Or maybe I should have titled this one "Conventions -- Breaking and Following." Or something like that. Because I've been thinking about walking the line between wanting to be new and fresh and different -- creative -- and wanting people to read my work and actually get what I'm saying. And not just word by word or line by line, but at a higher level in the story.
Recently, both Bernita and Stacia have blogged about expectations and conventions (whether they knew it or not :) ) and it got me to thinking. As writers, we always want to do something new and fresh, something unique and creative, something that'll make people sit up and notice us and wonder where we get our awesome ideas, 'cause damn! People who come up with something new and different are praised and remembered, and we're encouraged to be fresh and innovative with our writing, to avoid the standard and the common whenever we can manage it.
So it's easy to think that being new and different is always a good thing, and that following the long-blazed (and paved and marked and mapped) trail is always bad. Or at least, that following that trail is doing things the lazy way.
That's not always the case, though, and that's because art is communication and in order to communicate effectively, we need to speak the same language as our readers. That means more than just using English (or whatever) effectively; it means also being aware of the conventions of our literary form and genre because those conventions are part of the language. They're ways of communicating with the reader, and if we abandon those conventions without thinking carefully, we can end up alone in the wilderness with no one who even cares enough to try to pick up our trail.
Bernita was talking about characters, about types and stereotypes, and it got me thinking about the standard wisdom regarding fully-fleshed, three-dimensional characters always being Good and two-dimensional, placeholder characters always being Bad, or at least lazy. That might be true for major characters in the story -- protagonists, antagonists, major supporting characters -- but it's really not true for the bit parts. I commented at the time:
"But the bit players can be off-the-shelf types and usually should be. Making them three dimensional and fully rounded and quirky and interesting would give them too much importance. It'd set up expectations in the reader's mind that the writer has no intention of fulfilling, which would leave the reader feeling dissatisfied and maybe even cheated. It'd be rather like the old theater saw -- having a gun hanging over the fireplace in Act One and not ever firing it."
That's because readers are used to gauging a character's importance based on how much time is spent with the character and how much information is given about it. Inserting "the blond barista" into your story and saying nothing else about him is a signal to the reader that this character isn't important. He's a piece of furniture and is meant to be a piece of furniture. The reader can feel comfortable letting him do his job and then forgetting him, focusing her attention on other characters, on plot points and setting details which might actually be relevant later.
A writer who fleshes out every character, makes every single person who appears in the story unique and three-dimensional and interesting, no matter how important or trivial they are, does the reader a disservice because not every character should catch the reader's interest. By developing all characters equally, the writer has eliminated an important channel of communication with the readers and unless they open up a new one which conveys the same information, the readers are going to end up confused and annoyed, whether or not they fully comprehend why.
There might be a reason for thoroughly developing a particularly minor character, and the most obvious example I can think of is a red-herring character in a mystery. This sort of character is deliberately developed in a misleading way, because the detective character is being misled along with the readers, and that misdirection is part of the fun for readers who like to solve the puzzle for themselves. If there's no particular purpose to making readers pay attention to a character and believe they should remember him, though, then it's best to let the blond barista be just the blond barista.
Stacia was talking about a book she's working on which might well end up having no sex in it, although the sequel certainly will. This is another kind of communication, having to do with reader expectations based on earlier experience.
There are a lot of romance readers who prefer to have explicit sex in their stories, and there are a lot of readers who prefer the "sweet" sort of story where the scene fades at the bedroom door, or never gets there in the first place. There's some overlap between the two groups, but there are quite a lot of readers who are firmly in one camp or the other.
So what's the likelihood that someone who firmly prefers their romances sweet will read the first book, like it in part because it has no explicit sex, then read the sequel and be disappointed and maybe even angry because suddenly there's boinking right there on camera? Or conversely, that someone who firmly prefers sexy romances will read the first book, dislike it because it has no explicit sex, and never bother to read the second book, which they would have enjoyed? Both problems are based on miscommunication -- readers assume that books in a series are going to be alike in certain ways, that there'll be a similarity of experience in reading all of them. So the characteristics of the first book tacitly communicate to the reader what subsequent books are going to be like. When that's not the case, it's as though the writer has sent the wrong message to the readers, meaning X but actually saying Q, at least so far as the readers understand.
Objectively, there's no reason why all the books in a series should be similar, and there are some well-known series which aren't. Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan series comes to mind -- the first book is an SF romance with a good adventure story, the next several are SF adventure, then one book takes a very dark turn and the protagonist's life changes radically. Then we have an SF mystery-adventure with some hints of romance, and the most recent book was a classic comedy of manners type of romance in an SF setting. Most of us aren't Bujold, though, and at any rate the overall story after the first two books was more about the protagonist's life than just "Yay, space adventure!" type books. (The first two were about his parents.) The protag, Miles, grows and changes and there's a very strong continuity from one book to the next. When the stories turn dark (in Mirror Dance) the reader is ready for it. Not expecting it, perhaps (or at least I wasn't) but the change in tone didn't feel out of place. Nor did the romance which came later -- Miles had been looking for a woman to love and who would love him back all along, and had had several lovers through the series, so when he finally found The One and focused on pursuing her, the story flowed smoothly into the romance mode.
And I think that shows how to handle this sort of change. A very episodic series, where little or nothing significant changes about the main character(s) or the setting, or the kinds of stories told from one book to the next, sets up an expectation with the readers that the sameness will continue. And that can be good -- a lot of readers like knowing what they're going to get and going back for a fun comfort read over and over. But if there are changes and developments all along, and the focus of the books is on some overall story arc -- the protagonist's pursuit of some overall goal, even if it's something nebulous like growing up or figuring out who she is or finding some kind of purpose -- then the readers will focus on that as the backbone of the series, rather than on the type of story being told over and over.
Even with the first book of a series, it can be made plain that the main characters have plans which extend beyond the end of that first book, that there are things undone and questions unanswered, that the characters and their world are different at the end of the book and will continue to change as the story arc progresses. (Which was basically what most of the commenters agreed was the thing to do -- make it very clear through the book that the couple was heading toward having sex. That lets the people who want to see it know that it's coming, and lets people who don't want to see it decide whether to go on. Or at least be ready to skim here and there. :) )
So for example, in a romance series with all the stories set in the same universe and each book about a new couple meeting and overcoming obstacles to form a stable relationship, while having some fun sex along the way, inserting a book where that book's couple doesn't have sex would be jarring to the reader. No matter how good a story it was, failing to meet established expectations is always a problem and promising a second book about that couple (which hadn't been done before in the series either) which contained sex probably wouldn't help much. If the series focuses on something else, though -- if the whole point is clearly the developing characters and relationships over a number of books -- then the readers will know what to expect from the beginning. If it's clear that this isn't an episodic series, but rather that there'll be change and development and strong continuity from one book to the next, then the readers will get the message that there's an overall story arc here and that reading the next book won't just give them more of same.
It can work either way, but you need to communicate with the reader and make sure that what they're catching is what you're pitching. Taking a hard left off the paved road and setting off in a new direction, machete in hand, is fine so long as you make sure you leave enough signs and tracks that the readers can follow you. If you're deviating from something which is standard or traditional or conventional, you need to think about what those abandoned conventions signal to the reader, and make sure that whatever new and creative form or style or gimmick you come up with, you have some way of clearly replacing any lost signals. If not, your readers won't be able to follow you and you'll end up out in the wilds all alone.