Writers crave readers; they want to be heard. Career authors cultivate readers, recognizing that a successful novel is not a one-way street from writer to reader. It’s a meeting of the minds between author and reader, with publishers playing a role too.
The subtle contract between reader and writer is sometimes referred to as reader expectations. An example of these very loose maps that many writers of commercial fiction must follow can be found in romance fiction, where it’s generally anticipated that the two main characters will not only be brought together as much as possible throughout the story, but that the end of the novel will leave the two at the point where readers might feel the most hopefulness about their happy future together.
A reader can see this formula at work behind the scenes of romantic novels from Pride And Prejudice to Jane Eyre to Nora Roberts’s bestseller A Vision In White. For mystery fans, the puzzle will be solved, the murderer unmasked and probably good has won over evil. See the novels of P. D. James, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, and Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier as examples. For other genres including those categories within crime and science fiction, different sets of rules will be in place.
A reader buys a book anticipating a specific reading experience. When an author fails to deliver on those expectations, that unsatisfied reader might become disillusioned, even angry. Here are a few examples of reader expectations gone awry:
- In a recent domestic suspense novel’s penultimate chapter, the reader finds out that one of the characters has the supernatural ability to manipulate the action—drastically changing all of what has come before. Jumping genres can bother readers but rocking a fictional world may be even more frustrating. Readers may feel tricked. A surprise at the end should not add to the mystery: all loose ends should be tied up. A novel’s twist ending may be at once shocking and illuminating, but such derring-do must be carried out with great care. As agent Paula Munier says, “The first page sells the book; the last page sells the next.”
- A childrens book features amusement park rides on its cover and in its title. Reading the book aloud to her two kids—three and five-years-old—a mother realizes the book’s plot is suddenly about Grandma dying. Unprepared to broach this important subject, she makes up an on-the-fly story of her own and tells that instead. The book is relegated to a top shelf.
- A bestselling author known for witty love stories enraged many of fans when her novel ended with the death of its heroine. One reader review said that if the book had not been read on a Kindle, she would have physically destroyed it.
Expecting X but getting Y makes readers grouchy.
Once upon a time … they lived happily ever after
Plots may have twists and turns, but novelists seeking a wide commercial readership know readers expect books to have beginnings, middles and ends.
Even memoir authors must choose which slice of life they choose to focus on. You can see this at work in the autobiographical works by Julie Andrews. She’s published two, each dealing with a particular period of her life, and she says that she’s beginning work now on a third.
Writers should write about anything they please, but they cannot assume the marketplace will respond with enthusiasm. Years ago, I met a talented young writer who had been getting agent rejections to his novel about a prison romance between a child murderer and a serial killer. While the dude could write, his queries were being met with sheer bafflement.
Writers manipulate readers’ emotions through story and must do so with care. Annoying or upsetting or exasperating a reader means they won’t buy your next book. A writer who endangers a child or kills a dog can count on losing readers.
Rules of the game
When a book is being marketed within a genre, agents and publishers are secure in the knowledge that the book has a clear sales channel. Meanwhile, writers sometimes chafe at the idea that their unique story is being relegated to a genre. Genres offer a lot of leeway in regard to plot, but specific genres have specific rules, and writers should know them.
Mystery readers turn pages while awaiting the unmasking and punishment of a criminal. Science fiction readers anticipate an imaginary plot based upon scientific fact. Romance readers presume a couple will overcome the obstacles keeping them apart. Readers of horror novels assume their fears will be realized. And so on.
Play by the rules.
Yes, perhaps rules are made to be broken by rebellious thinkers, but first you must know them. Break genre rules at your peril. Don’t do it on your first, second or third book. Agatha Christie can have the solution that they all did it, or a murder did not occur, but she was Agatha Christie.
Does your title sound like your genre? Readers expectations may arise from a number of factors including title, cover and sales copy.
The publisher’s task of determining how to sell and market a book may be tougher when a book’s plot intersects more than one genre. If a book reads like womens fiction but is packaged like a suspense novel, readers may be bummed out. This wasn’t the book they meant to buy. A career author must be sure that they on the same page as their publisher. When there is any doubt about this, an agent can prove their worth by helping to guide the writer and publisher to agreement.
Stay on brand
One hugely successful mystery writer with whom I worked wrote bestselling cozies. She generously provided blurbs and endorsements for new authors but would only blurb books that she knew would please her readers—for one, that meant no profanity. This career author knew her reader, knew her brand and would not deviate from it. Such a depth of understanding of her target audience was one of the many reasons she regularly hit #1 on the New York Times bestseller list.
I’m not recommending you shouldn’t cuss, but keep your intended readers in mind.
Your book’s plot should entertain and surprise readers but not confuse or annoy them. Are you giving them what they expect? They are spending $25 to buy your book, and you hope they will devote six to ten hours to the endeavor. They begin Page One with expectations. Your job is to deliver on them.
Rather than being restrictive or suppressing creativity, reader expectations can instead improve a book’s narrative. Understanding and embracing them is also how bestselling authors win and hold onto readers.
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