Great Expectations – And Heaven Help You if You Don’t Deliver

As has been pointed out more times than I can count, and not just by me, anything we write that is meant to be read constitutes an implied contract with the reader, whoever  that reader might be. The reader agrees to read what we’ve written with an open mind, and in return, you agree not to waste their time. I say anything, because this applies to a legal document or a business letter just as much as it applies to a work of fiction. One distinction is, in fiction, you’re allowed to play with reader expectations, mostly because you’re allowed to do anything, even things you don’t yet have the skill to get away with. Even when you do have that skill, turning readers’ expectations on their heads and making them like it is a trick you can only pull now and then, for the obvious reason that, if you do it enough, then the readers’ expectations change and now they’ll be disappointed if you don’t try to lead them down the garden path. The contract remains the same but the assumptions informing that contract change all the time.

Which brings me to one of the worst mistakes a beginner can make. It’s not quite up there with posting LJ or FB rants about the idiot, no-taste hack of an editor who just rejected your story (and by the way, lock your posts down all you want, but word gets around). No, this one isn’t quite that acute, though the long term implications may be worse. This is the one where the writer doesn’t really believe or acknowledge that such a contract exists in the first place. This is the “I’m an artist with unique vision, and if the readers can’t see that it’s not my problem” phase. Sometimes it’s even true. More often it’s just an excuse for not learning your craft. Yet even when one’s ego is justified, you have to ask yourself—“Is the goal to express myself and that’s all or is the goal to communicate, to share?” If the answer is the second part, then the readers’ contract applies, and being an artist of unique vision doesn’t excuse you from it. You have to translate what you see, feel, and understand into words on a page that make sense to and connect with another person. Which is pretty much the same challenge we all face, so welcome to the club. If we don’t take into account the implications of our work, if we don’t get how each part is connected and builds to the rest, if we don’t understand on a level beyond understanding what our story is really about, then we are not expressing our vision or anyone else’s. Worse, we are screwing up royally with the readers, assuming we have any left by now.

I’ll give an example from outside of fiction, but it clearly illustrates why the same rules apply. This was a news headline I read recently—“Champion Marathon Runner Dies Suddenly at 27.” Not a great headline as headlines go, but enough to pique interest. She was only 27, and supposedly in great physical condition, so what happened? A congenital defect? Is there some danger in running that stresses the body in ways I wasn’t aware? What’s the story? So I turned to the article only to find that, well, of course she died suddenly! She was hit by a freaking truck. So what did I feel at learning this fact? Sympathy for her family? Melancholy? Regret? Did I feel depressed? I mean, I should have felt at least some of those things just as a fellow human being, considering this young woman of such promise died so early. Did I feel any of those things? Hell, no, I felt cheated. Why? Because as a reader I had, in fact, been cheated. The news writer promised me irony. What I got was senseless tragedy, but tragedy totally bereft of its rightful impact, and the reason is simple—the news and/or headline writer broke the contract. Just as if they’re written a fairytale with a light tone and plenty of humor where everyone suffers horribly and dies on the last page. That is not the writer being clever. That is the writer being a smartass. Or a writer who hasn’t got a clue about the power and the proper use of their tools.

“Ok, fine. Reader Contract. Got it. So how am I supposed to know when I’m violating it?”
You know if you’re violating the contract the same way you’re supposed to know that you’ve written a story worth reading. You know when you understand how the implications in your opening chapter or scene translates into reader expectation…which you can then plot to subvert in ways both fair and effective if you so choose, but if and only if you understand what you’re subverting, and why it’s there in the first place. That’s the trick, if there is one. Readers’ expectations are created by you whether you’re aware or not, so best to be aware. You create the implied contract by shaping those expectations, but you’ve also just placed one more tool in your chest. It’s there to be used like any other, but used with care, and with awareness. Once you get a handle on that, then you’ll know when you’re written a good story. If you don’t get a handle on that, then you’ll never figure out what a good story is.

 In which case the bad news is that it’s game over for you as a writer. The good news is that the reader contract and reader expectations need never concern you again.