When writing a novel, you’re making promises to your readers. A promise is when a writer indicates to his or her readers that something will happen or be explored. Writers make dozens of promises as they write, probably without realising they’re doing it. But their readers realise, and readers also realise when a writer doesn’t fulfil these promises.
Making promises to your readers fills them with anticipation. When you don’t fulfil the promises you make, you risk leaving your readers dissatisfied. What writer wants their readers to be dissatisfied?
Promises come in a variety of forms, but I’m only going to discuss two of them based on my recent reread of Wizard and Glass by Stephen King, the most anticlimactic book in the Dark Tower series. For the other types of promises, the general gist is this: you, the writer, set the rules for your story’s context. Any going outside of that context or not living up to that landscape is breaking a promise. Your protagonist acts out of character without the motivation to do so? That’s breaking the promise you made about who your protagonist is. You foreshadow something that never happens? That’s breaking the promise you made about a future conflict.
Chekhov’s Gun — The subtle promise
Chekhov’s Gun is a well-known principle stating that everything in a story needs to be relevant, and is closely tied to promises.
If you were to hang a rifle on the wall in the first chapter and point this out to readers, they’ll expect that this rifle is relevant. This is you, the writer, making a promise to your readers. You’re promising that this rifle is more than just a decoration because you’re zooming in on it. You’re promising that it will be important later. You’re foreshadowing the use of this rifle. If this rifle is never mentioned again, you’re breaking these promises and you’re going to leave your readers feeling as if their time was wasted.
None of this is to say that you can’t surprise your readers. If you hang a rifle on the wall, they might expect it to later be fired. You can break this expectation by having a character hit someone else over the head with it or use it as a lever that unlocks a secret staircase, just as long as the rifle is relevant to the plot.
At the end of the third volume of The Dark Tower series, The Waste Lands, a character’s wheelchair was left behind before the main characters boarded a train. If a wheelchair is left on a train platform at the end of volume three, in volume four it absolutely must become a problem for the character who needs it. If she’s going to find a new wheelchair literally five minutes after she gets off the train – where the lack of wheelchair was never an issue because she was on a train – then she shouldn’t have forgotten it in the first place. The temporary lack of wheelchair for Susannah in Wizard and Glass has no relevance to the plot. I, a reader, was promised an obstacle and I didn’t get one. Consider me unsatisfied.
The climax — The ultimate promise
One of the most crucial promises a writer will make to his or her readers is the promise of a climax. The events of the book all lead up to this, making promises about who will be facing off who or what, what their secret weapon will be, what the protagonist will gain by defeating the antagonistic force, etc. This is the point in the story where you need to deliver.
Half of Wizard and Glass is taken up by a flashback, which is a story in itself and has its own fulfilling climax. Prior to this flashback being told, the characters see a building on the horizon and the protagonist says it’s trouble. King is promising the reader that at some point they’re going to get to this building and it’ll be trouble. After the flashback ends, the characters get to the building.
Back in The Waste Lands, King made another promise. A character was killed by the main characters, an antagonist brought him back to life, and then the former swore revenge. So not only did he, the Tick-Tock Man, promise to get revenge on the main characters, King promised that the Tick-Tock Man was going to try to get revenge on the main characters. Since the Tick-Tock Man was an antagonist (a low-level antagonist, but an antagonist nonetheless), has partnered up with the higher level antagonist, and both have antagonistic intentions, King promises that this conflict is going to be climax material.
So we come to the point where our main characters and antagonists are in the same room. Six pages later, the low-level, revenge-swearing antagonist is dead on the floor after doing nothing but hiding behind a curtain putting on scary voices with a microphone for no good reason (which only scare one character, who’s eleven. The text literally says Susannah was sure this was supposed to be scary, but she found it almost amusing, instead. ) and lifting a machine gun in the presence of two armed gunslingers whose job it is to shoot people with their unmatched shooting skills.
His effort was deplorable, to say the least. This antagonist was in no way threatening. Promise unfulfilled.
The second antagonist, the wizard, the one who the protagonist has been desiring to kill for centuries, the one who can evade bullets because – I’ll say this again – he’s a wizard, is gone three pages later. He tells the protagonist to give up his quest or he’ll divulge the protagonist’s deepest, darkest secret to his new friends. Then the protagonist realises he can use a different gun, he fires, the antagonist shrieks and vanishes in a puff of coloured smoke.
Where was the showdown? Where was the firefight? Where was the struggle to overcome the conflict? There wasn’t any of this. This was the most disappointing climax I’ve read since Bilbo Baggins was knocked unconscious halfway through the Battle of the Five Armies. Promise unfulfilled; reader unsatisfied.
Always be aware of what you’re promising your readers. Make it part of your self-editing process because you are making promises to your readers, intentionally or not. When you don’t fulfil your promises in one way or another, you leave readers unsatisfied.
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