This is something that I’ve been thinking about over the slog of the last month (two month’s since I’ve been back here. My god, life got busy). There is the idea in fiction (more-so genre fiction, but I think it applies across most stories), that you make promises to your reader. Pick up a book with ballerina shoes and a cricket bat on it, and you’re not expecting Star Trek. Pick up a book with spaceships on it and you’re not really expecting so family biopic set in Wagga Wagga. (Although you could have a generation ship story that was a family biopic. That would be fairly cool, I think.) “My year of sumac and poppyseeds,” is either someone’s culinary adventures while travelling through the Mediterranean and Middle East, or someone getting inventive with their cookbook. These are all promises that are made to the reader. It says “Look, here’s what I’m generally going to be about. If you want to read about it, pick me up.” Movies do the same thing with their trailers. As does advertising of any shape and kind. There is the promise of some sort of experience, and those who wish to experience have a go.
Genre is a promise. Cover is less of one, but it’s still makes us presume things about what we will be reading. The blurb is a massive promise, the first page even more so.
I imagine it a bit like this:
As you can see, the general set up leads to an expectation. It leads to the reader wanting something, and when they don’t get what they’re promised, they’re disappointed.
Now the ‘want’ I talk about is not: “Oh, wouldn’t this be cool.” Take Game of Thrones for example. (Spoilers for the first book/season if you haven’t seen it). Nobody wants Ned Stark to die. But by the time it happens, you’re kind of expecting it, because Joffery is a tool, and a lot of horrible things have happened before now. Similarly, the Red Wedding works because you expect that there’s a possibility that all your favourite characters have a chance of dying. That is the promise the GRRM makes: no-one is safe.
Regardless, everyone still expects a satisfying ending. I highly doubt there are many walking around who still think it will be the Lannisters on the Iron Throne at the end of it all. Neither does anyone expect Reek to be the king of the realm. Likewise we expect the Arya will have important things to do in the future, as will Daenaries. Even if that important thing is dying, they will still be central in some way to the plot. Why? Because they’re main characters.
So readers are lead to expect certain things. Sometimes that diagram just flows – in some genres (romance for example, some sci-fi/fantasy stories as well) especially, it’s expected to flow. Taking romance as an example – you see a book that has a cover with a male and female lead on it, the title implies a romance, the blurb goes on to set up the situation, and by the time you sit down, and open up the first chapter, you’re expecting a certain series of events: boy meets girl, there are troubles, troubles eventually get sorted, and everyone is happy.
(This is a very simplistic representation btw. I think romance is particularly hard to do very well – it’s one of those genres where the execution is everything. You know the ending, it’s all about making the journey to get there interesting).
But what if you right a romance that doesn’t end with a happily ever after? Do you have an obligation to sign post that? Will people be annoyed with the less than happy ending even if you do signpost it? I remember a discussion on twitter a while back about urban fantasy as a genre. Urban fantasy doesn’t focus on the romantic plotline (it normally focuses on a murder or the supernatural politics of the city that it’s taking place in), but there is a certain expectation that the romantic plotline will resolve happily. There was a certain book which didn’t resolve the romantic plotline happily, and some people were very annoyed. They felt unfulfilled, as if they’d been dragged into something they didn’t actually want. Now, that ending was signposted. Going back to our diagram, the book hinted at the ending in it’s storyline. But the expectations of genre and the type of book it was were so strong that people were still disappointed despite the authors best efforts.
On the flip side of the scale, if everything always turns out how you expect it to, why are you even reading the story? Defying convention lets you draw a reader in, makes things uncertain, sets up tension. So how does a author navigate through what is expected and what they think will give the best story? And how do they foreshadow enough that they can break the presumption of the convention without giving away their ending in entirety anyway?
Awareness is probably the most important thing I think. If you’re not going to give your readers what they expect, be aware of it. Make sure you’ve foreshadowed where you’re aiming for. Be aware that some people will be annoyed regardless of what you do. And above all, make sure where you’re heading for makes sense given your characters and their decisions.