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How to Make the Right Promises to Your Readers

by Ryan Lanz (originally posted on

You may not know it starting out, but every time you begin a story, you make promises to your readers. Even if you aren’t aware what promises you’re making, your readers will be bothered if you don’t fulfill them.

“Some people don’t understand the promises they’re making when they make them.” – John Green

If the reader puts down a book, there’s a good chance it’s because a promise wasn’t being fulfilled. Before you lose any (more) readers to unfulfilled promises, let’s talk about the different ones you can make.

1. You promise a tone Whether the person is a book publisher, an editor, a literary agent, or a reader, that person subconsciously picks up the story’s tone within a few pages and expects it to remain the same throughout. Take a look at these beginning first lines:

  • “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” –One Hundred Years of Solitude

  • “Of all the things that drive men to sea, the most common disaster, I’ve come to learn, is women.” –Middle Passage

  • “It was a bright, cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” –1984

  • “You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter.” –Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

In those examples, even from the first line, you get a feel for the tone of the story. The reader treats that as an anchor.

2. You promise a theme The example that leaps to my mind is in the fantasy genre. I’ve heard of instances where a fantasy author would start out the book with an old-school type magic system amongst the traditional, medieval European-style background, then within the last quarter of the book, it turns on its head and goes the opposite of traditional just to appease the progressive fantasy readers. The trouble with this, is that many progressive fantasy readers get bored with the traditional style within the first few dozen pages, and the traditional fantasy readers get upset at the major change toward the end. So, in that instance, neither group is happy and sales suffer.

Another example is making an unhappy ending at the end of a romance story. Modern romance readers want a happy ending. That’s pretty standard. Unless you’re Shakespeare, then you’re awesome enough to pull it off. Although today’s commercial market is quite different from back then.

A final example is a murder mystery novel that doesn’t provide the resolution of who did it at the end. Finding out is the whole point. As strange as that sounds, I’ve heard of a book written like that.

There are expectations within genres. All of this isn’t to say that you can’t have twists, which you should, but there are parameters of expectations. As with so much in fiction, however, there are exceptions to every rule.

3. You promise a character In most cases, your readers will want to know who they’re supposed to root for. There is a strong exception to this, as skillfully displayed in the Game of Thrones series. The books do a great job of making you unsure of who best to root for. Whichever method you use depends on your goals and style.

4. You promise a problem and some kind of resolution Readers want to experience problems being solved. The resolution I’m referring to may not be in regards to the main problem/conflict, or even one the reader is expecting. But there needs to be some sort of resolution at the end, even if it’s simply a transitional one before tackling the big problem again. A good example of this is in a trilogy, where the main conflict isn’t resolved until the end of book three.

The ring didn’t get destroyed at the end of book one of The Lord of the Rings, but there was some resolution, nonetheless. Even if you leave some conflict still yet to be resolved, most of the questions will need to be answered to leave the reader satisfied. For example, if the characters in your story lose a key to their quest, you’ll need to tie up that loose end. They can’t just look at each other and shrug their shoulders in the last paragraph of the book, you’ll need to have them rediscover it, figure out another method, make their own, etc.

Fulfilling the unspoken promises that you make will only help to increase your readership and bring your readers back for more.

Guest post contributed by Ryan Lanz. Ryan is an avid blogger and author of The Idea Factory: 1,000 Story Ideas and Writing Prompts to Find Your Next Bestseller. You can also find him on TwitterFacebook, and Tumblr

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