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Deliver on Your Promises

promise-expectation“The reader has certain rights. He bought your story. Think of this as an implicit contract. He’s entitled to be entertained, instructed, amused; maybe all three. If he quits in the middle, or puts the book down feeling his time has been wasted, you’re in violation.” ~ Larry Niven

If you’re writing a mystery, you are promising the reader an exciting ride, whether it’s figuring out who done it or experiencing the danger to the characters or just the promise of a good case of goose bumps.

Whatever your implied promise, in order to satisfy your reader and make him/her want to read more books by you, you must deliver on that promise. In other words, give the reader what he or she expects when he or she picks up your book.

For those of us writing romance, we are promising the reader a love story between two admirable people who will overcome great obstacles to finally end up happily together. In the process of this journey to the happy ending, these people will learn, change, and grow.

This is your implied promise.

And this you must deliver.

But in addition to this main promise, a writer makes other promises along the way. If she introduces a new point of view, for example, she is promising that there is a reason for this introduction and that, sooner or later, the reader will understand the reason. If she has a character do something that is wrong, she promises that the character will eventually be found out and punished in some way. If she plants a clue, she promises that the reason behind the clue will eventually be explained. Anton Chekhov said it best: “If there is a gun hanging on the wall in the first act, it must fire in the last.” He was talking about a play, but the same rule applies to the writing of novels. And if a secret is implied, the author promises that eventually the reader will find out what the secret is.

If these promises are not fulfilled, the reader is disappointed and you, as the author, have let your reader down.

One other note about secrets. Readers really like being let in on a secret – one the characters don’t know about – because that way they can anticipate what will happen when the character does find out. This is a great tool to use to increase suspense and excitement for the reader. The popular marriage of convenience is based on just this kind of hook. The reader knows about the secret baby, but the father doesn’t, and the fun of the story is wondering when he’ll find out and how he’ll react.

Even there, the author is promising something. She’s promising that the father will find out and some kind of fireworks will occur when he does.

I also want to talk a bit about not betraying the reader’s trust, for that is the worst kind of broken promise. I have stopped reading a certain author because she has betrayed my trust more than once. And here’s how. The book that so infuriated me I threw it against the wall was set in a small town. Terrible murders were being committed. There were about a dozen important characters in the book, including a prominent citizen and his wife. The author used the points of view of all of these characters. She also wrote some scenes from the killer’s point of view, although the killer’s identity was withheld.

At the end, we find out the killer is actually the prominent citizen’s wife. In my opinion, it is a gross betrayal of reader trust to have included scenes from the citizen’s wife’s point of view where she thinks about the murders as if she’s just an innocent bystander. The wife wasn’t an innocent bystander. She was the killer. By having her think about what’s happened as if she had no part in it, the author leads the reader to believe she is innocent. That is cheating the reader. And you never want to cheat your reader.

Copyright 2014 Patricia A. Kay – No duplication of any part of this article is permitted without written consent from the author.


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