Today’s post is all about the promises we authors make to readers when we write a novel: whether we know it or not. We need to be aware of the promises we’re making because we need to make sure we keep them.
Don’t keep them, and you’ve got a reader revolt on your hands.
Many of the things readers gripe about in negative reviews– “I was let down at the end,” “It bored me,” “It wasn’t what I expected,” “The points I cared about were dropped by the author and never resolved– are often the result of us breaking those unspoken but powerful promises.
Now, some quick background for this post: in a graduate course about autobiography, I had to read some theory written by a Frenchman named “Phillipe Lejeune.” He claimed that readers have an implicit understanding of an “autobiographical pact” when they read an autobiography.
He goes on to discuss what the pact is and how the use of “I” by the author, referring to the author, institutes this agreement. That doesn’t really matter here. My point is this: the autobiographical pact got me thinking of all the ways we novelists (as well as memoirists) make promises to our readers without necessarily being aware that’s what we’re doing.
Here is a list of ways we give readers preconceptions of what to expect. We need to make sure we deliver on those expectations:
1. INTRODUCING A SUBPLOT.
This one is kind of obvious, but it bears a mention. Everyone knows that if something isn’t important to the story, it doesn’t need to be told as part of the story. That’s fiction rule number one.
Thus, when we introduce a subplot, we need to resolve it.
There is always the option to edit a subplot out, of course. But if it stays, it needs resolution. By introducing it, you are promising readers that something important, or at least something with implications for the major plotline, will come of it.
2. THE “IN-BOOK” CLIFFHANGER.
You know what I mean: ending a chapter, or a chapter section, on a cliffhanger, even if the book as a whole ties everything together at the end.
This technique can work (especially if using sparingly), but realize that when you use it, you are promising your reader that you will deliver a “second part” to the build-up. You’re implying that this “second part” is worth the wait caused by any interspersed material. If you DON’T have something powerful, or dangerous, or exciting in your follow up, you will cause disappointment.
3. YOUR BOOK COVER.
Book covers definitely promise readers lots of things:
- They can establish genre
- Fonts and images set a tone: suspenseful, lighthearted, comical, romantic….
- They can establish a target audience in terms of age group (children, middle age, young adult)
- They sometimes point toward an important and/or action-filled moment in the story
- They can establish one or more characters. Dress, age, culture: all these things give us an idea of who a character is, and all those things can appear on a book cover.
Obviously, we need a cover to “fit” the book it’s promoting.
4. YOUR TONE.
I mentioned “tone” when discussing book covers. A cover sets a tone that should match the tone of your book. And the tone of your book needs to match the content.
Tone and mood are vital to setting reader expectations.
When a novel has a lighthearted, comic tone, you won’t be surprised if the book is a satire perhaps, but you definitely won’t be expecting a tragic ending treated as a tragedy.
When a novel has a suspenseful tone and everything points to mortal danger, you’ll be disappointed if the author doesn’t deliver on that promise to provide a narrow escape or two, or at least a genuine, severe threat of some kind.
Your tone DOES make “promises” as to what kind of content you are providing. If you give readers something other than what you set them up for when all is said and done, well, you will have angered some people.
So, what do you think about this assessment? Do you agree that introducing subplots, including in-story cliffhangers, and choosing a tone and cover image make promises of some kind to your reader?
Can you think of other unspoken promises we authors make? Do you have an example of a time you were reading and felt an unspoken promise was broken?
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