Setting the Bar (And Stocking It Well)
Tonight I’m going blather about expectations and how they can shape an opinion. Like opinions, expectations are highly subjective, so there’s no absolutes but there are commonalities.
Expectations are shaped by that so very important first impression of a work. Sometimes the specter of stereotype kicks in. Does the front cover of that novel feature a woman wearing tight pvc pants or a mini skirt, perhaps even sport a tattoo somewhere? Chances are you’re looking at paranormal romance, although some might bill it as urban fantasy. I know that’s painting a genre with a broad brush, but trends like that happen.
The common conceits and tropes of genre also help shape perception. It gives you an idea of what’s to come. If a book is described as influenced by the works of Robert E. Howard, then it’s a safe bet that the hero may have rippling thews* and someone at some point is going to get a broadsword to the face. Space opera? Well I’d expect FTL travel and diverse alien races, to name a couple of things.
Establishing expectations is also important in determining the type of emotional investment you want from an audience. If you pick up a Discworld novel thinking you’re getting into some grim and serious fantasy, you…you need therapy. Regardless of how you build up to it, you need to have your audience in the right mindset for what you’re offering.
When something happens that doesn’t fit a preconceived notion, it can throw your audience for a loop. This can be a good thing if you do something unexpected for a reason (one of those “know when to break the rules” moments) and carry it off well. One good example would be the character Jane in the film Thor – someone I predicted would be the hero’s love interest. What I didn’t anticipate was her pursuing him and giving the inevitable kiss before the climatic battle. It was a good character arc and I ended up enjoying the film all the more because of it.
However, if it’s handled poorly for one or more various reasons, it can knock your audience out of the story, and that’s never a good thing. In the television series The Cape, I expected Summer Glau and Keith David to give solid performances. Instead, David was underused (though he made the most of it) and Glau hit a point where she just decided to phone it in.
To be fair, I had other expectations for The Cape, partly because I saw very little in the way of previews for the show, and because I had some notions about the show that were never within its own scope. Sometimes what any given member of your audience may be beyond your ability to influence – it happens. Like the famous cave on Dagobah, it’s “what you take with you.”
Expectations have both a qualitative and a quantitative sense to them. It’s why I still love shows like Farscape and Hercules: The Legendary Journeys but not something like The Cape or The Sarah Connor Chronicles. I liken the experience to food. Every now and then, I like a well made gourmet meal. That can be your Game of Thrones or Mass Effect or something similar. But sometimes I just want a cheeseburger and I’ll go to Wendy’s (Stargate — TV or film, Dynasty Warriors). Now if I reach for my tray when my order’s up and find a Five Guys burger waiting for me – well, it’s not what I ordered, but you know what? That’s a damn good burger (Thor, Left 4 Dead 2, Stargate Universe). Instead if I get some half thawed White Castle sliders (Battlefield Earth, Blood Bowl**) then I’m gonna be a little upset and vociferous.
So, know what you’re getting into when you pick up that book or Blu-Ray. That way you’ll be better suited to focus on the quality of the work, and you might end up pleasantly surprised as a result.
*Remember, only you can talk to your doctor about Rippling Thews.
** By this I mean the recent adaptation of the game for consoles (XBox, et al). To this date it is the only game I’ve returned to the store the day I purchased it because it sucked that bad.