How to Make Readers Happy by Giving Them Exactly What They DON’T Want

This week’s video shows you how to make readers happy by taking advantage of their conflicting desires for the fate of your characters.

Video Transcript:

I think it’s safe to say when you ask pretty much anybody what they want out of life, they’re not going to come up with answers that involve mind-numbing tragedy, death and despair, torture and madness. Definitely not on my list to Santa—except when it comes to good fiction.

Think of those delicious moments when reading a book or watching a movie, in which you’re on the edge of your seat, covering at least one and a half eyes, praying that this beloved character with whom you’ve identified does not go into the creepy cellar where the serial killer is lurking. And yet, deep down, wouldn’t we be disappointed if he didn’t go into the cellar?

The one and only way to make readers happy is to keep our word to them. When we raise the stakes and promise that bad stuff is coming down the line—that’s a promise we have to pay off. Because otherwise, even though readers may experience a shiver of relief to know the character has been spared, they’re also going feel let down. They’re going to feel that your teasing him with all this potential mayhem was just a cop-out, a cheat.

Once again this week, I’m going to mention Dennis Lehane’s psychological thriller Shutter Island as a really great example of how this should be done. The whole thing is dripping with the promise of horrible possibilities for the U.S. Marshall main character who is investigating the titular asylum for the criminally insane.

Leonardo DiCaprio Shutter Island Dennis Lehane Martin Scorcese

The tension gets so thick it’s almost unbearable. We want so bad for this guy to survive, to escape, to be sane. But did Lehane give us any of that? Nope. Would we have been happy if he had? Double nope.

Leonardo DiCaprio Shutter Island Dennis Lehane Martin Scorcese Lighthouse

As much as we want the character to be safe, we need to discover the emotional release of watching him meet the darkest promises the story has to offer.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What’s your #1 trick for how to make readers happy by giving them what they don’t want for your character? Tell me in the comments!

How to Make Readers Happy by Giving Them Exactly What They DON’T Want

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. I was thinking about this and for me the answer is: it depends. And I think it depends on a lot of things. In regard to our feeling disappointed about the character not going into the cellar—as opposed to saving himself or herself to appease the reader’s affection for said character—that disappointment springs from the character’s avoiding a situation of conflict. Readers (and I mean myself too) tend to seek states of “confrontation”; whether with a character, situation or self (internal struggle), to pique our interest or, as you stated, “to avoid letdown.” We need to have a constant cascade of conflict, each followed by plunge pools where some form of resolution is found, and whether the barrel the character uses to transverse the falls survives or shatters is almost irrelevant. I say “almost” because I think what matters is that the resolution propels the theme or primary plot of the story forward. The “promise” is that the plot’s integrity is maintained and carried on.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Spot on. We seek conflict in stories with the same fervor that we tend to avoid it in real life. Catharsis, anyone?

      • Hey! Yeah. It is a bit of a catharsis. But I was wondering what you think about the wandering in the cellar (crisis point) versus the story ending on a low note. Do you think it’s more valuable to write the tragedy rather than the triumph?

        I was reading some interesting discussions about this, and there is a lot of evidence that the happy ending is largely a construct of Hollywood. A century ago (a millennium ago, too) stories were commonly concluded with with some form of tragedy, whether it be the unrealized, unrequited love of Cyrano or the amicicide of Lennie in “Of Mice and Men.” Other than winning literary awards, what is the point of the tragedy, and what is its greater purpose?

        It seems to me that the point of the tragic story is the same as the triumphant story but looking at it from a different perspective. One gives the reader hope, the other allows commiseration, each effecting the same experience: happiness. There is something pleasant in being able to know that you are not the only one to have loved and loss, that you are not the only one to have been struck down by disease or failed to achieve your goal.

        Hollywood’s obsession with the happy ending (as can be seen by numerous film adaptations changing a tragic ending to one victorious) seems to be a response to American values, of catering to the winners-losers game so integral to our society. None wants to see failure. None want to see dreams unrealized because America is where the “American Dream” materializes from dream.

        I watched a movie with a couple friends the other day (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), and the consensus was that it was a bad movie because of how it ended. Seems as if they’d missed their daily dose of Novocaine because no one has time anymore for discomfort and unpleasantness. But it also made me wonder if a story would be more successful in the American market if it ends with the main character achieve his or her goal. Is it a turn off to the majority to end on a low note?

        It seems that the greater purpose of the tragedy is to glean some greater incite into life and to never forget that incite. The tragedy sticks in the memory much in the same way as those hard learned life experiences do. I actually think that the main character who always succeeds creates unrealistic expectations, much in the same way as Victoria Secret models do so for the young women of the world.

