Saturday, 6 December 2008

Manipulated by the author?

I've just finished reading a book and briefly I was upset. I felt manipulated by the author - cheated. At first sight, this is a pretty feeble reaction. The whole business of writing fiction is a matter of manipulation. To transfer the reader from their comfy chair to a different place, into danger, into someone else's head - it's all manipulation. But the good author does this in such a way that you don't notice. You mustn't ever see them pulling the strings.

Now in this case it was puzzling that I felt like this, because it's a very good author indeed. So what was happening? I won't tell you who, or which book, or this will turn into a spoiler. But it was a crime novel. When I'd bought it, Amazon had splashed after its name 'an X Y crime novel', where X Y is the name of the writer's detective. Yet by the time I got 3/4 way through the book it was very obvious that X Y only had a bit part - another detective was the main character.

Here's where the strings become visible. If you say it's an X Y crime novel, but the main character is a colleague of X Y's then it's almost inevitable that main character is going to be killed. Otherwise, why isn't it an A B crime novel instead? And sure enough, she was. My immediate response was irritation. I had been manipulated into getting into the head of A B, so I would be more shocked when she died.

Yet after some thought, I realized it's not the author's fault. Taken as a standalone book, this is a very effective plot device. And it was brilliantly handled - I literally had a tear in my at A B's funeral scene. It's only because I was expecting an X Y crime novel - because Amazon told me that's what it was - that I felt manipulated.

I think there's a lesson in there somewhere about the difference between an exciting plot twist and something that irritates the reader. Not in the plot but in the way just that simple sentence 'an X Y crime novel' could so alter expectations.

9 comments:

  1. Hmm, bit obscure with all the acronyms, but is the book In the Cut?

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  2. No, Maxine. If it's any help X Y is really S S...

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  3. I'm not sure I understand the need for the obscurity.

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  4. I agree, sometimes I watch shows and don't so much feel like I'm watching a story as much as the producers are just being manipulative. I know it's not a popular opinion by that's why I can't get into Law and Order.

    Logan Lamech
    www.eloquentbooks.com/LingeringPoets.html

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  5. SPOILER WARNING

    Kerrie - if you mean my being obscure, I was just trying to avoid giving away the main plot twist in what's a very good book. Apologies if it caused any irritation!

    The book was The Various Haunts of Men by Susan Hill, labelled by Amazon as 'a Simon Serrailler crime novel', but in which Simon S is really only a bit part player.

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  6. And here's me thinking it was Kate Atkinson's latest - although there is one crucial difference to your narrative!

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  7. Something similar happens with the novels where you wonder if the supposedly central charcater is ever going to make an appearance.

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  8. Ah I get it, now! I have read all of this series (4 so far I think). I understand exactly what you mean about the SS aspect in this book. I found the plot twist so harrowing that I couldn't read any more of the series for a while. But I did, this year, and I'm glad I did, because I think they improve - particularly 2 and 3. (Not to be self-advertorial, but my reviews are at Euro Crime (eurocrime.co.uk) if you are interested - no spoliers! However, I still feel that the author has not really "got" SS - the character she most "gets" in the books is SS's sister, a GP, who is very real. SS is too much of a Peter Wimsey figure for me to find entirely convincing as a modern police detective. However, if the author gets under his skin a bit in future outings so that we can understand a bit about his cruelty to women, coldness, etc, then all to the better. It is good to have some enigmatic aspects to one's characters, but this one is just too blank a slate for me. (Good plots though, she's great on tension, mood, minor characters, emotion etc.)

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  9. Maxine - glad you approve of later books as I'm hoping Father Christmas will be bringing them for me...

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