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What do you think about warnings on stories?

William King

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I don't usually write warnings at the beginning of a book about the content. There are exceptions, my recent book Refugee is set in the present day, includes real places and organisations, so I added something at the start to say - This is a work of fiction, any resemblance etc.

Concerning a different point of view about warnings, I received this comment on another story:

I hate stories with bad endings. I am sorry, but I have enough of that in real life. I read these stories to escape real life. Now, with this ending, I feel depraved and cheated... And you, man, should post a warning that this story will end badly and sensitive readers like me should not read it.

I don't agree with the comment, because including a warning that this story does not have a happy ending, spoils the book, It's real life drama. I am, however, not so arrogant as to be unsympathetic to the point of view of that reader, but I really don't see a way to address his/her issue.

How would you deal with this? 

What do you think?


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There are circumstances in which a warning or notation is required. Such stating the story is highly graphic in nature (sexually, or violence or both) or to let the reader know that the story is fiction and that some of the content may resemble real people, places or organizations etc.

However, a warning or notation that a story is going to end badly, does not seem logical to me. What makes for a good book/story? To me that is how the story evolves and what plot twists may or may not appear. The roller coaster journey of emotions that are evoked. Stories in many ways are like life, you never know what is going to happen or how things will turn out until it is done.

I am not a fan of stories with sad endings, I seriously doubt anyone is. But it is what it is. I do not judge a story by if the ending is a happy one or a sad one, but rather the journey I took in reading it. It is possible to enjoy a story but hate the ending.

Under normal circumstances, if the story was an actual published book, he could have sought out book reviews before deciding to read the book. (risking spoilers in the process) That is not something that is possible with stories that are posted to sites like Castle Roland. Most of the stories hosted have teasers about the story. So to the reader who complained about hating stories with bad endings and feeling deprived and cheated, I say caveat emptor, let the buyer beware.

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As a writer, you present a story, often hoping to deliver a particular message, get a particular emotion across.  You become the pilot of the plane, the helmsman of the ship, and the reader joins other readers in being a passenger, going along with you on the journty.

That doesn't mean that every passenger gets the same feeling, the same experience out of the journey.  As the person guiding the journey, you only are responsible for getting the passenger to the destination, not to whether or not they see all the sights, get motion sickness, leave the craft early or unexpectedly, or just decided they don't like how or where you are guiding them.

By its nature, storytelling is a craft, not a science.  Certainly not a surgical technique or mechanical construct.  It may be a path to a predictable end, but that doesn't mean it is a simple, easy or comfortable one.  I would point out that bad things do happen to beloved characters in stories, even if they aren't the main character.  In Harry Potter's sage, we wind up with one less Weasley Twin than when we started.  Harry loses his godfather, the only real parent he ever knew who loved him unconditionally.  Dumbledor is killed before Harry's eyes by one of his own teachers.  There are all kinds of bumps and bruises, broken bones, painful afflictions, magical curses and traps that Harry and company are subjected to along the way.  If a reader simply expects a character to breeze through a story, untouched, unaffected, unharmed and most importantly unchanged in some way... I think that reader may be deluding themselves. 

Even the Bible shows that your heroes go through hell, suffer losses, face the "outrageous slings and arrows" before they achieve greatness.  And I would point out that even then, it doesn't always end well.  Noah became a drunk, Jonah was widely ignored, John the Baptist was beheaded because he wouldn't get with a chick (he was from a celibate sect), and Moses never got to the promised land, despite leading the Israelites for 40 years in the wasteland.

So, should a story have warnings... Well, I'd say that as a way to lure readers, to tell them that what they may be reading might contain graphic violence, sexual situations, language inappropriate for young children, I can see tht.  If it is to tell readers that the story is a war story, or a drama, if it's about medical situations, or scienc fiction, has fantasy elements (magic, supernatural. etc.,) involves animal characters, is a political thriller, a crime and punishment story, the list goes on and on; yeah, I could get beind labeling a story like that.

But warning that a story has a "bad ending" or leads to a place of sadness rather than victory, success, happiness, a "good ending" per se?  Nope, can't see that.  Might as well tell the director how you want the play or movie to go.  Might as well tell the musician how to write and perform the song.  If you feel something bad because of a story, you'll just have to deal with it.  You get out of any work of art what you bring to it.  Some meanings and feelings from such artistic expression are often dominant and overpowering.  In which case, the person leading that journey has stirred you in ways he intended.  But it is still in the eye of the beholder if something is beautiful, powerful, evocative and meaningful.

Let the reader beware.  Words are stronger than sometimes you believe.  And you might run headlong into some words that you never saw coming.  Watch this space.

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