Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The Problem of Expectations and Premises

As I mentioned in my book review of Auralia’s Colors yesterday, one problem I encountered was expectations: What I thought I was getting isn’t what I got.

This isn’t necessarily the author’s fault.

Everything from cover art to the teaser on the book’s back to endorsements (none of which the author normally has any say about) can raise expectations, and a reader’s personal experience and reading history often only fuels that fire.

Take for example Auralia’s Colors. The premise of the story is about an outcast with a special talent who defies a kingdom’s rules. These are all common elements of an underdog story where a person who doesn’t fit in with their normal world faces impossible odds to win the right to be who they are. (Can you tell this is a common motif in my reading history? Which of course only adds to the expectations—past reading has taught me to think “underdog story” when I see these elements, especially in a fantasy setting.)

This, however, is not the story type of Auralia’s Colors.

For me, this then begs the question, how can one story premise—especially as specific as the one for Auralia’s Colors—raise such opposing expectations?

As I already stated, part is because of the different reading histories and experiences that each reader brings to the story. Yet I think there is also a reason more fundamental to the nature of storytelling: you start with a blank canvas restricted by nothing but your own imagination. This means the possibilities are infinite when you begin, and determining a premise only provides broad strokes of color on the canvas. A green circle may eliminate ripe oranges and bananas from that spot, but it could still be a green apple or a tree top or an alien from Mars.

So the basic premise of Auralia’s Colors (an orphan girl sculpts colors in a kingdom where color is reserved for the top echelon) can spark a multitude of stories, such as:

  • A mysterious orphan girl opens a world of color to a prince imprisoned by the bland world of status, winning his affections and a crown. (rags-to-riches)
  • An orphan girl with an unusual talent seeks to hide it from those who forbid it, only to learn that every talent is given for a reason. (underdog)
  • A girl with an unusual talent and mysterious origins is banished from a kingdom where her talent is forbidden, forcing her on a journey to find who she is and why this talent is hers. (coming-of-age or epic)
And the possibilities could go on. Yet each example employs every part of the original premise. It is only through adding more details that the author’s intended picture will emerge.

Just be careful. Otherwise you might find yourself confronting an army of green little men where you thought you’d find a stand of trees.

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