Consider for a moment: what is the most important part of a story? What leaves the most lasting impact? Is it an intriguing plot? Is it a powerful setting, beautifully described? Is it characters that have depth and show real emotion?
There is no right or wrong answer. Each individual story will have some elements that are more powerful than others, but there’s no doubt that creating lasting, powerful emotions plays a huge part in creating successful stories.
Take The Lord of the Rings, for example. What’s more important to the reader, that Frodo destroys the one true ring in the fires of Mount Doom, or that he forges a lasting relationship with Sam that ultimately proves more powerful than the one ring itself?
Or what about Harry Potter? What moved you more, Harry’s eventual defeat of Voldemort, or his ultimate passionate embrace with Ginny Weasley? Or perhaps his reunion with his dead mother, father, and godfather through the use of the resurrection stone?
These are two great examples of what fantasy author David Farland calls “emotional payoff.” As a reader, by sticking through with a story, you experience a powerful emotional ending. But both of these endings (friendship triumphs over evil, boy gets girl) are entirely predictable. That’s part of what makes them satisfying, truth be told. But what happens when an author throws you an emotional curveball?
Recently, I finished reading Glen Cook’s Gilded Latten Bones, the thirteenth novel in his fantastic Garrett, P. I. series. I’ll delve into the meaty details of the series at some point, but for now, suffice it to say that the novels are about Garrett, a private investigator, ex-marine, and general hard-ass, who knocks heads and solves problems in TunFaire, a gritty fantasy city full of everything from sorcerers to trolls and ratpeople.
Garrett is a bit of a womanizer, and though he has passing relationships with a number of women throughout the series, he always seems to come back to one in particular: a fiery redhead by the name of Tinnie Tate.
As a reader, we get treated to the evolving relationship between Garrett and Tinnie throughout the lengthy series (now up to fourteen novels). Since the novels are told from a first person perspective, the reader sees and feels what Garrett feels, so it’s natural for the reader to fall for Tinnie just as Garrett does. She has her problems – she’s bossy, possessive, hot-headed, and often fiercely jealous – but she’s also beautiful, passionate, and caring. And her and Garrett, through eleven novels, seem predestined to end up together.
At the end of Angry Lead Skies, the tenth novel, we finally get that emotional payoff. Garrett and Tinnie, it seems, are together for good. In the twelfth novel, it looks for a moment like they might soon marry.
Which brings me to the curveball Cook throws in Gilded Latten Bones. In the novel, Garrett gets separated from Tinnie for a period of time due to the near-murder of his best friend, Morley. Morley gets placed at Garrett’s house for care, and while getting to the bottom of Morley’s attacker, a host of characters from previous novels come over and spend time at Garrett’s place, including a sorceress by the name of Strafa. Then the unthinkable happens.
Garrett and Strafa fall for each other. Hard.
My first instinct as a reader was, ‘Alright, this is just a test. Garrett will figure things out and patch things up with Tinnie like he always does.’ But as the novel progresses, Garrett and Strafa’s relationship becomes more intense, and Garrett’s relationship with Tinnie completely falls apart.
When I saw the writing on the wall, it hit me like a ton of bricks. The big emotional payoff of Garrett and Tinnie getting together, possibly tying the knot, carefully crafted over twelve (12!) books, just got dashed against the wall like a house made of popsicle sticks in a hurricane.
But then I started to think about the situation. Garrett and Tinnie were never really that great for each other. If they were, they wouldn’t have fought so much. They wouldn’t have taken so long to commit to one another. And Garrett wouldn’t have strayed. Strafa, on the other hand, is almost a perfect complement to Garrett. She’s a strong, independent woman, self-secure and confident. And she’s devastatingly gorgeous.
But despite the new relationship perhaps being a better fit, I, as a reader, felt almost betrayed. Why? I got the initial emotional payoff didn’t I, the one from Garrett and Tinnie’s journey together?
Yes, I did. But then things changed. Not everyone lived happily ever after. And even though it’s not particularly realistic, that’s usually the ending that readers like to see.
Cook, of course, dealt with the entire change masterfully. In fact, Garrett’s fall for Strafa happens so suddenly that it surprises Garrett as much as it does the reader, and in that sense, it feels real. We, the reader, didn’t expect Garrett to leave Tinnie, but neither did Garrett. It just sort of happened.
Of course, by changing the status quo, Mr. Cook sets the reader up for another emotional payoff between Garrett and Strafa in future books. Very clever. So all is not lost, I guess. There’s still the potential for a happy ending. Well, except for Tinnie, I suppose.
Thinking back on other books I’ve read, we don’t actually see these sorts of curveballs very often. If you come up with other books that have left you scrambling emotionally, feel free to hit the comments section below.
Image credit: By Sean Winters (theseanster93) (Own work) (CC BY-SA 2.0), via Flickr.