Tuesday, December 04, 2012

How to Manage Expectations, Prologue: Every Criticism is the Product of an Unmet Expectation

 I’ve talked a lot about how crappy the movie versions of Twilight, The Hunger Games and Dark Knight Rises were, and yet all three made oceans of money.  If audiences don’t seem to care anymore about coherent characters, structures, or themes, then what do they care about?  The answer is simple: Modern audiences care most of all about the overall tone. 

All three of these movies were masterpieces of tone-maintenance.  They wrap you snugly in a very thick blanket of tone and slowly smother you into a fandom-coma.  On the other hand, those blockbusters that get slammed by the critics and rejected by audiences, such as Hancock, Superman Returns, or John Carter are tone-disasters.

This is even more obvious if you read the screenplays that get put out on the market.  The ones that sell are always pretty good, but there are always better ones that don’t sell.  The key distinction is this: the ones that sell are those that have the greatest control over their tone. 
Claudethewriter, one of the commenters at Scriptshadow pointed me towards the best explanation of why tone is so important… “Every criticism is a product of an unmet expectation.”*

This means that every problem could be considered to be a tone problem.  It also means that, if you manage expectations skillfully, you can wrap your audience around your little finger and make them love your story, no matter how bad it is! 

Sophisticated folks look at something like Twilight and ask how anyone could possibly like this, seeing as how it does everything wrong: passive protagonists, anti-climactic structure, morally repugnant theme, etc. When we go to the movie with our pre-established ideas of what makes for a good story, we’re totally insulted by this trash. 

But these movies succeeded financially by creating their own cinematic sub-universe, in which none of these things are ever promised or implied.  Instead, they create a very different set of expectations and then expertly fulfill them.  Basically, all they do is promise, “I am going to make you feel a certain way”, and then they deliver.  If you want to feel that way, you’ll like it.  If you don’t, you won’t. 

The Twilight movies are extreme examples, but every story succeeds or fails to a large degree based on its ability to manage audience expectations.  In this series, we’ll look the ways in which every writer must manage the expectations of his or her audience.

*He says he’s quoting someone but he doesn’t say who.  Screenwriting bloggers John Rogers and Alex Epstein have also quoted it as something they’ve heard, but nobody seems to know or say who originally said it. Anybody know?


j.s. said...

"Every criticism is the product of an unmet expectation." This could have gone under your notes entry too. Of course, in order for a criticism to be useful you have to be sure that your script is actually creating and then failing to met the expectation.

THE DARK KNIGHT RISES struck me as pretty tonally incoherent compared to THE DARK KNIGHT, which was the reason we were all in the theater to see the follow-up. Talk about unmet expectations!

I don't actually see what's wrong with the "I'm going to make you feel a certain way" promise/delivery contract per se. This a big part of the definition of genre for me. It's why, like you suggest, people who love a given genre have a much higher tolerance for the worst examples of it.

Harvey Jerkwater said...

"I think that novels tend to fail not when the characters are not vivid or deep enough, but when the novel in question has failed to each us how to adapt to its conventions, has failed to manage a specific hunger for its own characters, its own reality level. In such cases, our appetite is quickly disappointed, and surges wildly in excess of what we are provided, and we tend to blame the author for not giving us enough – the characters, we complain, are not alive or round or free enough. Yet, we would not dream of accusing Sebald or Woolf or Roth – none of whom is especially interested in creating character in the solid, old-fashioned nineteenth-century sense—of letting us down in this way, because they have so finely tutored us in their own conventions, their own expansive limitations, to be satisfied with just what they give us."
--James Wood, How Fiction Works

j.s. said...

Nice one, Harvey. Not only do the greats teach us how to read/see them, but they know full well if they are different enough from what most of us are used to they had better get to it right quick. So I wonder if Matt will have an entry in this tone series on the first 5-10 pages? He could even do first 10 minute case studies for tone as he did with character.

Matt Bird said...

I think I'm going to do some more 15 Minutes Projects soon, and perhaps I should add some question about how the tone is established.

Elizabeth Fama said...

This post resonates with me!

One of the critical comments about my book that I often see in blogger/goodreads reviews (interestingly, not in a single professional review) is that the solution to the mystery is too predictable, because the reader is given, in alternating historical chapters, information that slowly generates the main (contemporary) character's curse--a curse she is actively trying to remove. Not all the information is given in the historical chapters, obviously, just enough--I thought--so that you would enjoy watching the process of her discovery, so that you would root for her. And there are--I thought--plenty of surprises, to please the reader, who thinks he has guessed the whole story but doesn't know the depth of it. You know many of the threads are, but not how and why they tie together.

But now I realize that the average reader expected a true mystery, and I didn't "teach [them] how to adapt to [my] conventions," in James Wood's words, and I'd love to learn from this experience.

My question to you all: do you know of other books or movies that use the device I just named? i.e. narratives that give the audience a head start on the mystery, so that most of the joy is in watching the main character unravel it? I really want to see how I could have successfully "tutored" my audience!

Beth said...

I think you're forgetting the part about creating empathy for your main character. Twilight and Hunger Games and Batman all have long books that built up a great deal of emotional investment with the main characters. You've pointed out that movies don't invite the view to identify with the hero, but I think book fans who go to see the movie version still have that sense of mingled identity.

Matt Bird said...

Lots of answers to that question are yet to come in this series, Elizabeth. A quick preview: you have to plant the right question in the reader's mind, if your story's not a play-fair whodunnit, then you have to get your readers asking very different questions right way, like Howdunnit, Whydunnit, or "what's really going on?"