19

Recently, I have stumbled upon a problem. After releasing an issue, I think that I failed to earn the trust of my readers. My analysis is that they did not have enough faith in me to make the "right choices" about my story. Let me explain:

One of my protagonist closest friend is a traitor secretly working for the bad guy. He plans to kill the hero, and the reader is not aware of that. I have made sure that he looks like a genuine sidekick, though there is plenty of evidence that suggests he will do something.

Before a battle, he ultimately poisons the hero with a unique type of toxin designed to induce bloodlust and insanity amongst men. I introduced a Chekhov's gun just before to showcase the moment Traitor poisons the hero, but nothing is explicit, a.k.a. the reader does not know that the hero has been poisoned. Then, during the battle, the hero goes on a rampage and kills people from both sides due to the effect of the poison. An action which causes him to lose most of his support and makes him question everything he has been fighting for.

Following this event, he will find a way to win without fighting because he fears to lose his mind a second time. It's only later that we learn the hero rampage was caused by the poison, and that it was all Traitor's fault.

The scene during which the protagonist goes insane was all but successful. Instead of asking themselves "what happened", "why did the hero do that", the readers came with critics like "the hero would never do that", "it makes no sense" or "the story lost its potential". Moreover, if I try to bring the poison and explains it all now, it will sound forced and as if I was trying to "make up" for my mistake (even though it was definitely planned!).

I am confused about this reaction, and I don't know how to handle it. I don't think the plot is the cause. The hero had to go through this trial, and the traitor had to provoke it. Yet, I have been wondering what went wrong. The explanation I came with is that I did not build enough trust. Which begs the question:

What should have I done to have the readers trust me and my story?

  • 3
    I don't see why an explanation would "feel forced". Your, presumably beta, readers, felt that the actions taken by a character did not follow from what's been established about that character. That's the entire point of having beta readers! With very few, if any, exceptions, the people who will ultimately be reading your story aren't your beta readers. If what your beta readers point out will require rewriting a few chapters, surely you want to know that before rather than after publishing? – a CVn May 19 at 19:48
  • 2
    I fail to see how the problem here is that "the readers [don't] trust me and my story". It seems to me that they do just that, and it was rather you who let them down. – a CVn May 19 at 19:48
28

What you should have done, and should do in rewrite, is make it clear to the reader a traitor exists, perhaps make it clear a poison that does exactly that exists, etc. You can do that early in your book, in a story or fable.

The readers already believe the MC would never do this thing. So you need to hang a lantern on this behavior during the battle. Say the poison is called "rage oil", somebody in the battle can scream "Bob's been roofied on rage oil! He killed Stanley! Stay clear!"

So the reader gets it; yes, Bob would never, but Bob's on rage oil, so yeah. Then their focus is indeed on "Who roofied Bob?" You can still leave that part a mystery.

It messes a little with the rest of your plot; now there are people looking for a traitor they can't find. Bob doesn't suspect the real traitor. The real traitor may manage to frame somebody else, or one of the dead. Perhaps, out of caution, he even did that before the battle, getting the poison into Bob's food or drink that got served by someone else. The servant girl that mysteriously ended up with her throat cut once the battle was done. (Traitor killed her).

But it can still be true that Bob is motivated to solve the problem without battle.

In general you have to provide enough clues that the reader has SOME reason for a character to do something they would never do. Go back and plant the seeds earlier in your story, hang a lantern on the MC's behavior during the battle, and leave them with a question that makes sense (who is the traitor), not a contradiction of what they already knew.

This in turn primes the reader for your later reveal; you can't just surprise them out of nowhere with a best friend that was a traitor all along; that feels like a deus ex machina. Now they KNOW there was a traitor, and you can make the dead servant girl seems too darn convenient so the reader knows the traitor is probably still out there. Then they aren't surprised BY the traitor being revealed, only by who it is. But it doesn't look like a deus ex machina, they are forewarned that some trusted person is the traitor, and the best friend was in a position to execute all the sabotages.

  • Maybe there are rumors, but nobody is brave enough to talk to Bob about his rampage? Maybe the situation is, "Bob could have been roofied? But what if he wasn't? What if he does that to me if I tell him the rumors?" – Redwolf Programs May 19 at 23:36
  • 3
    @RedwolfPrograms Maybe. The author can make the characters do whatever is necessary to ensure the reader is certain Bob was roofied, so they don't think he was acting out of character. I suppose there could remain some doubt in Bob's mind, e.g. if there is no way to prove he was drugged. But if that is the route the author wants, then it can be done without making Bob ignorant of the roofie hypothesis, and I think it better (for the reader) if Bob knows it is very likely he was drugged, but just isn't ready to bet everyone's lives on it. – Amadeus May 20 at 0:16
7

Agree with the readers

Very recently, I came upon a bit of storytelling that almost made me lose interest in the story because I honestly thought it was a logical mistake that would have really taken me out of it.

Basically, an action the main character made changed the action of a different character, even though they were completely sealed off from one another and they could not possibly influence each other. It did not make any sense.

