The Promises An Author Makes: 5 unspoken promises an author fulfills in a story
Have you ever heard someone say the book didn’t fulfill its promise? Coming from a publishing professional, these can be difficult words to hear. But this feedback can be invaluable in understanding how a manuscript needs to improve in order to be marketable.
No author writes “I promise to….” on the back of the book. But in every book the author makes an implicit pact with the reader about the story ahead.
It’s as if the author and reader are going on a journey together although the author is present only as the words on the page, like a soul that has traversed this trail previously guiding someone for the first time. Without explicitly using the words “I promise,” the reader knows that the author has made promises about what will happen in the story based on the type of book, premise, and opening pages. But, what are those promises?
The author’s promise about new places is: I will take you somewhere you have never been. A new place will be enticing to readers. Readers wonder what it’s really like there, and they want more than a tourist view. In order to make it worth the time and effort of reading a story in a particular setting, the author needs to depict a place that the author believes and can construct fully in the imagination. When the author fulfills the promise of going to new places, readers come away feeling as if they were in a specific place, different from anywhere they’ve been before the story.
The author’s promise about new experiences is: I will guide you through experiences you’ve never had. Readers enjoy stories because they imagine facing an obstacle or living through a situation that they haven’t or can’t have. Readers want to know the details of the experience at each step as the tension mounts to the climax, not just the end result of what happened. When an author has fulfilled the promise of new experiences, readers come away with a nuanced understanding of the experience despite going through it vicariously.
The author’s promise about familiar places is: I will show you a familiar place so you see it with fresh eyes. If a reader picks up a book set in a place they’ve lived or visited, they want to revisit that place. The author’s depiction of that place allows the reader to recognize it and to remember the good and the bad about being there. But, the author’s promise goes beyond that. No matter how much the reader knows about the place, after reading the story, the reader will know even more details about the flora and fauna, architecture, history, and people. If the author has fulfilled the promise of returning to a familiar place, the reader reframes their own understanding of that place to include this new knowledge and vicarious experience of being there.
The author’s promise about familiar experiences is: I will help you relive a familiar experience in a new way. When a reader picks up a book that includes an experience they’ve been through already, they’re looking to relive it all over again and to be in each moment along the way. When readers put themselves in familiar situations, they can face them with 20/20 hindsight (and no risk). After riding a roller coaster, the immediate response is to do it again and relive the thrill. But, after having the same experience a few times, the thrill feels ordinary and the search begins for a roller coaster that is faster, goes higher, falls harder, and spends more time upside down. In a story the outcome might be the same like riding a roller coaster again, but the reader might also find out that story’s the outcome is different than it was in real life which might feel like a more intense roller coaster ride. The author facilitates the reader going through the emotional ups and downs of the experience and helps them to contextualize the experience. The author fulfills the promise of revisiting familiar experiences by allowing the reader to remember past experiences and be prepared to think and act in new and different ways when faced with them again.
The author’s promise about the people readers will meet on the page is: I will introduce you to new, intriguing characters, and I will help you understand why they act the way they do. Why do people do what they do? What makes us human? Readers choose books to meet unique characters who enrich a connection to people and the world. Some characters do things exactly the way the reader would and some would face the same challenge in completely unexpected ways. If done well, a character’s culture, heritage, upbringing, environment, and identity all make the reader’s experience of identifying with the character unique. The author fulfills the promise of introducing new characters if the reader comes away from the story having internalized a new understanding or perspective usually from the protagonist and perhaps from the narrator or other characters in the story too.
For an author to fulfill the promise of a book, the story must provide an immersive journey for readers emotionally and intellectually. The elements must fit together so that the story belongs to the protagonist in a way that would be different with any other character. And, the story must present something unexpected or fresh and different so that readers reflect about what they’ve read, something that makes the characters, the places, the events, and the voice memorable long after the last page.
The author’s overall promise is that the story will take a reader somewhere dark or uncomfortable. But, that’s ok because the corollary to this promise is that the author is the guide who will bring the reader out safely at the end. This promise creates the reader’s trust in the author.
by Jennie Dunham