Thursday, November 4, 2010

When You Break The Agreement

Yesterday I talked about how we as writers make promises to the reader. Whether in genre or through the first chapter or even the first act, you are telling the reader what to expect from your story. If you don't make good on those expectations, you might have an unhappy reader on your hands.

But does that mean you can never break a promise? Never throw in a twist or have a character ultimately fail? No, it doesn't.

You can break a promise. Maybe you want your reader to feel a certain kind of upset, a betrayal, that comes with throwing off their expectations. For example, maybe it's a character that is supposed to be good no matter what, but they go bad or have always been bad. That registers emotion, and it can be a "good" emotion in propelling a story forward.

Another reason not to meet an expectation is to add tension to the story. Writers actually do this frequently! Does the MC achieve their goal on the first try? My bet is no. Every time your MC fails, it makes the reader more worried that your MC won't succeed at all. They start to wonder how your MC is ever going to get out of this mess, because surely they must get out otherwise it would just suck. That worry makes the eventual success much sweeter.

You have to be careful here, though. You pull the reader's leg one too many times and suspense will turn into frustration.

And finally, what if you break the biggest promise in your book? What if your MC fails in achieving their goals? People (and I'm talking mostly Americans here because it does vary culture to culture) generally don't like to read a story where the "hero" loses. It goes against the general assumption that stories are about someone who, even if it takes a long time, ultimately succeeds in some form.

This is the hardest promise to break, but it can be done. If you want an absolutely incredible example, read L.K. Madigan's Flash Burnout. The key to breaking this expectation is replacing it with something else—likely it's character growth and/or restitution.

If an MC learns a very big lesson or has some kind of revelation, then a reader is usually able to accept the failure. Why? Because in its own way that's a success. Maybe not the success promised, but something nonetheless.

If the MC makes restitution for their failure, then readers are more likely to forgive the MC. They can accept that the MC recognizes the failure and is trying to fix it, even if it's impossible. Readers can respect that, though it's not the way they hoped it would happen.

In other words, if you break the biggest of expectations, there must be some kind of healing to follow. And it needs to be enough that the reader is left satisfied. Maybe not happy, but satisfied that the MC came out of the story with something.


  1. Great post! Giving some kind of meaningful conclusion even if it's not what was promised at the beginning is, I think (as a reader) the difference between a satisfying but bittersweet conclusion and one that is just unsatisfying. Or, the difference between putting a book down feeling unsettled, and hurling it across the room. :)

  2. Fantastic post, Natalie! Thank you for this. And Guinevere, I completely agree with you. :)


  3. I like this post. I have run across books where this happens from time to time.

    Frustration is not the feeling I would want my reader feeling when reading any of my work. Great post. Thanks.

  4. I do like some twist endings. That's one of the things I like about murder mysteries, how the nice and friendly character turns out to be the killer.
    You made a really good point about how it's ok if the MC loses. I think you're right. I don't mind if the MC loses, as long as he/she isn't totally miserable because of it.

  5. It is okay for the MC to lose. Sometimes that's the best ending to the story. I certainly don't think Frodo came out on top...fingerless and a depressed?

    But there has to be a decision, a "Coming to Jesus" of sorts. The character has to change, to grow, to accept their failure. They have to make a conscious decision to move on. Frodo did that. That didn't happen in the book I mentioned yesterday. The MC sat as the world around her changed, eventually grew bored with her rocking chair, and took a shower.

    Was it a memorable ending? Yes. Did I throw the book across the room after the last page? You bet.

  6. I definitely know what you mean about promises.

    Personally, I think plot twists are fun for readers, but only so long as they follow a thread of some sort. After all,there's a difference between a twist and a hairpin turn off a cliff. If you character does something completely insane for no apparent reason, reader's wont be surprised,they'll just be screaming, "What the what?"

  7. Living in Japan, I realise that stuff I thought was true of all stories, is really only true of Western stories.

    The result is that when I first came, I felt like Japanese stories were unfinished, or disappointing. It's a weird thing to get used to.

  8. Claire, that is very true. In watching all the anime I have, I learned that pretty quick. Other cultures can have very different ways of telling and finishing stories.

  9. Really good thoughts here. :) I think this goes a long way towards explaining a *few* different series conclusions I've read lately that I found unsatisfying -- a sudden flip in who the good/bad guys were *without* a lead up to make it feel natural, questions raised but never answered, a feeling that the promise of a story was never followed through. I can see how it would be really difficult to balance all that as the writer, especially over the course of several books, but as a reader I find it very unsatisfying when the conclusion didn't finish whatever I *felt* the story was.

  10. I remember being "abused" by an author that I had followed for years. "The Wastelands" by Steven King - I knew about 100 pages from the end that he was not going to finish the story, but I continued on EXPECTING it to come to a conclusion. It was worse than those TV episodes with "to be continued" at the end. I had to wait for years for the continued part, and my devotion was never the same. I have yet to finish that series.

    Be true to the reader and the reader will be true to you.