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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


I agree with the premise of the rule, but in fairness to Lawrence Watt-Evans, he may have had little to do with the cover copy or the book not being marketed as the first book of trilogy. That may have been entirely the fault of the publisher.
Yes, I did mean to note that. He probably had little to no say in the marketing decisions, more's the pity.

But I have noticed that some writers do write trilogies with the intent of leaving cliffhangers at the end of books one and two, which annoys me. I far prefer Mike Resnick's approach to trilogies, in which each book actually comes to the end of a complete story in a satisfactory way.
I agree with that as well -- I much prefer trilogies where there is at least some of the story arcs come to a conclusion at the end of the book.
Generally, I think "Keep Your Promises" is a good rule, and the examples you gave do sound like you didn't get what you were promised. But I think sometimes people might have different ideas of what they've been promised.

I've seen this happen in several different TV show fandoms, where there may be a romantic element to the story, but the story was (IMO, and apparently in the opinion of the people who created the story) never intended to be a "romance". Yet many of the fans latch on to that romantic element, that's the only part they're interested in. So if the couple they 'ship doesn't get a romance novel ending, those fans cry foul and claim they've been betrayed.

Like, for example, I don't even know how many people watched the final season of Buffy interested in nothing but seeing whether Buffy ended up with Angel or Spike. Now, there were plenty of flaws in season 7 of Buffy, but the fact that the story didn't end with her romantically involved with one or the other of them, IMO, was not one of those flaws. Yet I remember seeing comments from many people who felt they'd been "betrayed" for that specific reason -- and who would have also felt "betrayed" if she'd chosen the "wrong" one.

Another example was That '70s Show. IMO, that show never promised to be anything more than a comedy... but when favorite couples broke up, or when the people started dating other people, or when that new couple broke up, I saw countless cries of betrayal by the writers.

I guess my question is more applicable to people writing for TV than people writing short stories or novels, so maybe you won't have an answer for me, but... if that's NOT the story you're telling, but it comes to your attention that people are latching on to that part of the story to the exclusion of the story you are actually telling... what is your obligation? Do you continue telling the story you set out to tell? Or do you change it to fulfill the "promise" of romance that people seem to believe they've been given?
Fascinating question.

Serial writing is very different from other sorts of writing, but I would say that if you find your viewers latching onto minor things that would take the story in a different direction, you have a few choices.

First of all, you have to examine what you're doing to see if you're really putting the clues and hints in there, or if the fans are seeing more than one would reasonably expect. I mean, if every time your two main characters share a joke, all the fans claim that you're building up to a romance and then not fulfilling your promise, that's one thing. But if you keep bringing the characters into situations where romance is in the air -- for example, they're forced to share a hotel room during an overnight trip -- that's another.

If you decide that you have been putting clues in there that could take the story in a direction you never intended, you then have to decide if you like that new direction. If so, then go for it. But if not, dial it down immediately. Do something to make it clear that the romance will never happen. For example, there's a Bogart-Bacall film whose title I don't recall, but in which Bogart's character has a wife who has almost no screen time at all. The theory is that the writer and director didn't want to deal with a romance subplot, so they threw in the wife to dispense with that possibility, allowing them to concentrate on the story they wanted.

No matter what you do, however, there will always be fans whose imaginations far exceed any reasonable expectation of promises you've given, simply because they want the show to go the way they want. There comes a point when you just have to ignore their leanings. As long as you know you're being reasonable about it.
I mean, if every time your two main characters share a joke, all the fans claim that you're building up to a romance and then not fulfilling your promise, that's one thing.

Oh, that kind of thing happens all the time. I mean, I don't even want to think about how many times I've seen complaints about how Hermione hugged Harry once in book 2, so how *dare* JKR have Harry start to like Ginny in book 6.

If you decide that you have been putting clues in there that could take the story in a direction you never intended, you then have to decide if you like that new direction. If so, then go for it. But if not, dial it down immediately. Do something to make it clear that the romance will never happen.

I can see what you're saying here, but at the same time... it seems like there is just about no way to tell the story of a teenager growing up (including falling in and out of love more than once, as many, if not most, teenagers do) without having large segments of the fan-base say you've betrayed them when the break-up/new romance happens.

