Monday, April 23, 2012

Fans having a say in a story's ending

Allowing fans to have a say in a story's ending has a longer history than many readers and writers realise. For the greater part, its history revolves around serialisation of publications, serialisation also having an extraordinarily long history. One Thousand and One Nights was published as a series of stories. Chaucer's Canterbury Tales was written tale by tale within an overarching structure although it is difficult to tell how they were originally printed. Early tales on Arthurian legend was built up not just by revision after revision but section by section. The Bible was constructed in sections and pieced together at a later date (I am not entering the fact/fiction debate but have included this title as it is an incredibly famous piece of serialised writing).

Canterbury Tales manuscript

But serialised books, the publication of books in succeeding parts, became vastly popular during the nineteenth century with the rise of newspapers and magazines. As a way of garnering a wide and stable audience and a steady living authors published chapters weekly or monthly in the magazine or newspaper of their choice (or the other way round depending on how the deals were made).

Charles Dickens, beginning with The Pickwick Papers in 1836, had his works published chapter by chapter. He listened to public response before he continued on, making sure the readers got what they needed even as he followed his own plot lines. Acceptance in a magazine or newspaper was not for those starting out or producing short works or inferior work, it was more for those who produced high quality pieces. Other famous authors who did likewise were Harriet Beecher Stowe, Henry James, Herman Melville, Gustave Flaubert, Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky.

The original The Pickwick Papers

Serial publication continues to this day although to a lesser extent in newspapers and magazines, which now focus on the news and producing short advisory pieces for mass consumption. Along with fading publication opportunities went an author's acceptance of fan feedback as well as fan guided plotting. Authors now generally love positive feedback, are baffled, upset or annoyed by aggressive or negative feedback and fret over stalkers and the unsolicited questioning and demands from strangers. The direct connection and acceptance of fan feedback was affected by stranger danger, Internet stalking, a greater awareness of the need for privacy and the idea that authors are the sole owners of their works, as promoted by copyright.

All such things are valid enough but they do detract from the connection Dickens would have had with his readers. The Internet and multimedia have gone a long way towards reintroducing fan feedback but the connection is generally disjointed, with no great roar for a particular plot direction but rather hundreds of voices demanding or suggesting different things. Feedback is sometimes too intrusive for the author and the demand for plot changes unwanted. Mostly, the author and publisher already have their plans and little the fans say will change them.

Still, serialisation of books continues despite the involvement of fan feedback in plotting being reduced by the standard processes of novel publication. Serialisation has become the continued story of a set of characters over several books, called a series, rather than the publication of single chapters at a time. The great roar of fan feedback has changed to the mass popularity and demand for continued titles of those series that have become multi-formatted phenomena. Books are in some ways like comics to the masses with regards to the need for more information on a single set of characters.

The Harry Potter series

But out of all the genres and all the books sold there is a rather extraordinary type of story telling that involves fan guided plotting to a greater extent than any other. It is the Choose Your Own Adventure genre or series or publication, however you like to look at it. Series is a generally accepted term so I'll stick with that.

Choose Your Own Adventure books were based on a concept of Edward Packard's. They originally appeared as Adventures Of You, beginning with Packard's Sugarcane Island in 1976. Choose Your Own Adventure books were of the most popular children's series during the 1980s-1990s and sold over 250 million copies from 1979-98.

Choose Your Own Adventure books

Personally, I was a fan. As a child I'd read them forwards, then backwards starting from a winning page and then backwards again multiple times to figure out how many different ways I could die. Endless amusement if you counted in the fact that there was a whole shelf of them at the library. I died so many different ways. Exploding in space being one of the most interesting ones to me then.

But as a fan, a young and not very connected to mass cultural fads fan, I had no concept of being able to provide feedback to an author with regards to plot direction. But with Choose Your Own Adventure books what I did do was directly alter the plot as I read. I could, in fact, choose what I wanted to happen and read on, whether forwards or backwards, winning or losing. I cannot tell you how great an impact it had on me but suffice it to say I will always be a fan of this type of fiction even if it does go out of favour and print.