        Anyway, just was thinking about this . . . . Would be interested in yours or others’ insight or thoughts . . . .

        • Let’s consider the old Greek comedy and tragedy plays. There were both.

          And plays since then: Shakespeare wrote comedies, so did Moliere.

          Let’s consider also Grimm’s fairy tales. Did they not have happy endings? I don’t remember.

          I remember a book of old Celtic (mostly Irish) fairy tales. They were a mixed bag.

          • Yeah. I’m not familiar with the Celtic tales, other than William Wallace. That one didn’t end to well. ha ha. The Greek comedies were unusual, and not like the comedies we have now, such as Ron Burgundy stuff. The comedies were used as verbal weapons to attack those in power. Our comedies now tend to be character focused, such as Ace Ventura, etc. Someone compared South Park to Greek tragedies, saying that the spirit of the show is your 21st century Greek tragedy.

            I know that Greeks consider the tragedy as the highest and most respected form of story telling. Aristotle claimed that the Greek tragedy cleansed the heart through pity and terror, making us forget our petty concerns and worries by showing us that there is nobility in suffering. As Ms. Weiland made reference to, he called this “catharsis.”

            If you know any good Celtic stories, I’d be interested in checking those out.

          • Not to Greek tragedies but compared it to Greek comedies. My bad. Multi-tasking at the moment.

        • In One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest … didn’t our protagonist who went through a lobotomy give the audience some sense of wicked hope at the very end?

          The Hollywood effect is real enough, however, Hollywood is in it for the money, not the art, and they will focus on what satisfies a viewer…much like a writer might want to satisfy a reader. Human beings enjoy the narrow escape, the hopeful ending, the turn of character to something improved. Let’s face it, we all enjoy a happy ending, and there’s nothing wrong with that. It probably has its origins in our general quest for happiness, which we all know cannot be achieved in this life.

          • You say “Hollywood is in it for the money, not the art, and they will focus on what satisfies a viewer”

            So they’ve put a lot of effort into finding out what satisfies the viewer. Was this not known before?

            Is it truly a contest between art and money? Between art and satisfaction?

            Why would you choose not to satisfy a reader — if you had a choice?

          • Yeah. Maybe there was some hope? I just remember feeling really bummed at the end and REALLY disliking nurse Ratchet. From a literary point of view, I really hope that my villains are despised as much as she because, for me, it’s a clear sign that my character has been fully accepted by the reader. One that comes to mind is that scumbag in Game of Thrones. I can’t think of his name right now, but he’s that bastard guy sitting in Winterfell. Oh. Ramsey is his name.

            Some analysts said (and I have to take their word for it) that Europe does not care for movies with the ‘American Finale,” that “everything works out in the end” closure. I suppose this is changing somewhat with the U.S.’s cultural hegemony, but I know that in South America, especially Chile and Argentina, those movies are mocked because the stories are considered not to be reflective of reality.

            I wonder if this is something that a writer should consider if she or he wants to appeal to the largest audience denominator.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Chris, I think you’re spot-on in what you’re saying. First of all, let me say again that the idea of giving readers what they “don’t want” does mean the ending must be tragic. In many stories, the character will face the darkness and overcome it. The point is simply that he *must* face it. He must drink the cup to its dregs, come what may.

          That said, I definitely believe tragic stories are just as valid and important as happy ones. Both are reflections of reality. Both have interesting insights to offer. If we stared only at the sun, we’d go blind. We need to experience the darkness by way of contrast. More on that in this post, for anyone who is interested: Are Happy Endings a Must?

          • Oh! Yeah. I think I was thinking of the ending because of the Shutter Island example. And I like that analogy with the sun. =) As much as we like sugar, we still need some salt to be healthy. (That line sounds cheese, not as good as yours, but whatevs. ha ha) Anyway, yeah, my bad.

            Thanks for that link! I’ll check it out! And I like that holistic yin-yang philosophy for the raconteur.

    • June Sullivan says:

      These are all valid points. But for other story-tellers that go much further back than Hollywood, perhaps the most influential writers were those in both Bible testaments. These epic stories are frequently about heroes who overcome great odds, tragedies and sufferings and arrive at a happy ending. True, their source of strength is always something beyond themselves that they tap into, but they remain to me, at least, irresistible.

      One of my favorites is Job. Good heavens (pun?) but his suffering was as bad as it gets. And it went on for so long. He is tormented even by his friends who aren’t very good in the advice business. His transformation out of a truly living hell into its opposite is one of the greatest stories ever told (there I go again).

