Don’t manipulate me…

Or if you do, you better be so good at it that I don’t notice.

There is nothing that I as a reader (or movie watcher) dislike more than a book that uses a trick towards the end to try to manipulate me into thinking it was good.

I haven’t read the book Atonement, but I remember feeling very annoyed by the movie.  I thought most of the movie was way too slow and that not much happened.  As I was watching it I couldn’t understand why it had received such rave reviews. Until the end of the movie where there’s a twist and I thought to myself, “Yep.  That’s the reason people liked it.  They forgot that the rest of the movie was dull and loved this little bit.  Ugh.”

This probably ties back to something called the Peak-End Rule that was first postulated by Daniel Kahneman.  (I’m not linking to anything here, but it’s pretty easy to track down.)  The basic idea is that people remember an experience for how it was at its most pleasant or unpleasant moment and for how it ended.  Everything else in between blurs away.

I learned this principle in the context of negotiations.  Someone’s impression of a negotiation ties back to the best/worst moment of the negotiation and how it ended.  (I want to say there was a third component that we learned in my class – perhaps the beginning – but in my “I don’t want to be a hoarder purge” a few years ago, I seem to have given away the books that cover that.  Damn.)

The reason I bring this up is that I finished reading that best-seller last week and, sure enough, the book killed off one of the main characters towards the end. I felt like the death was done to try to manipulate me.  (“Oh, look, they’re happy.  Where to take this now?  Gee, it’s a little boring at this point.  Let’s kill one of them and see how the other reacts.”)

There are perfectly legitimate reasons to kill off a main character and I’m actually a fan of books that aren’t afraid to be a little real and gritty.  But I hate books that kill characters as some sort of barely concealed effort to play with a reader’s emotions.

Unfortunately, I think this approach does work with a lot of readers, just not with me.  (I mentioned before that I took one of those personality tests for work that measure your ability to be manipulated and I scored at the extreme edge of the test.  I always suspect people of trying to maneuver me, which means it’s a very bad idea to walk up to me and tell me something flattering and then follow it up with a request for a favor.  I might have been perfectly happy to help you out until you tried to butter me up first.  Now I just distrust you and your request.  But that’s me.  And I am definitely not normal.)

So, as a writer, what’s the lesson?

If you want me as a reader, watch the cheap tricks at the end.  I remember everything not just the really good/bad and the end.  And I will judge you for trying to manipulate me.

If you want normal people as readers, make sure that you have a really good scene somewhere in the book (and that it’s not drowned out by a really bad scene – like an incredibly awkward and unnecessary love scene or a gratuitously violent killing) and that you end on a really strong note.

(Which this post did not do, which is why I’m an unpublished writer and not a best-seller.  But someday…someday I will release the inner manipulator and my stories will make you cry and laugh and nod your head in sage agreement at my profound insights into the human soul.)

(Someday, but not today.)

About M. H. Lee

M.H. Lee is a speculative fiction writer currently residing in Colorado whose stories are sometimes dark, sometimes funny, sometimes darkly funny, but hopefully always thought-provoking and entertaining.
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