I watched an interview with Octavia Spencer on Late Night with Steven Colbert a couple of nights ago. She plays the leader of the Amity faction in the new film Allegiant, the last segment in the Divergent series. Colbert asked her about her many acting roles over the years and the number of times she has been successful at a casting call. “What’s your secret?” Colbert asked her.
“So many people try so hard to fit the expectations of the filmmakers,” she said. “What made me successful was the fact that I was unique. I wasn’t like anyone else.”
That, and a few other things got me thinking, and I wrote on the board the other day two passages. One from the famous Robert McKee: “Give the reader what they want, but not in the way they expect it.” The other phrase was one I came up with: “Writing is a social contract.” To me, in essence, they mean the same thing. Of course, he’s probably a bit more eloquent that I am….
The reality is, readers approach your book with a certain expectation. If they like westerns, they’re not necessarily going to be interested in your romance novel unless you have a western twist to it. That’s just the reality of it. That’s where the social contract comes in. They seek, and you deliver. It’s kind of like dating. If you are into tall blonde athletic women, you’re not likely to be attracted to a short redhead who is a couch potato.
But here’s the twist: sometimes we don’t really know what we want. Sometimes we are attracted to people, and we really don’t know why. Sometimes we’re attracted despite ourselves. That doesn’t mean the odds of our success aren’t increased if we don’t fit within a specific genre (three negatives in one sentence; must be a new world’s record!).
And when we go on that date, there needs to be something special about that girl that keeps our interest, some intangible that we didn’t plan on. We don’t want the date to be totally predictable–that would be boring–and we don’t want it to be off the wall either. We want it to meet our expectations, with a few surprises thrown in. Right?
That’s the X Factor. That’s what we’re looking for in a significant other. That’s what casting directors are looking for. And that’s what readers are looking for as well. Don’t write your book exactly the way they expect you to. If you do, they will be surprisingly disappointed. Instead, give them what they want, but in a surprising way.
The other truth on that is this: there are no guarantees in writing. You may spend a year or two writing the Great American Novel only to find that no one will read it. What will you do then? There are no guarantees in life. As gracious as our Heavenly Father is in giving us our lives today, He has not guaranteed we will be alive tomorrow.
So what do we do about it? Have fun. If no one will read your book, at least have fun writing it.
You owe it to yourself, don’t you?