What do writers owe fans in terms of story?
The answer to that, somehow, isn’t as straightforward as it seems like it ought to be (the voice shouting loudest in my head says, ‘the best possible job they can do, and nothing more,’ but I think it’s more complicated than that.)
I’ve thought for a while now about tackling this topic, which has been popping up in my life on a semi-regular basis since 2011 or so (i.e., not coincidentally about the time season six of Bones was airing) but two different posts on the Web last week determinedly pushed it into the front of my brain.
First, there was the George Lucas interview where he’s criticizing what Disney did with The Force Awakens. Most people were reacting to his white slavers comment, but I was struck by his remark that ‘they wanted to make something for the fans,’ apparently in contrast to what he’d had in mind.
Second, there was this review of the Sherlock special, The Abominable Bride, which accuses the writers explicitly of ‘fan service’ – a term I’d never heard before, by the way.
From my perspective – and I’m approaching it as both a fan and someone who, if not an actual writer, has great respect for writers, and for the writing process – ‘writing for the fans’ is sometimes a problem, sometimes a necessary evil, and not at all easy to identify.
Returning to the Lucas comment, there was no question that it was critical, and no doubt many fans saw it somewhat as sour grapes, a belief that what he would have done, which wouldn’t have been as focused on giving fans what they wanted, would have been better than the film currently earning gobs and gobs of money.
I’m not so sure that it’s just sour grapes, though. While I’ve not seen anything where he expands on the remark, I think his point was that if your only goal is to give fans exactly what they want, you’re limiting yourself in ways that might turn out to be less interesting in terms of the story.
First things first: I don’t think it ever ends well when a writer is forced to take their creation in a direction they don’t want to go. How could it? It’s no longer theirs.
Picture this: you begin telling a story, and people fall in love with it. Yay! And then you realize you need to shake things up to keep it interesting, or maybe it’s not a new realization, perhaps right from the beginning you knew this complication, whatever it is, was coming. Only those people who love your story say, ‘no! You must not tell the story that way!’ and instead dictate to you a different direction it should go. And for whatever reason, you try to accommodate them, and …chances are, they’re not going to be happy with the results. Because the story they fell in love with – your story – is no longer the one being told.
(And yes, sometimes stories have multiple creators, or get passed to a different writer, and it can work well, because the new writer is collaborating with the original writer, or at least really ‘gets’ the story, but you don’t have to look far to see plenty of examples of when a story fails after being handed off to someone else.)
BUT…I hear fans hollering, ‘the writer owes us what we want to see!’
And that’s where it gets sticky. Because we’re the consumers, right? When we buy something, we ought to get exactly what we want.
Well, no. No. Not when we’re talking about the creative output of another person.
The writer owes the audience the best possible story he or she can tell, and that’s all.
(Well, with one caveat: if he’s made a promise early in the story, implicit or explicit, that something in particular will happen, then yeah, he owes the audience pay-off of that. Though, even there, sometimes the audience sees things implied that the author didn’t intend, but that’s a whole other post. Suffice to say, if the mystery ends with the murder unsolved, the author didn’t fulfill his contract with the audience.)
And yet, and yet. If the writer takes the story in a direction that enough of the audience isn’t interested in reading or watching, she can pat herself on the back for sticking to her creative guns …while standing in the unemployment line because the publisher passed on the sequel, the series was canceled, or the film bombed at the box office.
Years ago, I was on a writing listserv at about the same time two members got calls from publishers. In both cases, the editors said, ‘change this part and resubmit – we’re very interested in your novel.’ And one of them did, because the change was something she could live with, something she came to see would make the story stronger. The second woman did not. She didn’t like the requested change, couldn’t see the story as still being hers if she did as requested.
That’s the tension with commercial fiction. On the one hand, the writer has to tell their story, because they really can’t tell anyone else’s well; on the other, they have to accept the risk that people may not be interested in what they have to say.
So what about Lucas’s criticism that Disney wanted to ‘make a story for the fans’?
See above. Lucas is a writer who has a specific story in mind, wants to tell that story, and can’t fathom being told to tell a different story instead. But the comment illustrates the conundrum when what the majority of the audience wants to see is apparently not what the writer has in mind, even the one who brought the characters to life initially.
And maybe The Force Awakens – currently succeeding with audiences to the tune of 1.56 billion dollars – is also a case study for what can happen when a story passes from the hands of its creator to a fan. Because JJ Abrams is not just a writer who was given the task of writing Episode VII in place of Lucas; by his own well-documented admission, he is a fan.
Whatever else it is, though, it’s no longer George Lucas’s story, and however happy with it millions of fans are, there are those who didn’t care for it, who are lamenting that loss. One argument would be that Lucas was allowed to tell his story, his way – in the prequels, which, while there are people who love them (I have a niece in her mid-twenties who greatly prefers them over the original trilogy), they are not universally beloved.
That’s the risk Lucas took, and whatever you think of him as a writer (um…not a fan, here, honestly), I think his commitment to telling his story deserves respect, as does Abrams, who was also telling his story, just one that apparently a whole bunch of people wanted to see.
As to the Sherlock review…I’m at a disadvantage, because I’ve not only not seen the Christmas special, I’ve not seen the most recent season of the show. I also found the review a bit confusing in that there were a lot of criticisms, and I wasn’t sure how many of them were being attributed to fan service. But the gist is certainly that the show has been ruined by the writers pandering to a (presumably) small percentage of the audience.
That’s where it gets murkier, because we’d need to know whether Steven Moffat and Mark Gatniss deliberately stopped telling the story they wanted to tell in order to tell one that they believed fans wanted. I’ve not seen any indication of that. Nor, for that matter, have I seen reports of fans who are thrilled with the episode. I’ve seen a few positive comments, and a lot of ‘what was that?’ confusion, but no cries of, ‘best thing ever!’
Is that because the fans who were presumably being accommodated didn’t, after all, like what was supposedly written for them? Or did they just not recognize it for what it was?
Or, possibly, perhaps this wasn’t an attempt to placate fans at all by Moffat and Gatniss; rather, they’ve just gone in a different direction creatively than the reviewer likes?
If a writer happens to want the story to go in the same way (some) fans do, is it still fan service?
I don’t know. What I do know is if we’re to have any hope of being entertained, writers have to be free to tell their stories in their own way, not driven by millions of other people; at the same time, our great power as the audience is that we get ultimate veto power over whether we’re going to read or watch something.
That seems pretty fair to me.