Are You Meeting Your Readers’ Expectations?

confusedUnless you write fiction for the sole purpose of personal fulfillment, you probably hope other people will read your work. When you publish a story, you are setting up a kind of contract between you and your reader. For the investment of the reader’s time and money, you agree to provide a satisfying reading experience. Of course, your definition of “satisfying” may vary, depending on what you like to read, and I’m not here to judge you. I’m here to tell you that as writers, we are communicating. Successful communication requires not just the delivery of a message but also for the recipient to understand the message. Okay, now that I’ve boiled down my expensive college education into one sentence, we can move on.

I’m not talking about mucking up your communication with editing errors like typos, sloppy word usage, wacky formatting, semicolon abuse and such. You are professional enough to know how to handle those or hire someone to help you.

I’m looking at the bigger picture: the choices you make in crafting your story and your characters. Each choice (and yes, it is a choice) tells the reader to expect something.

For instance, here are just a few ways you can frustrate your readers by failing to live up to your promises: 

Chekhov’s Gun

Chekhov—not the guy from Star Trek—said a lot of awesomely quotable stuff about writing. Some of it was about guns. I’m not a big fan of guns, but some of you are, and they loom large in some of your stories. He said that if you’re going to show one, eventually it should be fired, or else what’s the point of wasting the words describing it?

Showing a gun—or anything of similar, potentially life-changing significance—leads the reader to believe that it will play a role later in the story. So if you spend a paragraph or two describing the glint of a knife as it slides into the sheath strapped to your protagonist’s garter, you are setting up an expectation that the knife (and maybe the garter) will make a return appearance. When you never come back to it again, you’ve squandered an opportunity. And like that random chicken in the opening scene of The Hangover that never gets explained, some readers may be left wondering. Frankly I’m still wondering about that chicken.

Point of View Sleight of Hand

If you slip from Character A’s point of view into Character B’s, you are telling us that this character is important enough to the story to let us see it through his or her eyes. We expect that this experience will tell us something about the story that we’re not getting from Character A. We also expect that, unless a giant meteorite or a shark attack has intervened, we will hear more of Character A’s point of view later on. If POV Character B is essentially the UPS guy who shows up to deliver a package and never comes back, you have misdirected the reader. I don’t know about the rest of you guys, but that really ticks me off.

Random Metaphor Sightings

If you use a particular metaphor two, three, fifteen times without tying it to a significant event in the plot, you run the risk of burning some goodwill with your readers, because you’ve led the reader to believe that the sunflowers or the baobab tree or the recurring appearance of the Madagascar hissing cockroach means something “bigger” in the story. Okay, an occasional reference to pterodactyls, penguins, or small white dogs can be a fun inside joke for your favorite readers, but letting a dinosaur in some form scurry through every chapter tells the reader that later on, an evil scientist might try to clone one and, well, you know what happens then.

Minor Character Abuse

Say you’ve decided it would be fun to put Aunt Sylvie in a novel one day. Not a problem; we do it all the time. So you make her into minor character, give her a different name, talk about her penchant for steak tartare, have her say a few lines of dialogue in her adorable Dutch accent. And after she downs a martini and tells a rude joke, she exits, stage right, never to return. Giving her all this real estate sets up an expectation that she will be important later on, or at least that she’ll come back from the loo. Why waste precious words that you could have used describing the Madagascar hissing cockroach’s magnificent exoskeleton?

The Red Herring Exception

Sometimes you have good reason to misdirect your reader; you want to hint that Character C is kind of shady and might be the murderer, or at least the guy who steals your newspaper every morning. This helps keep dramatic tension high in suspense novels, mysteries, and thrillers. Even in some romance novels. But that’s a choice, too. Readers want to feel smart, like they’re a step ahead of the characters. If you’re too opaque, if you don’t give them enough clues, they might not follow.

Have you seen any particular literary devices go off with a whimper instead of a bang? Or any that have worked exceptionally well?

Author: Laurie Boris

Laurie Boris is a freelance writer, editor, proofreader, and former graphic designer. She has been writing fiction for over twenty-five years and is the award-winning author of four novels. She lives in New York’s lovely Hudson Valley. Learn more about Laurie at her website and her Amazon author page.

29 thoughts on “Are You Meeting Your Readers’ Expectations?”

  1. Laurie, great post. I had an issue very similar to Chekov’s gun; in one of my books, a note figured very prominently, but although I hinted strongly at the contents, I never revealed the exact text. My editor insisted the readers would feel cheated if they didn’t get to read the whole note. I hadn’t thought it terribly important at the time, but I did change the book to include it, and I do think it made the book better. Thanks for listing these excellent points.

    1. You’re welcome, Melissa. It can be such a delicate balance at times. In one of mine, I had “too much” of some of that referred material, and cutting it way back actually (or at least early readers thought) it improved the story.

  2. Thanks, Laurie.

    Re minor character abuse: You got me. I can remember a specific character I introduced in a novel. I could have mentioned him in passing because he didn’t play an important role. Describing him added some unnecessary fluff, He wasn’t even a red herring.

