Friday, May 4, 2018

Five Promises You Make to the Reader

Shannon Dittemore is the author of the Angel Eyes novels. She has an overactive imagination and a passion for truth. Her lifelong journey to combine the two is responsible for a stint at Portland Bible College, performances with local theater companies, and an affinity for mentoring teen writers. Since 2013, Shannon has taught mentoring tracks at a local school where she provides junior high and high school students with an introduction to writing and the publishing industry. For more about Shan, check out her website, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest.

When a reader's eyes travel your book's first page, they are not only reading a story, but one promise after another. Each promise crafted carefully by you, the author.

Wait, what?

You didn't realize you were making promises?

Oh, but you are.

Story beginnings are stuffed full of promises writers make to readers and, today, we're going to talk about five of them.

As the author of your story, you promise:

An exciting adventure

The very fact that a book is sitting on a shelf is a promise. The strategically designed cover and the care that went into packaging and placing this story under the proper category, tells every patron who strolls by, "Pick me! Pick me! I'm going to take you places worth going!"

We read for many reasons: to learn, to expand our horizons, to be inspired, to empathize, to pass the time. But, primarily, we read to be entertained. And it's imperative that you, the author, keep this in mind when you set out to write a novel. Your readers expect to be regaled with a tale worth their time and money. It must satisfy the adventure seeker living inside their chest. The very existence of your book is a promise that you've created just such a story.

A protagonist worth cheering for

More often than not, story plots are built around the forward momentum of a protagonist. Sometimes this protagonist is the hero of the story, sometimes he's got very little of the hero in him. But what this lead character must have is the ability to convince readers to follow him. This might be your biggest task as an author. If, after a few pages, readers find themselves unwilling or disinterested in the character who moves your story forward, you've broken a promise. And it's not a promise that readers forgive lightly. More often than not, they simply close the book and move on to another.

A consistent and compelling tone

We talk often about the importance of your story's opening line. There's a reason for this. Among other things, that first sentence sets the tone of your story. As authors we work hard to craft a compelling opening, but if your tone slips after those first words, if it abruptly changes, if it drifts out of focus, you're now giving the reader something other than what was promised.

So many things help establish tone. Your voice as an author, your audience, the content, the genre, the scene. You must work hard to keep all of these in mind as you move through the story. Doing this will keep the attitude of the book consistent and will ensure that those readers you worked so hard to hook with that opening line, will stay with you until the very end.

A problem to be solved 

If you don't have a problem, you don't have a story. If you haven't established a story problem in the early chapters of your book, your readers will certainly feel the absence of it. They will wonder what the point is of continuing on. Beautifully crafted storyworlds and compelling heroes and mysterious tones cannot disguise for long the fact that you haven't given your main character a reason to move forward. Readers need that. When they open your book, you promise to present them with a problem to be solved. Do that early on.

A satisfying conclusion

If you've done a good job of presenting a problem to the reader, you've inherently promised a satisfying conclusion. You've said, "I know this problem looks big and hairy. I know I'm putting these characters through trial after trial. But stick with me. In the end, it will all be worth it."

Your ending doesn't have to be happy (unless it's a traditional romance), but it should satisfy the reader. It should fit within the general conventions of the genre and it should have the feel of a well thought out, well constructed tale leading inevitably to this conclusion. Maybe it's surprising--surprising is good. But your ending should feel like the RIGHT ending. Part of making that happen is in the set-up. It's in how the problem is presented to the reader. The solution should be hard earned throughout the course of the novel. Don't give the readers an ending that you haven't worked to carefully construct. It's dishonest after promising them so much.

Tell me, do you write your stories with these promises in mind? Can you think of some other promises writers make to readers?


  1. Ooh, yes! I think I'm a bit lacking in the last one, as most of my alpha readers have told me. XD My ending is slightly abrupt and I need to rewrite it.
    I also like to look for book-specific promises, like things I'm foreshadowing or seem to be foreshadowing, so at the end the reader doesn't go "Wait, what about ___?" That happens to me often when I read published books so it's one of my pet peeves. :P
    Great post, as always!
    - Josie /

    1. Oh yes! Story specific promises abound! Wishing you luck with those endings, friend.

    2. Endings are definitely tough. I, for one, have a hard time knowing how to tie all the ends together. If at helps at all, Blake Snyder says in "Save the Cat!" that the ending scene ought to mirror the opening scene in some way so that it's clear just how far the MC has come.

  2. These are really interesting: I've never consciously thought of them as promises, but they all make complete sense. I guess it's just writer instinct. One promised thing I might add (though it's a bit vague) is a meaningful theme. This changes for every book, I suppose, because I've read highly entertaining adventure books which were not very deep at all, but for some I think it's important to assure your readers that they will be presented with some thought-provoking concept over the course of the story.

    1. Yes! Very good! Absolutely. We promise to actually SAY SOMETHING and that comes down to the very theme of our story.

  3. I spend a lot of time trying to craft satisfying endings, but I don't usually think as much about the other promises. Good reminder!

  4. I think my tone and endings need work...I still am somewhat finding out my voice as an author and I get tired at the end of stories and slack until editing xD I need to work on this!

    1. Oh yeah. Tired is very, very real. Enjoy the process of finding your voice. There is never any reason to rush a process that will take a lifetime. Happy writing, friend.

  5. Great post, Shannon! I've read SO. MANY. Books that fail to keep these promises. It's ridiculous how a name(HELLO STEPHANIE MEYERS, I'M LOOKING AT YOU) can sell a book better than the story sometimes. I've struggled SO MUCH with my MC, trying to make him into something he's not. I wanted a hero, brave and noble. Instead, I get Kirin--hotheaded, arrogant, stubborn teen boy who thinks he's smarter than everyone else and gets into WAAAY to many fights. He's condescending. He's judgmental. He's rude. He's irritating--but he's human. He's not a fairy tale, he's real. And I like him better than I ever did when he was noble and generous and perfect.
    Don't even get me started on my other MC. He's an ex-assassin/mercenary. Which meant when I first started writer: a guy in a hood, some knives, sarcasm, and an aura of doom wherever he goes. Boy has that changed. Not only did his entire personality switch around to be incredibly shy, cautious, and quiet apart from the irritable and incurable grump he was before, I actually have a backstory for him now! Go me!
    Now we just have to figure our my OTHER MC's backstory... *sighs* The never-ending character arcs.