How to Make the Right Promises to Your Readers

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You may not know it starting out, but every time you begin a story, you make promises to your readers. Even if you aren’t aware what promises you’re making, your readers will be bothered if you don’t fulfill them.

“Some people don’t understand the promises they’re making when they make them.” – John Green

If the reader puts down a book, there’s a good chance it’s because a promise wasn’t being fulfilled. Before you lose any (more) readers to unfulfilled promises, let’s talk about the different ones you can make.

 

1. You promise a tone
Whether the person is a book publisher, an editor, a literary agent, or a reader, that person subconsciously picks up the story’s tone within a few pages and expects it to remain the same throughout. Take a look at these beginning first lines:

  • “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” –One Hundred Years of Solitude
  • “Of all the things that drive men to sea, the most common disaster, I’ve come to learn, is women.” –Middle Passage
  • “It was a bright, cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” –1984
  • “You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter.” –Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

In those examples, even from the first line, you get a feel for the tone of the story. The reader treats that as an anchor.

 

2. You promise a theme
The example that leaps to my mind is in the fantasy genre. I’ve heard of instances where a fantasy author would start out the book with an old-school type magic system amongst the traditional, medieval European-style background, then within the last quarter of the book, it turns on its head and goes the opposite of traditional just to appease the progressive fantasy readers. The trouble with this, is that many progressive fantasy readers get bored with the traditional style within the first few dozen pages, and the traditional fantasy readers get upset at the major change toward the end. So, in that instance, neither group is happy and sales suffer.

Another example is making an unhappy ending at the end of a romance story. Modern romance readers want a happy ending. That’s pretty standard. Unless you’re Shakespeare, then you’re awesome enough to pull it off. Although today’s commercial market is quite different from back then.

A final example is a murder mystery novel that doesn’t provide the resolution of who did it at the end. Finding out is the whole point. As strange as that sounds, I’ve heard of a book written like that.

There are expectations within genres. All of this isn’t to say that you can’t have twists, which you should, but there are parameters of expectations. As with so much in fiction, however, there are exceptions to every rule.

 

3. You promise a character
In most cases, your readers will want to know who they’re supposed to root for. There is a strong exception to this, as skillfully displayed in the Game of Thrones series. The books do a great job of making you unsure of who best to root for. Whichever method you use depends on your goals and style.

 

4. You promise a problem and some kind of resolution
Readers want to experience problems being solved. The resolution I’m referring to may not be in regards to the main problem/conflict, or even one the reader is expecting. But there needs to be some sort of resolution at the end, even if it’s simply a transitional one before tackling the big problem again. A good example of this is in a trilogy, where the main conflict isn’t resolved until the end of book three.

The ring didn’t get destroyed at the end of book one of The Lord of the Rings, but there was some resolution, nonetheless. Even if you leave some conflict still yet to be resolved, most of the questions will need to be answered to leave the reader satisfied. For example, if the characters in your story lose a key to their quest, you’ll need to tie up that loose end. They can’t just look at each other and shrug their shoulders in the last paragraph of the book, you’ll need to have them rediscover it, figure out another method, make their own, etc.

 

Fulfilling the unspoken promises that you make will only help to increase your readership and bring your readers back for more.

 

 

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49 thoughts on “How to Make the Right Promises to Your Readers”

  1. This is great!
    I also think that when you (in general) post or publish new material, you automatically make a promise to your readers to regularly update and not let them down.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Good stuff to keep in mind. Ultimately I think a clear understanding of what should draw readers into one’s work is best for any genre. Making a promise can mean you deliver on it, or you can play upon the expectation with some kind of twist or new development.
    Bottom line: you can deceive writers if you do it in a way that intrigues them further, but you should never, ever disappoint them outright. Deception (when used wisely) can add new life and energy to a written work, while disappointment burdens it forever.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. There are plenty of stories that begin with great ambition and imagination, but the author fails to communicate their feelings to the reader. That is one of my greatest fears as a newcomer to writing.

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  4. Does one have to lie to fulfill a promise? Let’s say when you write a true to life love story and it ends up in tragedy but the modern romance readers love a happy ending, does one have to conform to satisfy followers?

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    1. Good question. Again, it comes down to goals. You can write a tragedy-romance, and there will be a niche audience that will love it; however, given the modern, commercial, romance audience, it likely will not be in the majority of popularity.