And I would have stopped reading soon after, except when the main character found out about this a moment later, he had exactly the same reaction I had. He was actually completely shocked and couldn't make sense of it. And while he didn't have more answers than I did, it made me understand that the story would address this later on.

The problem is that if something doesn't make sense, there are always two possibilities: The first one (the one in your case) is that the author is planning something and it actually will make sense later on. The second one is the bad one: The author made a mistake. Sadly, the second one happens a lot more often than we'd like to admit. And if the mistakes are big we lose interest in the story. Even if the author was to salvage it somehow, if he makes a mistake like that once, it's probably gonna happen again.

So you need to let the reader know it's not a mistake. You don't have to explain why and take out the mystery. You just need to make sure that after that chapter, the readers are not the only ones that feel that this was completely out of character for the main character.

In your situation, obviously the main character questioning how he could behave that way would be a good start, but you can also have side characters that observe his behaviour be openly confused about it as it does not fit his personality at all. Make sure other characters react the same way your readers react. It is out of character. Something has to be wrong. Right?

Do this as soon as possible! The readers shouldn't have to wait too long to understand that the author sees the problem and is going to address it at some point. You don't have to reveal the poison, or the traitor or anything, just make sure the readers feel like they are not alone in thinking this was out of place.

  • This is what I thought when I read the question. I like it way more than the accepted answer. – Andrey May 21 at 19:53
6

Given the phrase "After releasing an issue", I get the impression that you are releasing this story serially. I think is a significant part of the problem.

If you essentially ended this release of your story with this event, then the problem basically boils down to this. You had the main character do something wholly and completely out-of-character. By design, there is no in-story justification for it yet. So the reader has no idea what just happened.

In a book, where you can just turn to the next chapter and keep reading, this situation could be survivable. But even there, you would have a very limited number of pages to present some justification for this event.

But because there's no more of the story available for the time being, the reader is left to sit there and marinate on the event that just happened and how OOC it is. Without an obvious diagetic explanation, the only alternative... is that the author doesn't know what they're doing.

What happened is that you presented a cliffhanger incorrectly. The question a good cliffhanger needs to leave the audience with is "what is going to happen now?" Cliffhangers are about anticipation of a future resolution. The hero's strapped into a car driving to the edge of a cliff. That gives the audience something to speculate on.

The question you left your audience with is "... wait, what?" You've given the audience nothing to speculate on. The mechanism by which this event would be possible has not been established in your work. The possibility of the use of such a mechanism has not been established. Indeed, you even deny the audience the knowledge that the main character was under the influence of something by having all the characters assume that this was just something the main character did of their own free will.

All the audience has is OOC behavior. There is no anticipation of a resolution, merely complete confusion.

Worse still, you've introduced a mystery, but from how you describe the event, you don't treat it as a mystery. Nobody questions what happened; they accept it for what it appears to be. This encourages the reader to also not question what happened. So the fact that the main character was wholly and completely responsible will go unchallenged until finally it gets revealed (seemingly by revealing that there was a traitor all along).

And it will smell very much like retroactive continuity: back-fill intended to lionize the hero and justify something you did seemingly on a whim.

You're right that trust is an issue. But the problem ultimately comes from a seeming lack of trust on your part. You're not willing to trust your audience with more of the truth of the situation than the characters have.

So its not surprising that your audience would in turn trust the author less themselves.

4

There must be logic

I believe it is important to always let the readers understand the logic of your character's actions.

Even if the character is super evil, his motivation should be one the readers can sympathize with. Rather his methods are what could be despicable.

For instance, a villain wanting to save the world... by destroying society and starting civilization anew. Sure billions will die, but the end result will be Eden on earth! Just look at crime, corporations, and politicians... let's do it!

You understand his goal, motivation, and the proofs for why change is needed... just not his methods, his way of change.

In your case, I think you need to show your readers your character was poisoned. Or give them a way to understand his actions and the logic of them by showing the poisoning from his point of view.

Don't hide

You can even let the readers know beforehand that the poisoning is going to happen.

It's nice to surprise the readers with a plot twist, but sometimes you can get even better results if your readers know what's going on, even know more than the protagonist.

I call this, placing a bear on the beach. In short, you introduce a threat that the protagonist is unaware of, but that the reader knows about, and by doing so you make tension increase, possibly even through the roof.

This is most obvious in the horror genre, but if you know what to look for, it can be found in other genres too. Thrillers, of course, but even Romances can have it. Some comedies are ripe with it.

I think it could work in your story.

Best case scenario, you might get the readers to scream at the story: Don't drink that glass of water! It contains poison... aww shucks! Now what?!

(Okay, maybe not scream... but think while reading... and most definitely not putting the text down until they know "what's going to happen now...")

Of course, this also holds true for your treacherous sidekick.

Imagine how many suspenseful scenes you can create when the reader knows he's a villain? Who will he kill now? Is his girlfriend going to survive this? When will he strike?

