Reader Expectations Part 1

On Writing

As I mentioned in the September Recommended Reading, a book I read inspired me to write an essay on reader expectations. I have a hunch this essay will extend to two or more, hence the title.

I had to wait to write this essay until my reaction to that book cooled down. As I mentioned before, I don’t believe in trashing other writer’s work. I see no point. At some level, it all boils down to taste. I like to hear when someone enjoys my work, and I’m sure other writers do as well. I also appreciate it when someone points out a book I might enjoy. That’s the impetus for the Recommended Reading part of this website.

The book that started me thinking of these essays was by an author whose work I love. The author (whom I will now refer to as A) wrote a novel that’s one of my all-time favorite books. When A came out with a new novel after too long an absence, I picked it up immediately.

The novel is a cross-genre blend of historical fiction and fantsy. It takes a major historical event and promises to add magic. The event is so major, even the most historically illiterate among us would know it. For the purposes of this article, I’m going to say that the event is the bombing of Pearl Harbor. It’s not. It’s not even close (by years, location, or involvement). But it shares a sudden moment, the kind that changes history in an instant.

The novel that A wrote sets up Pearl Harbor. We meet the characters. We see the magic. We even start to understand how important it would be.

Then our hero gets attacked. He saves the world as we know it–off stage!–which was annoying, but there are still 10 pages left. I figure we don’t need to see how he changes the world because we’re going to go through Pearl Harbor with him. But…no. We reach the edge of Pearl Harbor, there’s a white space, and then we have a sweet little scene with the love interest thinking how the world has changed.

I was sooooo mad! I was reading for the alternate Pearl Harbor. I wanted the big magic fight. The book had promised me all of this and more. And did not deliver AT ALL.

A few days later, the short story workshop started, and we talked about reader expectations. Here’s what I usually say to the students:

In the beginning of every story, the writer makes a promise to the reader. The writer must deliver on that promise by the end of the story. It’s what the reader expects–and it’s what the reader deserves.

So how does the writer make that promise? First, by genre. A romance reader will be extremely upset if there is no happily ever after. A mystery reader will get angry if the crime doesn’t get solved. A fantasy reader will be furious if there’s no magic after all.

What else does a writer promise? Well, usually a story starts with the protagonist. We expect to go through the story with that person, see the person grow and change, and survive the story. If the protagonist does not survive, we have to know on page one:

“On the day that Joe Sixpack died, he walked to the Ready Mart for his usual case of beer.”

Lots of books start that way. Now the reader is expecting to read about Joe and how he died.

Good writers know how to satisfy those expectations. Great writers can subvert them. One of the reason’s Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho was so shocking when it came out was that he promised to tell the story of Janet Leigh, small time thief, and instead, he kills her spectacularly 20 minutes into the movie. He built on those expectations by having a major star play what we thought was the lead.

It’s a tribute to his storytelling ability that we stayed with the story–and it became a classic. Books do this well and often (Robert Crais did so in L.A. Requiem). To do it, you have to understand reader expectations and reader reactions so that you can mitigate them.

How do you learn all of this? By reading a lot and judging your reactions. I went back to A’s book and tried to figure out why A had made me so angry. And it was because A hadn’t delivered on any of the promises from the front of the book. I read 317 pages of a made-up fantasy world with no pay off. In essence, it became a bad literary novel at the end. (Literary novels have expectations as well–everything will resolve in an emotionally or intellectually satisfying way. When I say bad, I mean that this book meandered through the setting and characters–and had no point.)

By reading a lot you will learn, over time, how to guage reader reaction. You will know that books where the protagonist dies at the end–with no warning at all–upset you (and not in a good way). You will see how other writers have solved that problem and still managed to kill their protagonists. You’ll note the ways that the good storytellers figure out how to tell the story they want while dealing with reader expectations.

My favorite example that everyone should be familiar with comes from another movie. In The Fugitive‘s most famous scene, Harrison Ford’s character jumps off a dam into the reservoir below. He should have died. The viewer thinks “No one can survive that. I don’t believe it.”

So what happens in the next scene? Tommy Lee Jones is talking to one of his assistants. The assistant says, “Well the investigation is done. Only one man in a million can survive that.”

And Tommy Lee Jone says…”Until we find the body, we’re assuming he’s that one man.”

And of course, he is.

Reader (Viewer) expectation problem solved. We can go on with the story now.

See how easy it is? And how hard?

Over time, as I find well written examples of satisfying reader expectations, I’ll point them out.