Fulfilling Promises

Entertainment is all about expectations. One of the major differences between an epic fantasy reader and a short fiction reader is in the expectations that each of them have of their chosen form of entertainment. An epic fantasy reader is looking for complete and total immersion, and will only be satisfied when that is achieved–a feat that is nearly impossible in a short story. A reader of shorter fiction, on the other hand, is looking for that quick emotional punch that a shorter form delivers much more effectively than any other, longer format. In the end, they will each be satisfied only if their expectations are fulfilled, and so may not enjoy each other’s favorites to the same degree that another might.

One of the ways we can control reader expectations–and, by extension, reader satisfaction–is through the promises we make to them, usually within the first third of the novel. In the words of the immortal Dan Wells, on Writing Excuses, “The promises that you make at the beginning of a story are the promises that you intend to pay off by the end of it.” You’re setting up the story’s emotional payoff even as early as the first page–you may just not know it!

For example, a story that begins with a murder is commonly viewed as foreshadowing for a mystery novel. But what if the writer focuses on the fact that it was an ice giant that committed the murder, and that it was done in an attempt to steal a magical scepter from the victim? Now we’re dealing with a fantasy. Or, on a somewhat smaller scale, what if the dead body becomes a backdrop to a certain beautiful young lady that is distracting our detective from the details of the crime? The same scene, this time promising a romance.

As you can see, promises to the reader can often be as simple as the author’s choice of focus–but they are no less binding. A story that promises a mystery then switches halfway to a romance will leave many readers dissatisfied. In fact, it will probably frustrate both the readers that picked it up as a mystery, and push away those that wanted a romance, fulfilling neither of their expectations. The same would happen if the writer focused heavily on a certain aspect of the plot/setting/character, gave it the status of a noteworthy detail, then took it nowhere. This is equivalent to setting the reader’s expectations to an unforgettable excursion to Disney World, then taking them to your local theme park. Or just to the park. Or staying home. Regardless, ‘yanking the rug out’ from under your readers midway (with no foreshadowing) will almost never have a happy ending.

Promises are actually the whole reason for the necessity of foreshadowing, aka preparing the reader’s expectations in such a way that the payoff can be truly satisfying. This is why deus ex machina endings (when something completely unforeseen saves the characters from a seemingly impossible situation) are so unfulfilling. The reader has no expectations of the coming event, and so feels almost cheated. They feel there was no way they could have figured it out on their own; it was too unexpected. And so they put down the book.

Simply put, you should never break promises! This is one of the few absolutes of writing, proven to result in reader dissatisfaction more often than not. If you want to get that same effect on the reader–and be successful doing it–fulfill the promise in a completely unexpected, yet still inevitable, way. This will keep your reader on their toes, knowing they can be surprised, while still allowing them to know that you won’t cheat them out of their well-deserved endings.

Next week we’ll talk about the grit of plotting, namely the structuring of the plot itself, in such a way that it’s end fulfills any promises you have made to the reader.