Broken Promises

(Aha, I automatically typed one of my titles above instead of what I meant.  Whoops.  Guess I’ve been working on that project a little too much lately.)

One thing I’ve come across a couple of times in workshops and classes is the idea of making promises to your reader.  A promise is something that the reader infers that you need to follow through on or you risk their disappointment.

Promises vary from the very small – give an object or a character too much description and a reader will assume they’re important – to the large, encompassing things such as theme and genre.

When you start a project, there’s some hint of the overall promise from the very beginning.  If your first chapter/blurb imply a humorous, comedic romp but, in the end, you deliver a tale of betrayal and darkness, you’ve broken your promise.  I’m not saying you have to give things away at the beginning, but you do need something so the readers are inferring the proper things.

As an example, I recently finished a paranormal novel.  The beginning was amazing, full of hints of ghosts and black magic, but then it settled into a fairly straight forward family mystery.  I won’t lie, I was disappointed.  The promises the beginning gave me were never fulfilled, and overall my experience was unsatisfactory.

Some of it is directly related to genre.  A romance is supposed to have a happy ending.  Take that out, and the readers feel cheated.  There’s a reason they’re reading what they are.  If you’re well-read in your genre, you’ll know what that genre promises, so hopefully that won’t be as big of an issue.  It can be harder in other areas.  If your first chapter is laugh-out loud funny, people are going to expect that humor to be prevalent throughout the entire story.  If you spend time describing the creepy house down the street, people are going to expect that house to be important to the plot.

Luckily, this can be a tool in your arsenal.  Writing a mystery?  Red herrings are just false promises.  The mere act of adding some description can cause an item to stick in a readers head.  Compare “the black book” to “an aged tome covered in blackened skin.”

How are you doing on your promises?  Do you find them hard to keep track of?

4 responses to this post.

  1. Holly Lisle talks about promises in her How To Revise Your Novel class. I’ve been giving it much more thought these days.



  2. I remember reading a trilogy that seemed to promise information on a main character’s mother. There were hints and such, but in the end all that was really given was very vague info about an order. It was very annoying and they were the first books in that ‘verse that I got rid of.

    As a writer, I’m not sure how I am doing at promises. I think Jeremiah Was a Werewolf sort of broke a promise to me as a writer. I went in expecting a humorous romp through an odd medical problem (lycanthropy a la mosquito bite) and it nose-dived into angst and seriousness.

    How do you think we did on promise with Third Fencepost?


    • Hm, not sure about TFP. It took a serious turn towards scary in the middle there, but I’m not sure it breaks our promise to our readers. Guess we’ll have to see what our betas say.


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