Writing Discussion

The Author’s Promise

… or an analysis of disappointment.

Some of the books I’ve read recently have left me disappointed, and I’ve been trying to wrap my head around why. You can’t be disappointed unless you come to a story with expectations, but where do these expectations come from?

Some of it is a beyond the author’s control: book reviews, word of mouth from friends, genre conventions, personal taste. Some of it may not be completely in the author’s control: the back cover synopsis, the title of a novel.

However, the author can control the story. I think, consciously or not, every author makes a promise to the reader in the first chapter of the book. Sometimes it’s right there in the first line of the book. It tells the reader what the story is about, the tone of the story, and what they can expect in the pages to come.

Let’s look at the first two lines of Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen:

IT is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.

Even if you’ve never read Austen before, you may suspect that this will be a story about families trying to marry off their daughters, and that it will have a touch of wit to it.

As writers we often think about crafting a hook to engage the reader at the start of a story. The author’s promise is just another aspect to think of when crafting the hook. Do you ever consider what kind of promise you are making? Does the rest of the story deliver?

There may be times when it’s appropriate to break that promise too. Just thinking out loud…

18 Comments

  1. Brilliant post. I couldn’t agree more. And I think that only *recently* have I started to consider, as a writer, what I am promising in the first few lines or pages. That was really big on my mind, though, as I wrote the sample pages for Twenty-Somewhere that I just sent off, and I think it made my work so much better.

  2. I discussed the hook ages ago, but I never viewed it as a promise. This is a brilliant way of thinking of it, though I think that not all beginnings are like that. Not all books start at the heart, where they are supposed to start, but drag on. It’s hard to judge such an aspect, if you have not finished the novel and only consider its importance in retrospect. The same way you estimate whether a title is befitting a novel.

    I think the times when such promises are to be broken is when you work with unreliable narrators as they lie and the beginning can be fabricated from their mind.

    1. “Not all books start at the heart” I think that’s why we tend to get the advice to start in the middle of things rather than start with exposition and backstory. It’s probably even more vital for a short story because there are fewer words to spare.

  3. Lua

    This is a great point Tessa- that promise we make to the readers right at the beginning… I think making promises we can’t keep, promising more than we can deliver or try to trick the reader is a sure way to lose them forever. Because once that trust is violated, it’s very difficult to convince them to buy your next book… I think we should follow Austen’s example and hook the reader with the hint of the story we’re about to tell.

    1. Yes, I was thinking about this from an agent/editor’s perspective. They’ll look at the story and read through the start… but if the beginning is amazing, and the rest of the book doesn’t live up to that great start, I’d think chances would be high that the story would get a ‘no thanks’.

      1. I don’t know… I’ve read that if the hook is strong enough, many agents/editors think they can help you polish the rest to fulfill the promise of the hook. That’s why the hook is so important.

        Then again: unpublished author, grains of salt, et cetera.

      2. I was thinking about this because I was recently fooled by the start of the novel. I thought it would be a detective story or mystery, because it opened with a mystery, a riddle to be solved, but that opening idea became just a minor point in the rest of the story.

        Perhaps what you mean is the premise (story idea) rather than the actual hook (physical words on the page)?

      3. I’m not sure… this is just based on stuff I’ve read on agents’ blogs.

        Then again… they’re talking about what they encounter on the first 30 pages… not the first few paragraphs, I think.

      4. So… you’re really talking mostly about the very, very, very beginning, then, no?

        That’s another animal, I guess… Hmm… I mean, usually… you should know some of that stuff based on what shelf you pull the book off of at the bookstore or library… (i.e. what genre is it labeled as?)

        This could be a complex question.

      5. Yup the very very beginning. The hook. What makes you keep reading, or makes you put it down because you decide the story’s not for you.

        Just thinking about this. I don’t think there are any definite answers 🙂

  4. This is a topic I’ve thought a bit about, recently, with regards to the novel ideas I have (including the novel I’ve been writing since forever). If my story doesn’t have something unique to say, some new perspective on the old fantasy cliches, then what is the point of the book? And if that something new isn’t given pretty upfront, what are the chances that an editor/agent will even look at my manuscript?

    So…I’ve been trying to find ways to hook the readers in the very beginning, with a promise of something new and something familiar all in one package.

    1. It’s that balance again. I know what you mean.

      I’m sure your novel will have something to say, or else why are you writing it? There has to be some unfulfilled need that you are satisfying, something you’ve always wanted to read about, or a combination of ideas/elements that you’ve always wanted in one story.

      Hehe I’ve learned to leave the hook for last. It works for me, but maybe not everyone. By the end, I should know what’s important enough to foreshadow.

  5. Ollin Morales

    I know what you mean about getting disappointed with a book. I’m not sure if I would like to know exactly what the book is going to be about from the beginning, but I think from the first couple of chapters you should at least know the theme, so that you can track it throughout.

    I think the promise for me is that I’m going to take my reader for a ride. They might not like where they go or where they end up, but I promise that it will be exhilarating and hopefully they might be a little different afterwards. That’s a big promise to make I guess, but I set the bar high for myself. I expect the authors I read to do the same. (I may not be able to keep the promise, but at least if we try, I think that’s enough, no?)

    1. It has to be enough 🙂 Stories resonate with people in different ways. Sometimes it’s surprising what people will read out of the same bit of fiction! All we can do is try…

  6. Truly, authors do make a promise right from the start. And when they cannot “live up to” it? Yes, the plight is of the readers’. I have read such ones in recent past, and I cannot relate more to what you say, Tessa.

    All we can do is, indeed, just try–as a reader to like what we are shown, and as an author, to write what shall be liked.

    -BrownEyed

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