      My very favorite is Moses. True he had it pretty good growing up, but he and his family lived on the slavery of others, then he commits murder, has to run off and live in the desert and returns home to save those very slaves. The bad guys lose and the good guys win in the end and with some massive fireworks and waterworks on display.

      Long before Harry Potter and his friends took on evil through magic, young heroes were taking over their world (David/Jesus) through a very different kind of power, but, the story is somewhat the same.

      I’m in big time for the happy ending…only after great difficulty of course.

      • I didn’t event think of that! That’s a great example. =)

        • June Sullivan says:

          So glad you agree. Yes, the Bible has some great archetypes for present day story-telling, doesn’t it. When I was mulling over how to tell the middle grade story I’m writing (inspired by real event), one biblical character’s experience is helping me flesh out my protagonist’s journey.

          • Christopher says:

            Hey! That’s cool! I agree. The bible does have great archetypes. (Actually, this little conversation has actually given me an excellent idea for a story.) I’m doing something similar to you. =) I’m loosely basing a story on “Job.” It helped inspire and provide me with a vague skeletal outline or, rather, a starting point. It’s about the fall and redemption of a heroin addict. It’s kind of inspired by someone whom I know as well as the growing heroin problem throughout the world. The Afghanistan War has been the proximate cause for this epidemic.

  2. Hmm [said in Homer Simpson tone]. I haven’t seen the movie, so I will go with the basement example.

    I agree that if readers know about the basement they would be disappointed if it’s not in play, even if they do think “something is in the basement” is a lame cliche. In that case I try and play with reader expectations in a couple of ways.

    1. Character never goes into the basement, for various reasons, in order to up the tension. I think Hitchcock suggested showing a mundane conversation where there’s a bomb under the table. So in my case, since I write multiple viewpoints, I would have a character not go in the basement while the reader knows the killer will come out at night and try and kill her.

    2. Unless … this is a story where story where “Buffy” learns the basement she’s been ignoring is a gateway to the hell mouth and going there is the only way to defeat infernal villains 🙂 In that case, I’d try and thread clues that the basement will be key and the reader will want her to go there even as they dread it.

    3. Unless … the basement is a red herring. In the story there’s a killer who’s said to hide in victims’ houses, and readers assume that of course he’s hiding in the main character’s Freddie Krueger-type basement** that she can’t find the keys to get into. But no, killer can’t pick locks too well so he’s up in the attic instead 🙂

    **At our old building, the cavernous basement was dark and a honeycomb of rooms and mountains of STUFF. The elevator was slow. There were stairs, almost hidden, that were narrow enough to make self-defense impossible. They frequently led up to locked doors, effectively trapping you if there was someone else behind you … I dubbed it Freddie Krueger territory. But it was where our mail center was, so down I’d go.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes, totally. This is obviously a very straightforward example. We can spend the entirety of the story thwarting reader expectations in one way or another–as long we ultimately fulfill their emotional strain by the end of the story in some way.

  3. In my YA writing, there’s always at least *some* romance, so of course there must be many obstacles and wrong turns before the romance comes to fruition. In my writing class I passed out a scene of my protagonist hooking up with the wrong character–everyone hated it, but loved it at the same time.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Great example. Of course, readers want the leads to end up together. But what fun would it be if it happened right away?

  4. Another great insight into good story authorship.
    I’m always glad to read your thoughts and then realize that I was already doing those things in my writing. *phew (wipes brow).

  5. I’ve never given much thought to plotting to give readers what they don’t want, but only because I’ve never thought of it that way.

    To my way of thinking, the purpose of a novel is to either entertain, educate, or provide escape (or any combination). I’d do whatever it took to achieve the goal for each story. I just never quantified it as giving the reader what they didn’t want.

    What a unique way to think of it!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Readers are complicated beasts. Sometimes the only way to make them happy is to make them miserable!

  6. I once read one of the Bobbsey Twins stories. It was full of momentary threats that never materialized. Someone more literature-oriented than I called it “episodic.” I admit it was a little disappointing … but then I’m not the target market.

  7. So loving everything you have to offer. Am just working my way through your outlining book (after I spent a month trying to pants it) and now soaking up everything available on your website.

    Thanks for all the wonderful info.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Cool beans! Awesome to hear you’re enjoying Outlining Your Novel! Feel free to holler if you run into any questions.

  8. Positutastically wonderful advice!

    And yes, I mostly say that because I get to use the word “positutastical.” 😛

    In all seriousnesss though, you’re absolutely right. I wouldn’t be nearly as satisfied with the books I read if they didn’t wrench my heart out every once in a while. Or at least, you know, have *something* go reasonably wrong.

  9. I’ve watched SHUTTER ISLAND a few times but never read the book. The first time I was so tense I walked out before the ending and ask my husband what happened.

