I recently finished watching WandaVision on Disney+ and was impressed by the entire production, especially the writing. I think the scribes did a great job of addressing Wanda’s grief, and each character was fleshed out enough to allow me to understand their motivations and wants. Once the final post-credit scene faded, I started thinking about all the rumors, all the speculation, and how wrong everyone was about where the story was going to lead. Over the next few days I read a lot of angry comments and articles about how disappointed some fans are with the story, the ending, and that their specific theory didn’t come to pass.
That, in turn, got me thinking about what obligation writers have to meet the exceptions of their readers.
An argument can be made both ways, depending on the situation. A perfect example is the A Song of Ice and Fire series by George R.R. Martin. Fans have been expecting a complete series, seven novels, but Martin has yet to deliver. Keep in mind, the first book of the series was published in 1996, with increasingly longer gaps between publishing dates on the subsequent novels. It’s now been nearly ten years since the most recent book, A Dance with Dragons, was published, and at this point, the readers have mostly given up on Martin ever finishing the series.
To me, a reader and a huge fan of the series (so far), I’m angry about this. It’s not just that Martin has been procrastinating on finishing the last two books, but that he’s been working on other projects instead. As someone who has invested a lot of time into reading (and mostly enjoying) these books, I feel cheated. And I’m not the only one. In this case, I feel that Martin has an obligation to complete the series. He told his readers there were going to be seven books, a complete story, and here we are, impatiently waiting for him to follow through and meet our expectations. And keep in mind, our expectations are based on what he said he was going to do.
As a writer, I feel that if I tell readers I’m going to publish three books, or five, or ten, then I’m obligated to follow through. Hell, even Robert Jordan’s fourteen-volume series, The Wheel of Time, was completed after he died. His estate compiled all his notes and outlines and hired Brandon Sanderson to complete the series, for the fans. I respect that.
But when it comes to storytelling, especially with known properties, are writers obligated to pay fan service (or reader/viewer service) and tell the story the way they expect it to play out, or have we the leeway to basically do what we want?
With WandaVision, the expectations were all over the place, and many viewers were expecting big reveals, big-name villains, big-name cameos. What the writers did, however, was stick with their initial premise and they didn’t deviate from it. Oh, there was a villain, of course, but not the one the fans were expecting. And there were some interesting revelations, like the truth about Wanda’s brother, but some fans felt cheated. I think they were expecting a series on a grand scale, with spectacle, like the Infinity War and Endgame movies. Sure, Marvel Studios loves to go big with the movies, but television shows, especially one that’s based on classic television, shouldn’t be expected to be the same way. It’s a smaller format, more intimate. I think the writers did a good job in sticking with the formula.
I think meeting expectations is a long-form storytelling issue, and in some cases it’s not a bad thing. Returning to Martin’s series, one of the things I love about it is that the story itself defied my expectations. Spoiler incoming: In the first novel, the main protagonist is killed in the last chapter. The first time I read it (and I’ve actually re-read it several times) blew me away. It was completely unexpected. I mean, who kills off their main character, and a well-liked one, in the first book of a seven book series? Was I mad that he blew up my expectations? Nope. I was actually thrilled by it. It was new, different, and damn good storytelling.
In general, I don’t think writers have an obligation to write what’s expected of them. Writers are artists, and writing is an art form, and art is subjective. What thrills one person may upset the next. What it comes down to is to being honest when it comes to storytelling. Some people prefer to comfort of a known path, the familiarity of recycled tropes, and frown upon any deviation from the formula. Others, like myself, prefer the odd twists and turns, the unexpected surprises, tropes turned upside-down. The only caveat is when a writer sets a goal or objective, like announcing they’re going to write a specific number of books in a series and don’t deliver. In those cases, I feel the writer has let me down.
Looking at you, Mr. Martin.