Four Unspoken Promises All Authors Make to Readers

business-silhouette-1016872-mToday’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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45 responses to “Four Unspoken Promises All Authors Make to Readers

  1. I use the cliffhanger a lot when I have multiple arcs in a story. I try to get a few scenes in between, but no more than a chapter before I go back to the cliffhanger. It depends on what the scene is because some events can be stretched out more than others.
    As for the tone, I think a book with humor can have a tragic ending if you limit the humor. Done correctly a lighthearted book with a tragic ending can leave a major, positive impact. It shows the author can do both, but it’s a delicate balance.

    • That’s the key, exactly: it’s a balancing act. And as long as a writer is aware of that and pays attention to that, I agree with you that a more lighthearted book can have a sadder or especially bittersweet end to it.

      I personally don’t mind inbook cliffhangers that much, especially when they don’t feel crazy gimmicky. When I get the impression that a writer is depending on those to keep readers reading because he or she doesn’t trust the story to be engaging, I have an issue. But not when it works out the way you describe above.

  2. I agree, Victoria, that we need to pay attention to the things we inherently say we’ll provide for our readers. But one thing I’ll add is that we also need to give them the unexpected. My opinion is that we should always leave lots of surprise in our work. Also, what we unwittingly promise is up to interpretation. What means one thing to one reader may mean something entirely different to another, and we can’t aim to please all. Very good post; lots of well-said points. Thanks!

  3. I’d say that another unspoken promise is that, if you’re going to kill off a character, that they receive a fitting end. Think about how many times, in any form of media, a character you liked was killed off just for shock value, or without tying up any of their plot threads. Or a death that was meant to be meaningful, but didn’t come across that way at all.
    In a story I was writing recently, I stumbled onto this mistake. The character I killed off–let’s call him J for now–was part of the plot from the beginning, and his death is what forces the protagonists to finally face the “final boss,” to use videogame terms, of the book.
    Thing is, though J was there throughout the story, I didn’t give him enough impact. He didn’t get a chance to speak or show what he can do, and thus, my beta readers didn’t see how important his death was. “It was like you managed to juggle all your subplots except this one,” one of them said, and thus it seemed like killing J off was the easy, lazy way of letting that plot thread fall.
    Needless to say, I’m going to show a bit more of who J is in the next draft before I kill him off. That whole scenario serves as a reminder that deaths need to fit. Minor characters don’t need overblown deaths, and major characters need the final hurrah they deserve. Otherwise, you get disappointed readers on your hands, and we know how that turns out.

    • Love everything you say here!!! It’s so true. Best of luck making J as important to your readers as he is to you 🙂 From the way you talk about him here, it sounds like you have a great understanding of the fix you need to make. That’s awesome. YEA for betas, right?

    • I have a similar situation but I can’t bring him in too early and also I dislike losing characters I really like and don’t want to upset my readers too much – in case they are they same – so I feel if I make him too big a part I am just upping the misery!

      • That’s another worry altogether! I know readers get attached to characters, and so I hate killing them. But my stories often require it. All I can do is try to make sure the death does them justice, and show that their legacy lives on and they are not forgotten.

    • This is a really interesting example. It feels almost like what’s missing is the promise, rather than the pay-off. J does something important, but you haven’t promised the reader that he’ll matter, so they’re not primed for it. I hadn’t thought about missing promises before this!

  4. You touched upon something extremely important: our end of the bargain with our readers. That bargain must be met; if it’s not, we let our readers down. That means knowing what we’re doing, and understanding the bond we’re forging with our intended audience.

    • I agree! It really is a bargain in its way. There really is a bond being forged, and we need to be aware of and respect that. Luckily our gut inclination is to do just that, I think. Sometimes we just don’t realize we aren’t doing it, but when beta readers or editors let us know, we all jump at the chance to make things right.

      • Victoria, I always “jump at the chance to make things right.” I realize that creativity is imperfect and that I might not have achieved my desired result. As a storyteller, I want to entertain–not disappoint or bore my readers. It’s a delicate balance, but writers can improve their books while still remaining true to themselves.

