8 Promises You're Making to Readers - and Then Breaking

8 Promises You’re Making to Readers—and Then Breaking

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).

Sign Up Today

hwba sidebar pic Sign up to receive K.M. Weiland's monthly e-letter and receive her free e-book Crafting Unforgettable Characters: A Hands-On Introduction to Bringing Your Characters to Life.
Email:
About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. So how can one ensure these “promises” are not broken? (I’ve been wresting with this from the day I first thought about writing.)

    Even for plotters, most books change significantly as they are being written. That makes it hard to maintain threads of consistency between all the payoffs and the associated subtle setup scattered throughout the text. With every revision, all those setup threads are in danger of being broken or misaligned. But trying to capture all the setup elements with their associated payoffs in your own notes and “metadata” would seem to require documentation beyond what most writers would find practical.

    Any tips or thoughts? Do you track these things with notes to yourself? Or do you catch this because you are exceptional at reviewing/revising your writing after the fact?

    Btw, your blog writing is so thought provoking and full of ‘aha!’ moments. You consistently get past the patter we usually hear about writing, and dig down into our heads and hearts with useful insight about what has already been tossed around in our brains, but with a whole new perspective. In a sea of information, you really stand out. Thanks!

  2. So glad you’re enjoying the blog! Writing is always a huge mish-mosh of a thousand different elements we somehow have to remember all at once. To some extent, we just have to keep doing them and reading about them until they’re so solidified in our brains that they’re second nature. But I find it also helps to keep various checklists, such as this one, so that I can go back after each major rewrite and double-check that all the pieces are in place.

  3. Wonderful post. In my latest WIP, definitely my protag will effect the ending. I think the theme – or the message is, even if you lose your way, you can find it again.

  4. The protagonist changes the plot and the plot changes the protagonist – it’s the essential circle of fiction.

  5. This is another helpful post, which we will bear in mind at this week’s session, as we analyse each other’s writing.

  6. @Meredith: Absolutely. We need those objective eyes to keep us straight.

    @Cayman: Glad it was useful to you!

  7. Great post as always, K.M. My comment is short and sweet. I always strive to provide great entertainment for my readers. As a writer, I fill the role as being a ‘plate- twirler’, running back and forth to move the story spinning.

  8. Anonymous says:

    I know everyone doesn’t outline, but if you do, I feel like you have a greater chance of fulfilling these promises. To increase this chance even more, consider running through the excises in John Truby’s “The Anatomy of Story” book. No, I don’t work for him, but his methods can be very helpful. 😀

  9. Thanks, K.M.; very helpful, as usual. What if my reader expects something from me which I haven’t promised? So often, these days, the reader demands plenty of gore, explicit sex scenes, and Holmesian mysteries to solve. But I never said I was going to give him them!

  10. Thanks for this article. I will definitely try not to break any of these promises, not because you said so, but because I owe it to my readers to keep those promises!

  11. @Sheila: “Plate twirling” is actually a great analogy. We have to keep everything balanced – and spinning – all at the same time. Not always an easy job!

    @Anonymous: Anatomy of Story is one of my all-time favorite writing craft books. I highly recommend it.

    @Viktor: A lot of reader expectations in this area will come down to foreshadowing (and cover art – but that’s another discussion entirely). Set up the tone and direction of your story correctly in the beginning, and you’ll be able to control reader expectations to a large degree.

    @mentzer: Readers are (or can be) our best friends. Definitely don’t want to make them mad!

  12. Promise #2 is such a rewarding yet challenging one to keep. Especially when we’re in the thick of creating a character in early drafts, it can be fun to take risks – sometimes they lead to great breakthroughs, but often they just yield uncharacteristic actions.

    But if we don’t take the risk, it’s easy to “play it safe” and create characters who are merely exaggerated or muted versions of ourselves.

    Great post!

  13. The great thing is that we can always go back and tweak earlier character motivations to make fun actions fit.

  14. This is an informative post. Thank you.

  15. Thanks for stopping by!

  16. I think I find the first one the most difficult one to do. I try to create lasting tension and conflict throughout the story but often worry the plotlines won’t carry the readers interest until the end where everything will be explained.

  17. This is a problem we all face. But it’s also one of the intrinsic cruxes of fiction. If the conflict isn’t enduring, we know we have an issue that must be addressed if the book is to survive.

Trackbacks

  1. […] lot of writing advice talks about making promises to your audience. We see this demonstrated very clearly in the structure of Doctor Strange. We open on a confusing, […]

Speak Your Mind

*