brings me to the final point of this ramble. While it’s true that the reader must trust the writer, it’s also and equally true that the writer must likewise trust the reader–trust them to read carefully, and thoughtfully, and to be capable of following where you lead. That trust, likewise, is not always justified. I’m constantly surprised by what readers do and don’t see in something I’ve written, and for most other writers I’ve talked to it’s the same. Readers have the advantage–they can put down a book or magazine and walk away. There’s nothing in the contract that allows us to say, “This story wasn’t written for you. Do us both a favor and go read something else.”

It doesn’t work that way.

As a writer you will be misread. You will be misunderstood. It is unfortunate, but it goes with the territory. It is inevitable, and all you can do is keep your own conscience clear, and trust that your readers will find you.

2 thoughts on “Playing Fair

  1. Pingback: SF Tidbits for 3/6/12 - SF Signal – A Speculative Fiction Blog

  2. Yes, if I satisfy myself I am writing honestly and not cheating, then I just must trust the readers to follow through with me. Very, very true and worthwhile point out. Thank you!

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