At the same time, the protagonist and his team get closer and closer to figuring out that they have a mole and who that mole is... meaning the villain will have to throw innocent people under the bus or get caught himself.

Ok, this is turning into more of a thriller... but case in point... suspense can be used for strong effects as well!

Insane? Me? Naah...

The other way to go is to fool the readers.

Insane people are usually following sound logic, but the "input" is all wrong.

So, you could show your character's insanity from his POV, people turning into zombies? monsters? attacking him? or each other? etc, "forcing" his hand in self-defense, just to reveal, as the drug wears off what has actually happened.

Your readers and your character simultaneously get the same shock and the same question in their heads: what the hell just happened?!

Your problem here is to do it in a way that prevents the reader from asking, "what the hell is happening" while it's going on.

They don't trust the main character to act as you've written it now. You need to write it from his POV in a way they can trust. Perhaps by introducing a third party that tips the balance in the battle or making it seem the enemy is everywhere.

You should probably also have the MC's sympathizers trying to get through to him and sometimes managing to do that in flashes. Perhaps, just as he kills that "Ogre" its face becomes one of his friends', but then as he looks again, it's a dead "Ogre". What was that all about?

3

This is a fascinating question and I agree with the main response: to explain something like that, you probably need to introduce the mechanism earlier rather than later.

You left it ambiguous whether you were talking about a serial that’s already published, or a draft sent out to test-readers. The advice to revise the draft is extremely good if you are in the latter case. But I also wanted to contribute an answer if you are in the former case, and you cannot change what you have already published.

So what is wrong with the explanation (to quote the main answer) “Aha, Bob was drugged with rage oil!” and why does this lose the respect of your readers? The essential problem is that you would be relieving too much tension, too fast. Similarly the way that you lost their respect earlier was that you created too much tension, too fast. Tension is a difficult quantity in narrative, we crave the delectatio morosa as it is created and we love a sudden release of it at an appropriate catharsis, but there is a distinction to be made about the tension inside the story (as experienced by its characters and plot) and a tension of the reader who is reading the story. If the tension inside the story changes too rapidly, the reader’s tension does not follow along.

Accordingly your readers have not built as much tension as the story presently has, and to release all of that tension seems lame and uninspired rather than cathartic. So you now need to build a slow build-up of tension to the dramatic reveal. What does that look like?

Well, you need to introduce the rage oil: and the sooner, the better. I would assume you want to start right now. Maybe someone tells Bob,“you know what this is, right? This is textbook rage oil poisoning. That is the only explanation.” and we get a flashback to some time when Bob encountered the rage oil, possibly when he was previously drugged with it.

By itself that has no real tension and if Bob wholeheartedly agrees it in fact creates the above problem of relieving all the tension. So, Bob doesn’t agree. “I have had rage oil,” he says, “and this was not that. This was different. My palms weren’t sweaty, my heart wasn’t racing, I was collected and focused. That is what scares me: because I know what rage oil feels like, and I can tell you that this was all me.”

Now there is an interesting question. Bob appears to have had the rage oil equivalent of an acid flashback, an experience where a psychoactive drug has damaged the brain enough that one has a drug-experience long after the drug has left their system. What did he do in the past life? How did he avoid punishments? Has this happened before? Are there other experiences that Bob can describe for us from the plot we know, where he can tell us how hard it was to keep that anger in check, but now he just lost it and started killing people? What is the troubled backstory which we are missing?

Maybe Bob starts to take some calm herb to try and protect himself. Maybe we find out later that our betrayer who poisoned Bob actually knows that calm herb does not stop rage oil’s rage-effect, only its nasty physiological side-effects: allowing a malicious person to up the dosage and provide even more rage. So maybe the betrayer actually laced the rage oil with calm herb, to make it more effective, and that’s all why Bob thought that this wasn’t rage oil. He had only had the “unrefined” experience and now he was given the “real deal.”

There are obviously a lot of variations here. But the point of them I hope is clear: you've got a pot that is boiling out of control, and it needs to be put onto a back burner to simmer with all of the herbs and spices that will make it good in the end.

0

Given that is this a serial, you may be misinterpreting the reader comments. From what you've reported, you've done exactly what you planned to. You've introduced a cliffhanger where the hero acts out of character. And you've successfully established that character to the point that people recognize that fact. More importantly, you've made them care. That's all to the good. If reactions were positive or indifferent, it would mean either that your readers had seen right through your twist immediately, or that they just didn't care.

Most people aren't going to drop you at this point --they're going to at least stick around long enough to see how you resolve this dilemma. If they find the next installment satisfying enough, you're all in the clear.

So you haven't won or lost yet. You've committed to a gamble --high risk, high reward. The next episode is where people will decided whether your plotline is a dirty cheat or an awesome twist. If you did your prep work well enough, they'll swallow the twist happily. With that said, you have to be judicious with contrived situations like this. One per story is about as much as most people can stomach before it starts feeling like a soap opera. (Although, of course, there are plenty of people who LOVE soap operas.)

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.