Breaking Promises You’ve Made to Your Reader

We’re halfway through the year, so you may be halfway through your novel, if you’re lucky. Either way, it’s a good moment to take stock and assess the promises you’ve made to your reader. That’s right – promises. These are the things your reader expects of you and your story, in exchange for their time, emotional investment and money (hopefully).

Every time you start a story you make a series of promises to your reader. You give me money (let’s just pretend everyone buys their books and doesn’t steal them in digital format) and I’ll give you a good time. Not that sort of a good time. A good story.

The number one promise you make is genre. Your reader probably went online or went to a bookshop and the first thing they did was go to a section of the shop, which would deliver the sort of experience they wanted. Say it’s crime – they want a dead body on page one, a detective of some kind and a surprise at the end.

There are genre conventions you need to satisfy, even if you’re turning the genre on its head. It doesn’t matter how clever you get with genre-bending; if you solve the crime by the halfway point and then the story turns into a political drama with nary a body to be seen, your reader will feel cheated and disappointed.

Keeping Promises to your reader

Keeping your promises to your reader doesn’t mean you can’t play with genre and expectation. Img src. Mouseguard by David Peterson

When your characters are introduced, you make another promise to your reader. If the fact that your protagonist is stubborn and wary of strangers is central to their character and the plot, beware introducing a stranger with promise of an adventure. Your character as established is unlikely to follow them without a very persuasive argument.

If you have a heroine, make sure you use her, as opposed to letting her fall unconscious and miss the big battle at the end (you know, the one you promised in chapter one).

Broken promises make for unhappy readers, so here’s my promises checklist:

  • Check for genre plot holes, such as dead bodies nobody seems to care about, alien landings that don’t serve any purpose after chapter one or an unsolved mystery.
  • Where’s that guy gone? Remember your protagonist’s best friend, who seemed to be at the centre of their world? Whatever happened to them? Your reader might be wondering. If they’ve disappeared, either find them or remove them completely. Every character should be there for a reason and a reason to leave again.
  • Did you foreshadow something early on? Have you built it into the story? If you haven’t, it probably doesn’t need to be there, but best to go back and check.
  • Are you characters acting weird? This is that thing where you give your characters strong traits or moral compasses, only for them to change with the wind, depending on where the story takes them. Characters can be consistent to their personality, but still grow and surprise the reader.
  • Did you build tension or conflict with no climax or resolution? Tension should always lead to something, even if it’s just a gag. Similarly, a moment of conflict should have a climax and a consequence. If someone gets killed, people should be sad or angry or shocked, as opposed to just getting on with their day (unless you’re writing about a psychopath).

Think about the promises you’re making to your reader and make sure there’s a pay-off. These promises don’t have to be stifling, in fact, let them be your guide. If you’re story is broken, but you don’t know why, it may be because you’ve broken some promises along the way.

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