  5. I agree in principle with your proposition but the problem with it is that no two readers are alike and whilst some might feel let down by an unresolved “cliffhanger”, others might delight in being given the opportunity to “work it out for themselves.” Haruki Murakami often leaves his readers hanging, not just in his sub-plots but at times in his main plot arc too. I found that disconcerting at first but once I got used to his style, I found myself enjoying the journey instead of being disappointed by the (lack of) destination. In his case, I’m convinced that the unresolved cliffhanger is a device intentionally used to create his desired effect.

    • You are very, very right about this! That’s where the idea of a target audience comes in, because none of us can please everyone. We have to try to hone in on the select group of readers we are writing for, who are most likely to enjoy the kind of story we are telling as long as we tell it well. You bring up a very important point here…. Thank you!!!

  6. so where do you stand on something like the recent divergent trilogy? the only book I have seen with more one stars than 5.

  7. My only concern is with regards to the cover “promise.” Have you heard of Maureen Johnson’s cover flip project? (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/05/07/coverflip-maureen-johnson_n_3231935.html) Sometimes covers are useful in setting tone… and sometimes they are a way to devalue works written by female authors or for female readers.

    • I have heard of that!!! That is so very true and sad about the devaluing of our work as women. Thanks for linking to that. It is truly incredible and people who haven’t seen it really should!

  8. It seems to me it’s all about trust. As a writer I want my readers to trust that I will tell them what needs to be told – at my pace, in my way. I in turn trust that they will read it with this in mind. By the end I hope that we’ve learned to trust each other. As a reader, if I feel the author doesn’t trust me to make my own assessment, or thinks to much of him/herself to trust me, then I stop reading.

    • That is a fabulous point there, Jon. It really is all about trust both ways. I could not agree more and I love the way you explain what you mean here. It’s extremely thought-provoking. Thanks, Jon!

  9. There’s another one that Orson Scott Card discusses in his books on writing, which is the promise of the sort of story you’re writing. To hugely abbreviate, he says that stories fit into four types depending on their focus – Milieu, Incident, Character or Event (MICE). How you start the story makes a promise about what type it is, and so what sort of pay-off it will have. While readers aren’t usually aware of this, if you don’t match the start and the finish then they’ll often be dissatisfied.

    Card goes into much more detail on what each type involves and it’s well worth reading. Whatever you think of his views on other subjects, the man knows his SF+F technique.

    • That sounds awesome, Andrew! Thanks for bringing this up because I haven’t heard of MICE before. It sounds like Card is saying something really interesting and useful. I need to check that out!

  10. I agree with you. An author makes a pact with a reader to produce the best book he/she can. If you’re going the traditional publishing route and you’re a new author, you don’t have much say over what goes on the cover, except if an image is totally inappropriate (which is what happened with one of my covers; since the cover image was preliminary, I at least could say, “This image doesn’t work, because this scene doesn’t occur in the book”). However, the ending and other aspects are within your control.

    I find that tone is what causes me to put down a book. In one book I read, the main character never seemed serious. So whenever she was in a situation of mortal peril, I couldn’t suspend my disbelief and wound up putting the book down. I also found that I didn’t care if she survived or not, because I couldn’t get past the one liners. I love Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books, because he knows when to set a joke aside to heighten the emotional impact of a scene.

    The ending is the crown jewel of a book. This is where I often feel the most cheated. I’m STILL waiting on the sequel to a book that ended with a cliffhanger. I read the first book years ago. The author has since produced a completely different book, which makes me wonder why she didn’t give us the ending to the first book.

    • Love your points here about cover, tone, and especially the end. It really is a crown jewel, isn’t it? And it has to fit just right in its setting as well as shine brightly. It has to match its surroundings while simultaneously standing out.

  11. I’m SO glad you mentioned book cover! I hate it when the covers don’t have anything to do with the story, and were obviously chosen because it was a pretty picture that they thought would sell.

    Validation is so sweet.

  12. I agree with you and most of all on the book cover. I have experience with that one. Some reviewers complained about the cover promising a traditional medieval fantasy when the book was actually a modern fantasy. It got so bad I changed the cover.

  13. Thanks for the insight! Let’s not lead others to believe what really isn’t there.

  14. Pingback: Works to See (January 6th, 2014) | Chris Weston

  15. Reblogged this on rrhunsinger and commented:
    Seems this would go without definition. But these are big points that do get forgotten!

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