In the early paragraphs of your story, you’re sending a message to the reader of what type of tale she can expect to find throughout.
Author of Beginnings, Middles, & Ends Nancy Kress devotes several pages to this important discussion. She calls it the implicit promise. As a writer, you need to know what promises you’re making to your reader, both emotionally (feeling) and intellectually (thinking).
The emotional promise says: “Read this and you’ll be entertained, or thrilled, or scared, or titillated, or saddened, or nostalgic, or uplifted—but always absorbed.”
The intellectual promise is more complicated. “The story can promise (1) Read this and you’ll see this world from a different perspective; (2) Read this and you’ll have confirmed what you aready want to believe about this world; or (3) Read this and you’ll learn of a different, more interesting world than this.”
Your reader knows what she wants out of your novel. You’ve sent a hint by the cover and by the back cover copy or Amazon product information. She’s probably read a couple of reviews to find out if the book is likely to satisfy her expectations. She’s read the “search inside” online and determined whether or not she’ll like this story. Your characters, tone, plot, and style all tell your reader what to expect.
Nancy Kress goes on to say, “By the time she’s read your beginning, your reader knows what you’ve implicitly promised. A satisfying middle is one that develops that promise with specificity and interest. A satisfying ending is one that delivers on the promise, providing new insight or comfortable confirmation or vicarious happiness. Even when it’s surprising in some way, the ending feels inevitable, because it fulfills the promise of the story. And—this is important—the ending feels satisfying only because the beginning set up the implicit promise in the first place.”
It’s vital that your package matches up to the promise made in the opening paragraphs, and that the promises made are realized in the final chapters. If you’ve promised a sweet, gentle romance, don’t deliver horror. Can the combination never work? That’s not what I’m saying. But if there’s an underlying fear or tension in the opening, you’re not promising sweetness. Hints need to be laid out from the early paragraphs that “all is not what it seems.”
You probably know, as you begin your first draft, what you want your reader to feel. If you don’t, give it some conscious thought. Make a list of keywords, or mind map them.
- What’s the key to a satisfying ending for a work of fiction? Story Promise! click to tweet
- Writer, know the story promise you are making to your reader – and then keep it. click to tweet
For Snowflake Tiara, a Christmas inspirational romance novella I’m currently writing (releasing September 2014), the list looks something like this: Christmas carols (especially Away in a Manger), children laughing, snowmen, hot chocolate, caring for the unfortunate, unexpected gifts, snowflakes, historical mansion, tall Christmas trees decorated in period style, tiaras, pageants, compassion, kisses under the mistletoe, crisp moonlit nights, street lamps, family, belonging, tradition.
Wouldn’t you be surprised if a guy with a bazooka showed up in the final chapter? Would you trust my story telling ever again if I broke the promise I’d been making from the beginning? No one who is looking for a bazooka story would have stuck with me long enough to find where it came in, and those who were there for the nostalgia of a “perfect” Christmas would be more than annoyed!
As in life, don’t make promises you don’t intend to keep. Know your reader. Know the promise you’re making. And then…keep it.
Image courtesy of tungphoto at FreeDigitalPhotos.net