Aside from allowing extensive reader guidance of plot, Choose Your Own Adventure books also provides a small glimpse into what it was like to be an author like Dickens. Dickens sought popular acclaim and delighted in his works being admired by the masses. After each chapter or section was published he could track his popularity by the sales of the publication, gather popular opinion on what should happen and why as well as adjust his stories or the publications to gain wide/r reader acceptance (only some adjustments are documented but he did take his readers into account and played with their expectations to gain the greatest response - this does not mean he always wrote what they wanted). "Readers, periodically renewing acquaintance with Dickens' characters over nineteen months, came to think of them as living people; and they did not hesitate to communicate to the author their hopes and fears over what future instalments might hold in store." - Dickens And His Readers. Dickens was one to respect the admiration for and connection of readers to his characters and so he endeavoured not to disappoint.

Does this sound much like what it is to deal with fans over the Internet nowadays? "I have had a pretty large experience of the interest my hearers are so generous as to take in these occasions, and of the delight they give to me, as a tried means of strengthening those relations — I may almost say of personal friendship — which it is my great privilege and pride, as it is my great responsibility, to hold with a multitude of persons who will never hear my voice nor see my face." This feeling of immediate connection and responsibility over an unknown reader's reactions has returned with the Internet as it is quicker and easier than ever for readers to respond to events within a book. Immediate response, as all salesmen and buyers known, counts a great deal.

Dickens always wrote to his own plan but he did take readers into account far more than the latest round of published authors. He especially took note of the opinions of those who were a source of inspiration for him and of those he respected and sort to acclaim from. He was like a thespian in this respect, a politician in others and a dancer upon the public stage. When he performed he did it with the intention of capturing attention with his story, not with the intention of filling his pockets. He loved performing for an audience, no matter how, and he did it extremely well.

Charles Dickens performing

Choose Your Own Adventures takes this reader plot guidance to a whole new level. Instead of an author asking of or listening to readers the books simply set out all the options available to a character at each vital stage of the story and you, dear reader and self made protagonist by reading, get to follow the path you'd like or want. What happens after that is on your own head.

As far as fan input into the creation and ending of a story goes, the best has already been done. This does not mean that an author couldn't or shouldn't do something fan based but that an extremely brilliant idea will be required to top either Choose Your Own Adventures or the lost times of direct feedback and involvement created by closely knit media, performance and audience response.

A brief mention on performance: I wrote earlier of multi formats for a single story gaining an author vast amounts of feedback. This is a rare thing as only a few authors find their works popular in multi formats even if they do appear in such. Performance on stage or through movies garners the greatest response. Even Dickens valued performance. He would hold readings and enact scenes in ways to purposely terrify or move the audience with their intensity.

To gain wide enough public feedback to appropriately alter a plot line so as to gain further public acclaim may mean an author will need to jump through a great many hoops. Authors, often a little shy or introverted or unwilling to take the spotlight, may need to get up on stage and perform in order to successfully become writers of fan-guided fiction. Either that or send someone else in your place and pay them. Oh, and remember that performance doesn't necessarily mean on stage or camera. Readings, interviews etc count as well but these would have to be consistent and extremely engaging if you want to create popular acclaim enough to get feedback to follow. By this point I believe you would have already established yourself as an author who didn't follow fan guidance so a change of image would mean starting all over again in gaining popularity.

Where you will be

Authors of fan-guided fiction who don't write their own ideas over those of another are in fact puppets to popularity. I am not denigrating the role of a puppet, just making sure you as the prospective author of fan-guided fiction know just what you have to do. Dance, perform, listen, accede to wishes or apologise for not and largely forgo your own ideas. It is a difficult life to do such things so be prepared. A job in the service industry will help you gain experience.

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