Sunday, 24 January 2016

Great Expectattions.

You've been waiting for this day for over a year -- maybe even longer -- and finally it arrives.


You travel to your favourite bookstore, your heart beating like a drum and... and... there it is! Not just one, but a whole pyramid of the book that you know will make your life complete -- at least for the next few days.

The new Lord Snodberry Mystery: A Murder in Blue.

You've read the last seven Lord Snodberry mysteries and you can feel it in your bowels that this is going to be the best one yet. Nothing can possibly beat this, not even winning the lottery. Nothing!

With sweating hands you buy the book (the bookseller isn't surprised, he's seen that dumb/elated expression a thousand times) and you resist taking a peek inside as you ride the bus/train home. It's so hard, but it's a pleasurable pain. You know that the best is yet to come.

Finally you're home. Cup of tea brewed, chocolate biscuits on a plate, a suitable soundtrack playing on the iPhone. Phone off the hook, the cat put out, the dog locked in the back room, the husband/wife sent packing to his/her parents house for a long weekend. From this moment on it's all about you.

With shaking fingers you turn the first few pages, savouring even the flyleaves and that copyright rubbish they insist on putting there. At last you see it: text! Words! Story!

The adventure begins, and you’re going along for the ride.

Chapter One.

You begin to read with tears in your eyes, which slightly blurs your vision. You have to blink several times to bring the words back into focus. This is a big deal.

"I say, Charlie," said Lord Snodberry as he pulled the shawl around his narrow shoulders, "does this shade of blue match my eyes?"

What? Well, that was certainly a strange start. Your smile falters, but then comes back slowly, bravely. There is probably an entirely logical reason for this strange start. This must have something to do with a very complicated murder case that involves eye shadow. You read on regardless, expecting the mystery to reveal itself at any moment. One hundred pages pass and Lord Snodberry is still ignoring all the murders in the village and trying to find the perfect outfit to show off his figure, but it's only when you get to the part where Lord Snodberry says "He was murdered, you say? How strange. In my former life I would have certainly taken up the case with relish, but right now I'm having my living room decorated in chintz and I really don't have the time". That's it you throw the book down in disgust, resolving never to read another Lord Snodberry mystery for as long as you live, and you never do (even though the next one, Lord Snodberry Returns, is considered a classic).

Expectation is a strong emotion, but having that expectation dashed can result in an ever stronger emotion: hatred.

The problem with "great expectations" is that readers and authors look on sequels in different ways. The readers thinks "Oh goody, another book," while some authors (just ask Arthur Conan Doyle or Ian Fleming) think, "oh, do I have to write another book" (rolls eyes). Now consider that the reader expects that every sequel should be the same but different and yet better than all of the books proceeding it, then you can see that the poor writer can crash very quickly trying to maintain a forever upwardly climbing level of excellence.

This impossible to achieve escalation soon causes the author to start thinking outside the box, looking at the character or format from a different angle, or even being experimental with the format, just to keep the series going and keep it interesting, while the reader simply wants the story to be a rattlingly good yarn similar to all the others in the series (but, you know, better). Of course sometimes the experiment works, just as long as the reader gives it a shot, and then the author is declared a genius and ahead of his/her time.

But sometimes the problem has nothing to do with inspiration, rather the lack of it. The deadline’s looming and the poor writer simply hasn't had a good enough idea in time and has to just start writing and hope it will all come together at the end. Sometimes this can garner unexpectedly good results, and sometimes it can be a disaster.

But there's another kind of expectation: the expectation for a sequel to a book that's so good, so original and so incredible that there's no way the writer can possibly follow it up. The original book was a one-off, and everything the writer produces afterwards will always be a disappointment, no matter what he does.

Here I'm going to take two examples of foiled expectations, but taken from films rather than books, because they’re the ones that occurred to me first. Warning, there are some SPOILERS here.

The Matrix Sequels. Everybody was left breathless at the end of the first movie: humanity hiding behind computer-game style avatars were going to take on the nasty machine avatars in an arena that looked like the normal world. It was going to be a battle royale. What we got instead was a surprisingly meditative look at moral shades of grey, not just for the humans but for the machines as well. Whereas in the first film good/evil was clearly defined, here it wasn’t, and that led to ambiguity. The audience, who just wanted lots of kung-fu, explosions and weird Sci-fi stuff going on, were left disappointed and walked.   

The Dark Knight Rises. At the end of The Dark Knight it hints that poor old Batman will be chased through the streets of Gotham by the cops as he tries to fight the rotters, turned into a pariah to protect the false heroism of the horrible disfigured Harvey Dent. None of that happens. What we got instead was Bruce Wayne in retirement, brooding and still mourning the death of his lover. Actually I quite like TDKR but the world feels different compared to the previous films, sort of broken, just as Bruce Wayne is. This film is the logical next step after TDK, but the little details aren't there, which makes me think the writing of the TDKR was rushed, or the film had to go into production before the script was ready (which happens a lot).

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