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Feedback from my writer's group tells me that my recent stories leave promises unfulfilled and important questions unanswered. So I've become interested in how stories make promises and raise questions.

So I've identified a few factors that arouse readers' expectations.

  • Character desire. If I put a desire into a character's mind (or words, or actions), readers expect the story to resolve the desire.

  • Character speculation. If a character speculates about some future event or condition, readers expect the story to resolve the speculation. This is especially true if the character feels some emotion about the speculation. Fear. Worry. Anticipation. Hope.

  • Character motivation. Readers expect that characters have reasons for their actions. Sometimes readers can readily imagine the reasons, either from their own experience or from something earlier in the story. If readers can't readily understand the reasons, that opens a question, which they expect the story to answer.

  • Cause and effect. Readers expect that effects have causes. If readers cannot readily imagine the causes of some important effect, that raises questions that they expect the story to answer.

  • Textual weight. If I spend time on something in the text, readers expect it to matter. The more space I give it, the more readers expect it to matter to the story. This is especially true in short fiction, where the mere mention of a thing must justify its presence in the story.

  • Genre. Each genre brings its own set of expectations. In a mystery, the crime will be resolved in the end. In a romance, the lovers will get together in the end.

What have I missed? What other features arouse expectations in readers?

When you are reading, what raises questions in you?

My goal is to give myself a better chance to notice when I've made a promise or raised a question that I will need to resolve.

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I just ran across this article, which seems helpful/relevant in light of your question. lbgale.com/2013/07/02/… –  Anna M Jul 13 '13 at 16:53
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2 Answers

(The name for "Textual Weight" is Chekhov's Gun. Briefly, every element in the story must have a purpose, or don't put it in there. There are LOTS of examples and variants on TVTropes, with the standard TVTropes caveat.)

Other than your excellent list so far, I'd add plot complications or obstacles. The obstacle doesn't necessarily have to be defeated, but it does have to be dealt with.

An example: if the heroine punches out a guard and stuffs him into a closet, there are a number of things which could happen:

  • The guard wakes up and goes after the heroine.
  • The guard wakes up but the heroine has already gotten away.
  • The guard wakes up, but the heroine locked the closet.
  • The closet is locked, but the guard makes enough noise for someone to find him and let him out.
  • The heroine tied and gagged the guard before locking him in the closet.
  • The other guards find the tied and gagged guard in the locked closet and realize the heroine is in the building doing her heroic thing.
  • The heroine hit the guard so hard she actually killed him.

Et cetera. Many potentials. But what you can't do is just have the guy in the unlocked closet with no restraints indefinitely and nothing else happens. The guard in the closet represents potential. You have to counter the potential or let the potential happen (which becomes the next obstacle for your protagonist).

A different way of dealing with expectations is (TVTropes warning again) the Brick Joke. This is when you set something up casually far in advance which pays off well after the audience may have forgotten about it.

An example: In Star Trek's "The Trouble With Tribbles," tribbles are established to squeal in distress when they encounter Klingons. At the end of the episode, Kirk is carrying around a tribble which abruptly squeals when presented to a man who appears to be human. This unmasks him as a surgically altered Klingon.

Now, if you set something up in the beginning (a Chekhov's tribble, if you will) which then doesn't pay off (there's no traitor to unmask), your audience may wonder why the hell you bothered telling us that tribbles hate Klingons in the first place. If you're going to throw a Brick Joke into the air, remember that it has to land again somewhere.

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I like the metaphor of throwing a brick (joke) in the air. Also thinking in terms of potential. I think I can use these as questions for myself as I write: What bricks does this detail/sentence/paragraph/scene throw into the air? What potential does this create? –  Dale Emery Jul 5 '13 at 23:34
    
@DaleEmery I have seen Brick Jokes pay off two and three books later in a trilogy. You just have to know what you're doing (and have a three-book contract :) ). –  Lauren Ipsum Jul 5 '13 at 23:53
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Orson Scott Card in his Elements of Fiction Writing - Characters & Viewpoint talks about "a contract with the reader". I'll try to describe it as best as I remember.

The first contract you make with the opening of the story. If you open with a murder, readers expect a murder mystery, so you need to close it with the resolution of that murder. If you start with murder, then switch to the victim's wife and how it disrupted her life, and end with the widow setting her life in order without the murder being solved, the contact is broken and reader will be disappointed. However, if you open it with the victim's wife, and then continue with how the murder impacted her life, you can not close with the resolution of the murder without showing how the wife set her life in order. The opening conflict sets the type and the focus of the story, and you need to resolve that conflict before the story ends. Other things may happen in the meantime - for example, if you opened with the victim's wife, catching his killer will be an interesting bonus to the story, but the reader will still focus on the widow and her life. You need to tell the reader what to expect from the story from the very beginning. For example, I got very irritated once when I was reading a story that was set on a spaceship, when about a chapter into the story a vampire appeared. I was assuming, based on the beginning of the story, that I was reading a science fiction story, not a fantasy. I felt cheated, it annoyed me so much I stopped reading.

The second contract is happening throughout the rest of the story. If you spend some time on something, the reader will expect that thing to matter to the story. Since you already mentioned that, I won't go into it here.


I remembered an interesting example in "A Song For Arbonne" by Guy Gavriel Kay. The book starts with a Prologue that happens some 10-15 years before the main plot (one nobleman sleeps with another nobleman's wife), and while it's not the main plot (the main plot is a war with another country), and not even directly connected to the main character, that initial conflict shapes the events of the whole story. Even the resolving of the "main" conflict depended heavily on that first conflict. It's not until the very end that the first conflict got resolved (just after the "main" conflict), and everything that happens after that just wraps up the ending.

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I want to highlight a really useful bit here: The conflicts, especially the opening conflicts. I usually don't have trouble noticing the main conflict, but perhaps I overlook other conflicts that make promises of resolution. –  Dale Emery Jul 5 '13 at 23:40
    
A reader might forgive you if you don't resolve a minor conflict, but not if you turn an opening conflict into a minor conflict and then don't resolve it. An opening conflict becomes, by default, the main conflict. So the point here is, be careful with what you open the story :). –  Tannalein Jul 5 '13 at 23:48
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Bait and switch! totally! I went to see the movie Event Horizon thinking it was a SF film and was shocked out of my socks to find out it was horror instead. Brrr. –  Lauren Ipsum Jul 5 '13 at 23:52
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@LaurenIpsum I was reading somewhere about the importance of the first sentence, and they gave an example that one student wrote: "Sex, sex, sex. Now that I've got your attention, let me tell you about global warming." While funny, it's not the right way to do it. Another story opened with "He took a rock and bashed her head in." Turned out someone was reading that in the newspaper, and the rest of the story was not just gore-free, but boring as hell. You don't open with a scene like that for shock value, and then go to something completely different. –  Tannalein Jul 6 '13 at 0:30
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The style of the book can also be part of the "contract." Literary books often close with more unresolved questions than genre books do (plus, if a story seems to be conveying the idea that life is bleak and meaningless, I am less surprised at an unresolved ending). –  Anna M Jul 9 '13 at 1:37
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