    In my current novel my MC has to take photographs. It’s imperative from the 10% to 50% of the story. He can’t get a good photograph, because of the weather, his battery dies, he’s called back home, etc. When taking photographs is no longer important it’s the midpoint.

  10. Just to think, all those years I spent yelling at the screen and calling some character ‘stupid’ because they went into the cellar where the mad psycho maniac is lurking.

  11. I was talking about this with my husband last night. He often gets bothered by my tendency to have things go too horrible for my characters because he thinks I’m going overboard. So, I followed his advice for once and wrote a “sane” ending to my book which left my beta bored and she predicted the ending.

    I love to torture my characters. I love to drive them to mere breaths of insanity and pull them back (maybe) and explore their emotional state after the tragedy. To me, it’s the best way to write a book so I’m reworking my current project to follow that example and give my characters the real motivations they need to go right to the brink.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Different readers want different things. My mother likes cozy, small-time stories. She’d never go for Shutter Island. But that’s all cool. There’s a story out there for everyone to write and everyone to read!

  12. thomas h cullen says:

    Shutter Island is a superb movie – one of DiCaprio’s best. I personally wanted him to regain sanity, but then it’s like Kyle Reese in The Terminator: emerging victorious just wouldn’t serve the texture of the art.

    When I was a teenager, the outcome of Reese’s death (combined with the eerie shot, of his body being crawled over by the T-800) always caused me to contemplate: did he need to die?

    Now as an adult, post-Representative, I can completely comprehend why in fact he did have to perish, along with the T-800 – narrative balance.

  13. Interesting. I agree with the sentiments of this post and that there are occasions when bittersweet endings are fantastic. BUT I do think it’s genre specific. Take the YA fantasy/dystopian genre, the hunger games/divergent genre.

    In books of that genre there are certain things you have to give the reader to give them what they want… Hope, love, a reasonably happy ending with the hero winning even if it has cost them everything. If you don’t give that you end up with a divergent style ending.

    I adore that series loved the world, the concept the characters. I was invested and then… (If you haven’t read it and want to be warned this is a spoiler)

    She killed off the main character. I was outraged. It was so out of the blue I didn’t actually believe it happened. I read on and had to go back and re-read to check what I thought had happened, had. When I realised it had and she really was dead I have never been so pissed off in my life. I nearly didn’t finish the book. It was exactly what I didn’t want.

    I wrote blog posts ranting about it talked to friends and everyone I know who has read them said the same.

    As a side note she wrote in the first person – how can you kill your protagonist when you write in the first person and still continue? *forehead slap*

    Obviously she did something right as she’s super famous, but in my eyes that’s the perfect example of not giving a reader what they want and it being an epic fail. Most disappointing book ending EVER.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Definitely worth noting that even though Shutter Island is a very bittersweet ending, “giving readers what they don’t want” doesn’t mean the ending has to be sad. It just means that character needs to face that darkness at some point in the story. He can overcome it or not, as the story demands.

      • NOTE TO K.M.: I sent you a note about surviving a fall from a great height into water (less plausible) vs snow or forest (more plausible).

        I see that you are about to finish “Storming” and you also say it takes you a couple of weeks to read those emails, therefore the heads-up.

  14. “Hope, love, a reasonably happy ending with the hero winning”

    My MC might be not so much winning as realizing he doesn’t have to keep sticking his nose into other people’s fights — in which he has no dog.

  15. June Sullivan says:

    Wow! That’s so amazing. I can’t WAIT to read it. PLEASE keep us (me!) posted. In my middle grade novel (that’s taking forever), I was inspired much the same way. For me, it was Moses’ story that filled in some blanks for my protagonist.

    • Christopher says:

      Haha. 🙂 Thank you, June. Very nice of you! Mine’s taking forever, too. (I have several going on, actually.) I really think it’s never going to be finished unless I go rent a cabin and just get away from my environment. Waaaaayy too many distractions and “must dos” at the moment.

      Anyhow, I’d love to read yours, too. We’ll have to keep each other posted! 🙂

  16. June Sullivan says:

    Indeed! It’s a promise!

Trackbacks

  1. […] The one and only way to make readers happy is to keep our word to them. When we raise the stakes and promise that bad stuff is coming down the line—that’s a promise we have to pay off. Because otherwise, even though readers may experience a shiver of relief to know the character has …read more […]

  2. […] How to Make Readers Happy by Giving Them Exactly What They DON’T Want by K.M. Weiland […]

  3. […] How to keep your readers riveted by having your characters face the worst your story has to offer. Katie’s weekly vlog. […]

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