Readers’ Expectations

Gus has high expectations.

A story is a promise. You’ve no doubt heard this saying if you write fiction. But what does it mean for readers?
Writing Tip for Today: Let’s take a look at reader expectations. What should you keep in mind?

  •  Spell It Out. If a story is a promise to your reader–she will learn x, y or z about the character by the end, it must fulfill that promise. Many first novels don’t make the promise clear enough or else it’s not strong enough to make the reader care. One of the ways to solve this problem is by creating BIG WANTS for the characters and/or HIGH STAKES. And at least hint at the central premise in the first few pages. This may mean sweeping away some of the back story” or set-up in order to get going with the main want or problem. Ask yourself what your character wants MORE THAN ANYTHING. Put a hint of it in the first lines. In a romance, the promise is that the heroine either will/will not get the hero, or that they will be Happy Ever After or Happy For Now. The more “literary” the story, the fuzzier the promise tends to be, but it must still have one.
  • Pull It Forward. Subplots are auxiliary problems or stories that enhance and enrich the main story, often involving supporting characters. In a mainstream novel, this might mean the “love interest” or romance is secondary to a main plot. In a romance, the main character’s relationships might be used to complicate the main goal. Either way, it’s important not to allow your subplots to overtake the main story. One or two subplots in a first novel are plenty. I use a timeline diagram to see how I’m spacing the subplots–too close together and the main story gets buried; too far apart and readers forget about it. My ideal diagram looks like an undulating wave, with subplots coming up at intervals which feel natural.
  • Follow Through. If you’re a pantster like me instead of a plotter, your main goal may change completely by the end of the story. That’s all right. You’ll probably need to rewrite your first and last chapters multiple times anyway, to make them compatible and strong. Be sure, however, that your opening promise is resolved in some way. Only about five endings exist: (1) Protag gets what she wants and is happy, (2) gets what she wants and is unhappy; (3) Doesn’t get what she wants and is happy, (4) Doesn’t get what she wants and is unhappy; (5) Doesn’t care either way–NOT recommended. Your reader should feel as if the novel could not have turned out any other way than it did, and the reader should feel satisfied by that ending, even if it’s a sad one. Keep your promise to your readers and you’ll meet their expectations!

About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

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