  3. Great post. One of our family traditions is to read a chapter a morning at breakfast. My older son (16) decided he was too old for that when he started high school, but my younger son and I still do it. We’re currently reading a book (NY Times bestseller, it says), that spends entire chapters describing a scene in overwhelming (suffocating) detail. For example, the protagonists wander into an underground cavern that’s full of treasure, bones, hidden sinkholes, etc. Then they wander out. And that’s it. We’re expecting something to happen – it’s building towards it, after all – and then…absolutely nothing. It’s almost as if we’ve been tricked. Unless, as my son says, all these pointless chapters somehow tie together at the end (it’s the second in a series, and it’s 643 pages long), they serve no purpose whatsoever and are extremely annoying. Neither of us can see us finishing this book, much less picking up the third.

    1. That you for reading, Melinda. That’s a great tradition. Sometimes I wonder if we’re starting to be acculturated into accepting less description and (as my uncle used to call it) “the flowery stuff.” I think I’d follow an author anywhere if there was a point to the detailed setting, depending on how it was set up. But maybe if the first one didn’t lead to anything, I’d be much less likely to follow the second time.

  4. A most excellent post, Laurie! I’ve introduced elements into a draft that I’ve forgotten to tie back into the story, but having a bunch of beta readers helps me remember–as does my editor 🙂

  5. A great post, Laurie. Having had you recently edit my first book, I chuckled as I recognized a number of the things that I had in my pre-edited MS, particularly minor characters taking up literary real estate. Thank goodness many of my precious beta-readers pointed out a lot of the other issues before it went to you!

    1. We all do it from time to time, Karen. 😀 I cut a couple of minor players WAY back in my first novel…it took away from the tension to have them flitting about, with names and backstories and such. I’m glad now I did it. Hey, thank you for visiting!

    1. Thank you, Yvonne! 😀 Ever since I heard that quote (or maybe it’s just from a lifetime of reading), I keep waiting for particularly strong images to make a return appearance to a story.

  6. Excellent post Laurie. I have read a couple of books recently where every character comes with a facial description and what they were wearing even if they were a waitress or a doorman never to be seen again. And do readers really need to know every detail of every room that the protagonist walks into?

    Actually I feel so strongly about this, that if anything, I’m probably guilty of not providing enough detail in my own work, but I think one of the joys of reading is being able to build a physical image in your own mind of the characters or the location based on a few salient details.

    1. Sometimes, the reader will read your description and still not remember what your character looks like. I’m a member of a discussion board for fans of a particular fantasy author, and we’ve had wildly varying opinions expressed about the appearance of certain races in the author’s fantasy world. 😀 So Mel, I’m with you when it comes to description: less is more.

    2. I think too much description, especially of characters, takes away fro the reader becoming immersed in the story because they can’t relate to the description from where they are as a reader. Hmmm, I’m not saying that well. I hope you get what i mean. lol

    3. Thank you, Mel. I forget who said this, maybe it was one of my writing teachers, but it was something like if you’re on a beach, you don’t need ALL the details…the roar of the waves, maybe a seagull, the squish of sand under your feet. Most of us know what’s on a beach. Anything unusual, of course… But I think our imaginations can fill in a lot of gaps.

  7. Great post, Laurie. When my editor read Seized, she suggested cutting George, Joseph’s roommate, because at the time he was only in a couple of scenes. I ended up beefing up his role in the series instead.

  8. Great post, Laurie.
    I thought long and hard about your editorial comment regarding a certain character I introduced late in the plot. Your reasons were sound for cutting him out – I already had several well-developed suspects. Was he necessary?
    I let the police handle it for me. They discuss that they really don’t think he did it, but go to interview him anyway. He was hanging around some bad people and they want to give him a bit of agita. We’ll see if anyone is thrown off or complains.
    Your editing of the ms was excellent. Thank you.

  9. You always have your finger right on the pulse, Laurie! Laughed my way through this post, but at the back of my mind I was doing a quick inventory to see if I’ve been guilty of broken expectations lately. Phew…I’m okay, for now. 🙂

    Speaking of minor characters taking up real esate, just don’t boot them out of your story too quickly. My main character has two sisters and for a long time while writing I wondered what the second sister was there for, and was strongly considering cutting back to just the younger sister and getting rid of the elder.

    Not too long after beginning to write my stories, I always stop work on the story and do in-depth character-building work, putting them through interviews etc and really finding out all I can about them, usually far more than my readers will ever need to know. I did this with both these sisters and the elder sister developed certain unique character traits and skills. I had no idea what she might use them for but that was just how she turned out.

    I returned to work on the story itself and it was not until I was well on my way through the second draft that the older sister suddenly came into her own and saved the day and generally contributed in important ways no-one else in the story could have. I was very thankful I had not got rid of her as I had often intended. Sometimes our SUBconscious minds require us to create these characters and it takes a while for our conscious brains to cotton why they are there. I’m certain the most important story-building happens in the deeper recesses of our author’s brains and it was that which made me create her and also stopped me from deleting her.

    1. Great point, Tui! Sometimes we don’t have the whole picture until we do a few drafts. I love doing character interviews and there have been some that have needed sitting down with direct questions: What do you need? Your own story? Or are you a part of this one? One of my writing teachers used to warn about the characters who pop up toward the end of a book. Are they truly part of this story or early for the next? Our brains are fascinating things.

      1. I even ask mine what they had for breakfast and what smells they love the most (and why) and what they think about as they’re dropping off to sleep at night.

  11. What interesting points your excellent article has prompted, Laurie. It also helped me analyse my own modus operandi, which has always been pretty much instinctive.

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