mabfan (Michael A. Burstein) (mabfan) wrote,
mabfan (Michael A. Burstein)

Robert's Rules of Writing #48: Keep Your Promises

[Rule quoted from Robert's Rules of Writing: 101 Unconventional Lessons Every Writer Needs to Know by Robert Masello (Writer's Digest Books, 2005). See my original post for the rules of this discussion.]

With this rule, Masello points out that as writers, we're making promises to our readers, and we ought to keep them.

What sort of promises? Well, at the most basic level, Masello says, we're offering readers a deal. In return for their attention, we're offering entertainment.

I said something similar in an interview with Reflection's Edge a while back. When they asked what I thought every good story must accomplish, I said, "Entertain the reader. If you can't accomplish that, then you won't have any readers. Never be boring!"

It's a common theme. For example, in his own essays on writing, Lawrence Block cites Mickey Spillane's comment that the first chapter sells the book, and the last chapter sells the next book. If you don't deliver on your promises, you're not going to have readers.

But there's also the promise of the kind of story you're bringing your readers into. When you set up your world at the beginning, you're letting your readers know what kind of story they should expect. If you open with a scene of pastoral romance, that generally implies that you're not about to end the story by blowing up the planet. If you open with absurd humor, that lets the readers know to expect a comic novel. And if you open with graphic violence, that allows the readers to adjust themselves accordingly, so they don't turn away when things get tough.

And if you don't make that clear, you're not fulfilling your promise.

Let me share a few examples.

I'm a big fan of the Matthew Scudder novels by Lawrence Block. Scudder is a former NYC policeman who left the force after a tragic accident. A bullet he fired ricocheted and killed a little girl. Although he was exonerated, something inside him snapped. He ended up becoming a private detective and, for a while, an alcoholic. Inevitably, the Scudder novels were filled with violence, but there was a while there in the 1990s when the violence became graphic in the extreme. In a way, I felt like Block had broken his promise of what to expect in a Scudder novel, and for a few books there I was disapponted. (I'm glad to say that since then the books have come back to what I generally expect of them.)

And as long as I'm picking on people named Lawrence...

A few years ago, I picked up the first book of the Three Worlds Trilogy by Lawrence Watt-Evans, "Out of This World." From the cover copy, I expected a fun romp through alternate universes and parallel worlds. But that wasn't what I got. The book started out that way, but then the story became more and more brutal. Throughout the book, the main character repeatedly reminds himself that he's living through something real, and by the time his wife's life is being threatened all vestiges of a fun romp were gone.

My guess is that Watt-Evans wanted to make a point about how parallel universe stories shouldn't always be fun romps, but the simple fact is, I didn't want to follow him to that conclusion. I entered his universe expecting one kind of story, and in the end he delivered something different. (It also didn't help that I bought the book when it first came out, and nowhere on the cover copy did it mention that the book was the first in a trilogy. The novel ended in media res, with no warning, which annoyed me greatly.)

To conclude, when you begin a piece of writing, you promise something to your readers, and in the end, you must deliver on that promise. With these mini-essays I've promised my own thoughts and reflections on writing, through the lens of Robert's Rules. If I ended this essay with a recipe for a frozen mocha cake with chocolate ganache glaze, you'd have the right to complain.

Copyright © Michael Burstein
Tags: books, personal, roberts-rules, science-fiction, writing-advice
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