A book is a contract between reader and writer. The reader is promising to pay attention to the story and emotionally invest in the adventure. In return, the writer is promising to fulfill certain expectations about the fictional experience.
When we fail to fulfill this contract with our readers, we are, in essence, breaking our promises to them. These promises range from the big one at the top of the list (“I promise this will be a good read”) to a number of smaller ones along the way. Let’s take a look at eight common promises you may be making to your readers—and then breaking.
1. I promise every instance of conflict will end with an appropriate climax.
Conflict must always lead to a specific outcome. It can’t fizzle away into nothing. Characters can’t just say, “Whoops, guess we misunderstood each other,” shake hands, and walk away. Whenever you introduce a conflict, you also have to make sure you pay it off with some sort of confrontation, disaster, or triumph.
2. I promise my characters will always behave within the parameters of their established personalities.
We never want our characters acting out of character. This doesn’t mean characters can’t act in surprising or even shocking ways. But not only do their actions have to resonate within the personality we’ve established for them, their actions also have to result from appropriate and understandable motives.
3. I promise I will always pay off significant foreshadowing.
Foreshadowing is present in our stories for two reasons: 1) to prepare readers for big events down the road and 2) to ratchet up the tension. If you use foreshadowing to raise your tension, only to have readers discover there was never really anything for them to be tense about, they’ll either feel you’ve cheated them—or you were too dumb to notice what you did.
4. I promise that characters who are important in the beginning of the story will not be forgotten about by the end.
Only Charles Dickens could get away with opening The Old Curiosity Shop with a first-person narrator who, without explanation, disappears from the story after a few chapters. If a character is introduced as important early on in your story, he either needs to play an important role throughout or, at the very least, his disappearance from the story later on needs to be appropriately explained.
5. I promise every cause will end in an appropriate effect—and vice versa.
Every action needs to be followed by an appropriate reaction. And every reaction needs to make sense in relation to some preceding action that caused it. One character can’t suddenly want to kill another without an appropriate reason, just as another character can’t realistically act with passivity toward the murder of his family.
6. I promise my protagonist(s) will play an appropriately active role in the climax.
At its heart, deus ex machina, the technique of resolving a conflict through some powerful outside means (such as the cavalry rushing in to save the wagon train), is a broken promise toreaders. Your audience has followed your protagonist all the way to the end of your story. They want to see him take action to defeat the antagonist via means that have been foreshadowed through the story.
7. I promise not every scene will play out exactly as readers expect.
Readers like the element of surprise. Within the confines of certain expectations, they want you to shock their socks off. They open your book expecting you to take them to surprising places. When you fail to do that, they will grow bored with the stereotypes.
8. I promise to abide by genre conventions—within reason.
Ingenuity with genre is the lifeblood of innovative fiction. But you also have to realize that your genre itself will be promising readers certain things. If you fail to live up to those expectations, readers will be disappointed. In a romance, your leading couple better fall in love. In an action story, there better be explosions. In a historical, there better behistory.
Always be aware of what you’re promising readers. If you’re falling short of any of these promises, then double your efforts to not just fulfill them, but to go above and beyond reader expectations.
Tell me your opinion: What is one thing your story is promising your readers?
Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in iTunes).