I guess there's just something about romance. If you write a story that has any romantic element to it at all, there are always going to be some people who insist that the story IS a romance.
And I think that That 70s Show and Buffy both suffered from their eagerness to keep the viewers happy. So Buffy turned into a big formula show after season 3 (Big Bad comes in episode 2 or 3. Acts scary. Disappears. Shows up in February. Does some stuff. Disappears. Shows up sporadically at the tanning salon or whathaveyou. Comes back in May. Loses in the final episode) and That 70s Show just ran out of steam long before the awful season ender.

Sort of like Friends with Ross and Rachel on a Break Forever.
Don't know if I completely buy that. Sometimes the joy of a novel is in the way it surprises you and becomes something different by the end. And I think that writers that "keep their promises" tend to be dull. Actually I'm thinking of a mystery novel that I jsut read that was completely by the numbers. The writer actually had the villain reveal himself in the last 30 pages, tie up the protagonist and the rest, reveal all his plans as he's saying that he's going to kill and then gets beaten at the last moment.
I think we may be looking at two different definitions of what it means to keep a promise as a writer.

I don't want to read a novel that lacks surprises, because that would be dull. But at the same time I want to look back at those surprises and feel in the end as if that was the only way the story could have possibly gone.
I have three reactions to this.

The first is agreement with the general concept. This reminds me of my recent annoyance with several television shows and movies (X-Men 3, I'm looking at you). That will be a lengthy rant in my own journal one of these days, along the theme that writers need to have the courage of their stated convictions, so stay tuned (or be glad you've dodged that partcular rambling bullet!).

The second is recognition of a case in which this rule was, I think, deliberately subverted. In The Delicate Storm, the second in a series featuring Canadian police detective John Cardinal, Blunt sets up all the expected tropes of the genre ... and then he resolves some particular number of them in ways that are almost directly opposite the reader's expectations. (I don't want to spoil the story, so I'm being deliberately vague here about the conversion rate.) I didn't know how I felt about this book for several months! The sense of multiple betrayals was quite strong, but in the end I've decided that he was going for exactly that -- and that I respect how he did it. Of course, this is I think one of those cases in which the writer must have mastered the rules in order to break them for a certain effect.

The third is personal recognition. I'm worried that I have this same problem with The Jonathan Chronicles -- a problem, in fact, that is pretty much the inverse of the one peggin notes. In truth, it's a romance/character study, but the opening scenes may make readers think I'm promising them a police procedural. I still don't know what (or even if) I want to do about that ... but at least I recognize it. Many published/televised/filmed writers don't seem to, at least not as consistently as I would like.
Your comments reminded me of the movie Sliding Doors. Without giving too much away, I'll simply say that the creators chose to end the movie with a particular message, but it wasn't a place I was interested in going.
I also fear I walk the line of what my promise is and what I'm delivering. My "masterwork" (as yet unfinished) starts when the main character is a 10 year old girl. The book alternates between real life and her fantasy life, with escalating levels of violence as she goes through adolescence (she imagines herself a supersoldier and spy), in counterpoint to some very basic teen-with-her-friends scenes. I've had a number of different personality types read it to the halfway point it is currently stalled at, and I'm pretty sure some have masked what they felt about one reality or the other.

I was a closet 'shipper back in the day. In fact, I just came across yet another "lost" story excerpt of mine from back in my prolific Janeway-Chakotay phase. I was one of very few to not feel betrayed by the writers. I took what they gave, enjoyed it, and improved it in my free time. I had no illusions that they ever intended to tell the sort of stories I wrote. To be honest, had they done it, they would never have done it right (as peggin notes re Buffy). TPTB (The Powers That Be, for non-Trekkies or Trekkers or whatever we call ourselves these days) might well have ruined what I loved most about Janeway in making her a romantic figure. They asked for what they got when they aired Resolutions.

Anyway, what resonates with one reader, etc... It's so hard to write for an audience that isn't me without feeling like I'm working toward mediocrity.

As a related aside, Chris Carter will forever be on my black list for the almost kiss in the X-Files movie. That was a promise broken. He knew he had no intention of of pursuing a relationship between them, but he still threw the tease in there. That is different from any wishful thinking we 'shippers did with Voyager and Buffy, et al. That was just one juvenile psych to the people what brung him.
(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.)

Argh! Giant friggin' pet peeve. I had that happen to me recently.
I should probably reiterate that I don't hold Watt-Evans responsible for this.
Oh, same here. I blame the publisher, not the author, of the book that did this to me.
You've covered the broader strokes of this rule, but when I think of keeping promises in writing, I first think of Chekhov's rifle.
My Clarion class took a photo of all the water gun weapons we accumulated, and captioned it, "Chekhov's Arsenal."

December 2016

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