Writing Discussion: Playing Fair With Your Readers

A novel is a writer’s contract with readers. The author promises to keep readers interested, to not waste their time, to play fair. The reader promises nothing, except perhaps to read the book if the writer fulfills the contract.

To a great extent, genre is about fulfilling the contract of reader expectations. In a romance novel, the story conflict revolves around the romantic relationship between two people and is characterized by romantic tension, desire, and often an ending that unites the couple. In mystery, the story conflict revolves around a crime and is characterized by clues leading to answers, increased tension, and often danger as the solution nears. If a story strays too far from the reader’s expectations, the reader will feel as if the author is reneging on the contract and might not finish reading the book. Even worse, they might not buy the author’s next one. That isn’t to say a writer can’t follow unexpected storylines, but somehow that difference must be conveyed to readers so they know the author is playing fair.

Suspense is considered a genre, yet suspense should be part of every novel, part of the contract with the reader. If readers are not at least bit curious about the outcome, if the story or the ending is obvious, readers have no reason to read. On the other hand, if the author withholds vital information to release at the end, it creates suspicion, not suspense, and the reader feels cheated.

So, let’s discuss playing fair with the reader. How do you create suspense in your genre? How do you gradually release the needed information, so that at the end, your reader feels surprise mingled with “Of course!” What is your contract with your contract with your readers, and how are you going about fulfilling it? How do you keep from cheating your readers? And for the reader in all of us, have you ever read books that made you angry because the authors did not fulfill their contract?

My online writing group No Whine, Just Champagne will exchange ideas about playing fair with readers during our live discussion on Thursday, November 6 at 9:00pm ET. Hope to see you there!