Thursday, February 22, 2018

An Author's Promise to His Readers

by Henry McLaughlin @RiverBendSagas

As writers, we’re constantly making promises to our readers. Often they start with our title and cover. A cover of a couple looking longingly at each other promises romance. How disconcerting it would be to discover a horror story on the pages. Even though some romances can end up horrible.

We also make promises within our story. When we receive a criticism that our story didn’t make any sense or was unbelievable, it’s probably because we didn’t deliver on a promise we made.

For example, suppose we establish early in the story that our heroine is a martial arts expert. Towards the climax she is attacked by the villain and she tries to run away or just cowers and whimpers. She never uses the skills we said she had. We broke a promise to the reader.

In my first book, Journey to Riverbend, I established that my hero, Michael Archer, had two core values. One was he always kept his word. The other is he didn’t want to kill anybody. These actually were promises that something would happen to Michael to challenge these values. They needed to be fulfilled or resolved by the end. At the climax, I put Michael in a situation where he had to choose. He could keep one, but not both.

In his book, Troubleshooting Your Novel, Steven James writes that stories are more than what’s happening on the page. They’re also about promises, anticipation, fulfillment, and satisfaction. In the story, usually in the first 50 pages, our characters reveal what Steven calls their PLAN:
  • Purpose: What are they hoping to do?
  • Longing: What do they desire?
  • Apprehension: What are they afraid of?
  • Needs: What do they require?

Now the reader knows what to look for and what to worry about.

But we don’t want to make the story predictable. Predictable books are boring. We need to add twists and revelations, setbacks and subtext to throw our characters off stride, to make them almost want to give up, or go over the edge of desperation and do something that makes the situation worse. Through it all, we don’t want to lose sight of those promises.

While I’m working on my first draft, revising as I go, I keep a file of promises I’m making to my readers. When it comes time to start the second draft, I consult this folder and make sure every promise is resolved somehow. Sometimes, I’ll cut it. In some cases, I may have to go back to early in the story to plant or refine the promise so it will make sense at the end. Either way, I make sure I don’t short change my characters or disappoint the reader.

What are some of things you do to keep your promises to the reader?

An author's promise to his readers - thoughts from Henry McLaughlin, @RiverBendSagas on @EdieMelson (Click to Tweet)

As authors we make promises to our readers - tips from Henry McLaughlin, @RiverBendSagas on @EdieMelson (Click to Tweet)

Henry’s debut novel, Journey to Riverbend, won the 2009 Operation First Novel contest. 

He serves as Associate Director of North Texas Christian Writers. 

Henry edits novels, leads critique groups, and teaches at conferences and workshops. He enjoys mentoring and coaching individual writers. 

Connect with Henry on his blogTwitter and Facebook.


  1. Henry, I'm working on my first novel. Your article is a great tool. Thank you!

    1. I'm glad you found it helpful, Cherrilynn. Let me know how your novel writing goes.

  2. Great counsel sir. Well said. I walk away with the idea that my characters should exhibit many of my own traits. Can't wait to try that on some fiction writing one day. Thank you...

    1. Hi Jim,
      When you start to write fiction, I would suggest making your characters uniquely themselves. Our own traits will influence our character development but this should be an almost unconscious part of the process. After all, we don't want all our characters to be like us.

  3. You just hit the nail on why some books don't hit the nail for me.
    Great advice, Henry.

  4. As a reader, I get so frustrated when an author doesn't fulfill promises. I feel cheated, duped...and a little angry that I wasted money on a book that didn't meet the expectations it set up for readers. Your article is a good reminder that I don't want to do the same to my own readers. I think I was intuitively aware of fulfilling the promises I make, but now I can be intentional, and intentional is always better. Thanks, Henry!

  5. This is such a timely piece for me. My 2nd novel was just beta reviewed - and I am struggling with an edit - which now occurs to me - was a broken promise. I will make the revision. Thanks so much for this post. Excellent!