      It depends if your goal is to write a story that you love that will be read by some, or to be quickly accepted by a major book publisher and have wide commercial success in today’s romance market.
      (It’s certainly not impossible to have both happen, but for the sake of the example, let’s go with it…)

      Neither method is “bad” or “incorrect” or a “sellout,” it merely depends on what your personal goals are. There will always be followers for niche markets, but the question is how well you can access them.

      Ultimately, I say, write what you’re passionate about, and then figure out how to get enough of it to the people that want it.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. You have some good advice in this blog post. It’s so true that readers will want to have certain expectations met when reading a book. My mind tends to go back to the television show Lost, where the writers strung viewers along for years only to have a dumb, anticlimactic ending. So my goal is basically not to be that kind of writer.

        I do have to disagree with you when it comes to romance novels, however. I know that the standard ending of the genre is a happy one, but I’ve seen popular romance novels that don’t necessarily end happily. Nicholas Sparks’s books, for example, often have very sad elements in them, but they’re still widely accepted and loved. John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars is also a sad story, but it’s become a very popular movie.

        Though the genre isn’t generally a sad one, I’d have to say that romance-tragedies are more than just niche. From Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet to more modern romance books and movies, sad endings have come to be accepted as much as happy endings.

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      2. One thing to keep in mind is that whenever I say a broad statement regarding literature, there is an unspoken “There are exceptions to every rule” after each of those sentences. It would be exhausting to list all exceptions to everything I say. After thousands of years of fiction writing, every rule has been disproven at least once.

        By and large, mainstream romance readers like happy endings. I think that’s pretty safe to say. You mentioned Nicholas Sparks. In the Notebook, they both died, but they died at the same time in each other’s arms as true soulmates. Is that a happy or sad ending? I would say it’s a happy one.

        My remark certainly didn’t say that romance stories have zero elements of sadness in them. Obviously, they do. But by and large, in today’s commercial, romance market, readers want a generally happy ending. Are there exceptions to the rule? Absolutely, yes.

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  5. Thank you for this great thought-provoking post. It reminds me of Sol Stein who recommends being courteous and giving the reader a gift. When I think of my favourite authors who deliver on their promises, it feels as if they wrote that particular book with just me and my expectations in mind. My most fervent wish is that my writing could make someone feel that way too!

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  6. Oh this is very interesting post and I should get back to writing as I have missed days 😦 enjoying my holiday too much that I was not very eager to touch the computer … thanks for this, the nudge I needed to get back into it.
    Ta

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  7. Great points. I was struck by the promise of tone, mostly because I was also contemplating the character arc. Readers want to see a change in the character. No change = boring. So how does that affect tone? If the story starts with a character’s crappy situation and goes on to tell how he lifted himself out of it, doesn’t that change the tone? Or maybe the tone is the reminder of where the character came from. Or maybe I’m confusing tone with mood. 🙂
    In any case, you’ve got me thinking!

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    1. Good question, Allison. When I say tone, I don’t mean character arcs. Tone as in the flavor of the book. In other words, it’s not best to switch to a dark, somber tone after half a book of a light, fluffy narrator voice, for example.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. A fascinating perspective. It’s something I never considered as a writer, but something I unknowingly relate to as a reader. I am surprised by the fact that this truth has been before me all along and excited about how useful it’s going to be in the future when I’m writing. Thanks for sharing!

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  9. Love it. Thought provoking and definitely powerful. Indeed it is true. When we write, we write to satisfy a need yet the need is not just individual. This concept adds a responsibility to our musings 🙂

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  10. Thanks for this reminder . I’ve never gotten over the Gormenghast Trilogy switching tracks like it did in the final novel. I didn’t see it coming. I think one has to make sure the foreshadowing isn’t too subtle if the coming change is abrupt.

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  11. I tend to write very instinctively, since I don’t have any formal writing training. You’ve managed to put in very eloquent words, and in a very structured way, what I know intuitively. Thanks, as always.

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  12. Beginning or novice writers are often unaware that the first few sentences (or first paragraph) of their works create reader expectations (what you call “promises”). It’s an obligation the writer has assumed and has to fulfill or the work fails. Period. Very simple. Good post

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