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How do you set promises in your writing?

When you open up a story, you’re grounding your reader.

You’re giving them a character, introduced in a way that promises who this type of character is, and maybe even what sort of arc they are going to undergo through the story. You’re giving a setting, promising that this setting will be indicative of the story as a whole. You’re giving a writing style, promising that this style is going to represent the story in some way.

In many stories, you’re also giving a set of stakes, the tensions or conflicts or problems that need to be solved or else some awful thing might happen, might continue happening or something good might not ever happen.

These moments in the beginning of your story can be called reader promises. You’re promising your reader specific things and if those things aren’t achieved, the reader can be left feeling cheated.

As one example of this cheated feeling, I once read the first couple of pages of a novel in a bookstore. Thought it was super interesting and so bought it and brought it home. It was the first of the four books I’d bought that I began reading, that was how excited I was about it. Chapter one was great. Then chapter two went into a flashback. Okay, I thought, let’s just push through this one flashback and get back to the cool story! Only, chapter three was still flashback. By chapter four, I realized that the entire story was the flashback and the cool introductory chapter was merely a bait for the switch that would be occurring.

Another example is a story Brandon Sanderson talks about. How, in a draft of one of his novels, he sent it to his beta readers, who all came back and said some variation of: “I was waiting for the story to go back to that journey to that island they talked about.” He then realized that he’d set up the wrong promise, because that island was never and would never be a place the characters in his story would be heading. So he had to rewrite the beginning of his story to cull this expectation from readers.

I’m sure you’ve experienced something like this before in your own reading. These moments, when you feel like you didn’t get the story you thought you were getting, are examples of the author dropping the reader promise in some way. (Some times they do it on purpose because the original chapter one is boring, so they craft a more exciting chapter one to entice readers in, despite it being quite clearly a bait and switch.)

When crafting your reader promises, you have to make sure that you’re introducing your character in a way that it’s clear what type of person they are. If you start your story with a non-point-of-view character, be very careful, because your reader is going to presume this character is important. And if that character ends up not being the main character/one of the main characters, then the reader will, again, feel cheated.

One example of this was a trilogy I began reading many years ago where the book opens with a specific character and his wife. For half the book this man gets almost ALL of the point-of-view of the scenes he’s in, which was actually the bulk of the novel. Then his wife dies. Then he dies. And the two side characters, who had barely any scene time before this, suddenly became the leads. Needless to say, I was disappointed and unsatisfied. (This trilogy did not do well, I might add, despite the first trilogy by this author selling very well.)

When crafting a setting promise, writing a science-fiction story that’s going to entirely take place on a space ship, maybe don’t start the story in an enchanted forest <–That’s a metaphor. What I mean is, don’t start your story in a place that completely misrepresents the rest of the story, unless you have an epically good reason for doing so.

Another word of warning about promises: Readers pay a lot of attention to the beginning of your story. A LOT of attention. Even if they aren’t aware that they’re doing it. They are going to pick up on little things from the beginning that they wouldn’t pick up on from random middle pieces of information. So setting things up right to give the correct impressions about what kind of story the reader is going to be getting is important.

The great thing about reader promises though, is that you can always alter your beginnings and your promises as you write your book! You can always change those beginning lines to fit what the story ends up being about if your entire outline is wrecked midway through writing. That’s very useful :)