Making the Reader a Promise (12.05 – Hyperion)

March 21, 2012

The other day I came across this fantastic TED Talk by Andrew Stanton, the writer behind Toy Story, Finding Nemo, and Wall-E (and more recently, the critically praised but financially doomed John Carter).

One of the most useful things he discusses is the idea of making the reader a promise. It can be simple or complex, but fundamentally you need to tell the reader, from the beginning that this story will be worth their time.

Then, a few hours later, I finished Hyperion, the first of four books in Dan Simmons’ fantasy/sci-fi Hyperion Cantos about an interplanetary struggle involving a cult deity, the Shrike. The book won the Hugo and Locus awards in 1990, and it’s one of my brother’s favorite books of all time. So it must be good, right?

Except that for all the promises the book offers, the book is mired in exhausting prolixity, all for a payoff of mediocre proportions.

I’ll admit, I am curious to see what will happen in book two. But if book one is anything to go by, the promise the author has made to me is that he’s going to string me along a neverending sea of verbosity in order to get there. I’d almost rather read the cliffnotes.

Hyperion is structured as six individual stories, all from the perspectives of six different characters. (The fact that each has its own unique voice is definitely one of the book’s most redeeming qualities.) There was one story in the whole book that, to me, made a promise and delivered on it: the story of Sol Weintraub and his daughter Rachel. I cared about them from the beginning. I wanted Rachel to succeed. And then, when the story hit its midpoint, I wanted to see its conclusion and find out whether she (they) would ever overcome this strange tragedy that befell them. This one story I read from start to finish in one night, because it grabbed my attention and never let go.

As I work on rewrites of Postville, I’m thinking about what promise I’m making my reader, and whether I deliver. Where’s this story going to take you, and will you care once you get there?


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