Friday, February 21, 2014

Business Basics for Today’s Writer—An Unwritten Contract with the Reader

By Edie Melson

Did you know that you have a contract with your reader? You do. And it doesn’t matter if you write fiction, non-fiction, short or long. If what you write is being read, you have entered into a contractual agreement.

Today I want to explain what those expectations are and how you, as the writer, can fulfill those.


Party of the first part – from here on referred to as THE READER
THE READER agrees to suspend belief and enter the fictional world that’s been created.

Party of the second part – from here on referred to as THE WRITER
THE WRITER agrees to do everything possible to facilitate their remaining, undisturbed, within that world.

What exactly does this legal jargon mean? First, let’s tackle the expectations of the fiction reader.

Have you ever been reading a book or a story and something startles you back into reality. You may have actually felt like you were IN the story? It’s almost like an alternate reality or a dream. There’s a term for it—fictional dream.

If you’ve never heard the term before, don’t worry. I guarantee you know what I’m talking about. I think author, John Gardner says it best. 

“What counts in conventional fiction must be the vividness and continuity of the fictional dream the words set off in the reader’s mind.”

A fictional dream occurs when the world in the story you’re reading becomes more real than the physical world around you. We’ve all be there at one time or another—transported into another time or another place by an author’s well crafted words.

This experience is one that we try to create for our readers. And it’s one of the biggest differences between a good book and a great one. So how do we create this dream world? We do it by paying attention. Notice where you are right now. Are there sounds? Smells? Even if you’re not overwhelmed by your setting I bet you’re aware of it. The same thing is true for our characters. If we've written them as three dimensional people then they should notice and be affected by what's around them. However, if we neglect those details, we deny our readers the chance to be transported.

Here’s a list to help you stay on track:
  • Use correct grammar. Glaring mistakes can jar THE READER awake, making them wonder why they agreed to read you story.
  • Make your Point of View (POV) shifts clear and seamless. When you change POV make certain you have a good reason for doing so.
  • Use unobtrusive attributions, like said. Even better, use a speaker beat.
  • Avoid overuse of misspelled words to indicate dialect. A little is fine, but once THE READER has the character’s voice in their head, continuing makes the dialogue difficult to read.
  • Avoid italics when possible. An occasional italicized word for emphasis is fine, but thought after thought in italics is hard on the eyes. Instead, try to write deeper from the character’s POV. This is sometimes called Deep POV.
  • Use all five senses when you write. This will bring the story to life for THE READER
  • Following these simple guidelines can make it easier for THE READER to immerse themselves in our story.

With the non-fiction reader there are many of the same issues. But there is one major difference, the contractual agreement begins with the title of what you’ve written. Fiction authors can more easily get a way with a clever or even ambiguous title. Not so with non-fiction. A title is one of the main ways a non-fiction writer will judge what you’ve written. With that title, you’re making a promise and your reader will measure the worth of what you’ve written by that promise.

Now I’d like to know your thoughts. What things have you found in the books that break the contract for you? Be sure to leave your comments below.

Don’t forget to join the conversation!




  1. Failure to research things the writer clearly doesn't understand. Two examples. I read a mystery by an author I absolutely love. But in one scene, the hero is driving over the Coronado Bridge in San Diego. He worries about being run off the road and landing on a battleship below. If the book were set in 1945, this might be okay (except the bridge wasn't there). But since it's contemporary, any author worth his salt would have checked and discovered battleships haven't been around for a while, with the exception of a brief re-commissioning in the 80s.

    Here's another. I recently read House by Perrtti and Dekker, two authors I admire. Whenever they mentioned a gun in a scene, they completely blew even elementary facts about them. Revolvers with clips? And a single barrel shotgun which the character opened to see it held two cartridges. That one line contained two horrible errors and one minor (we never call them cartridges, always shells). Would any of this change the plot? No. But did it rip me out of the story. Yes.

    If I'm writing about something I'm not familiar with, say NASCAR, even if it's just a sentence, I'm going to ask someone who knows. Even things like jargon are details we cannot afford to blow, not after all the hard work we put into our novels.

  2. I hate it when the author tries to explain why the reader did something, or repeat it with different words. It's as if the author didn't think I was smart enough to catch it. The bottom line is, if we do a good job of writing the scene, the reader will get it.

    Thanks, Edie!

  3. I'm reading a story now, and the author threw out this $100 word. My reaction, "Huh, what does THAT mean?" If I have to go to the dictionary to figure out what an author meant, it's a major deduction.