As writers, we’re constantly making promises to our readers. Often they start with our title and cover. A cover of a couple looking longingly at each other promises romance. How disconcerting it would be to discover a horror story on the pages. Even though some romances can end up horrible.
We also make promises within our story. When we receive a criticism that our story didn’t make any sense or was unbelievable, it’s probably because we didn’t deliver on a promise we made.
For example, suppose we establish early in the story that our heroine is a martial arts expert. Towards the climax she is attacked by the villain and she tries to run away or just cowers and whimpers. She never uses the skills we said she had. We broke a promise to the reader.
In my first book, Journey to Riverbend, I established that my hero, Michael Archer, had two core values. One was he always kept his word. The other is he didn’t want to kill anybody. These actually were promises that something would happen to Michael to challenge these values. They needed to be fulfilled or resolved by the end. At the climax, I put Michael in a situation where he had to choose. He could keep one, but not both.
In his book, Troubleshooting Your Novel, Steven James writes that stories are more than what’s happening on the page. They’re also about promises, anticipation, fulfillment, and satisfaction. In the story, usually in the first 50 pages, our characters reveal what Steven calls their PLAN:
Purpose: What are they hoping to do?
Longing: What do they desire?
Apprehension: What are they afraid of?
Needs: What do they require?
Now the reader knows what to look for and what to worry about.
But we don’t want to make the story predictable. Predictable books are boring. We need to add twists and revelations, setbacks and subtext to throw our characters off stride, to make them almost want to give up, or go over the edge of desperation and do something that makes the situation worse. Through it all, we don’t want to lose sight of those promises.
While I’m working on my first draft, revising as I go, I keep a file of promises I’m making to my readers. When it comes time to start the second draft, I consult this folder and make sure every promise is resolved somehow. Sometimes, I’ll cut it. In some cases, I may have to go back to early in the story to plant or refine the promise so it will make sense at the end. Either way, I make sure I don’t short change my characters or disappoint the reader.
What are some of things you do to keep your promises to the reader?
Hey, Henry! Thanks for this post. I like the idea of keeping a folder of promises as you write your story and then checking it during the editing phase. Great idea! Thanks. It was awesome seeing you again at ACFW!
Thanks, Darlene. It was awesome to reconnect at ACFW. And I’m glad you found my post helpful.