This is my dog:
Here are my other two snuggling:
Here’s all three of them:
For anyone still reading, you’re probably pretty hacked off right now. You didn’t click on this link to see my dogs. No, you came to learn about promises. This article’s title was my promise, and I broke it (see what I did there? Okay, now I’m done being clever).
Your book’s title is your promise. Its genre is a promise. Every word you write is a promise. When you make promises, you give your readers something to look forward to. When they’re near-bursting with anticipation, they keep turning pages.
The bigger the promise, the bigger the pay-off at the climax. Be warned though: bigger promises also mean greater disappointment if you fail to deliver.
So don’t break your promises. If you do, your reader will stop trusting you. If they don’t trust you, they won’t keep reading (as I’m sure several would-be readers did for this post). Here are 6 ways you can break promises*:
- Lead the reader to believe something will be important, then fail to make it significant to the larger story
- Fail to resolve conflict in a satisfactory way
- Make your characters act unbelievably
- Hint that your MC will go through a character arc, and then fail to show any kind of internal transformation
- Resolve tension too early
- Make your readers invest in the character, then drop her from the story without any impact on plot events
Fulfilling promises is essential to great fiction. But in order to make sure you’ve kept all of your promises, you have to be cognizant of those— both implicit and explicit— that you’re making. To do this, you must constantly be putting yourself in the readers’ shoes. With each new conflict, revelation, or plot twist, ask: what are my readers expecting now? Predicting? Hoping for?
Now let’s explore how Jurassic Park (the original 1993 film, not those crappy sequels) makes and fulfills its promises.
First, let’s talk about explicit promises. These are directly stated by characters to announce plans, intentions, or anticipated consequences in taking (or not taking) a course of action.
In the film’s beginning, an insurance lawyer is speaking with an archaeologist employed by Dr. Hammond (the proprietor of the titular park) about a potential roadblock for the park’s opening following the death of an employee:
“The underwriters feel that the accident has raised safety questions about the park. That makes the investors very, very anxious…. If two experts sign off on the island, the insurance guys will back off.”
This a clear promise about what Dr. Hammond’s goal will be: convincing two dinosaur experts that his park is safe. Now the audience will be looking forward to 1) if this goal will be achieved and 2) how it will be achieved (based on genre expectations for an action-adventure film, the audience is anticipating that no, it won’t be achieved; they’ll be looking forward to just how wrong things will go).
A little later, we’re introduced to Dennis Nedry, an employee of Dr. Hammond’s who’s plotting corporate espionage with a rival company to steal dinosaur embryos in exchange for 1.5 million dollars. The following exchange outlines his plans, goals, and (tight) schedule:
Dodgson: “There’s enough coolant in there for 36 hours. The embryos have to be back here in San Jose by then.”
Nedry: “Well, that’s up to your guy on the boat– 7 o’clock tomorrow night on the East Dock. Make sure he gets it right.”
Dodgson: “How’re you planning to beat security?”
Nedry: “I’ve got an 18 minute window.”
By showing the audience Nedry’s agenda, the filmmakers made a promise that either 1) his plans would go right and he’d steal an embryo 2) something will be disrupted and his plan will fail. Either development will serve to move the story forward and increase tension.
Toward the film’s midpoint, a new complication arises and is explicitly stated by one of the park’s control operators:
“The national weather service is tracking a tropical storm 75 miles west of us.”
Then a little later:
“That storm center hasn’t dissipated or changed course.”
The explicit promise of a problem, and the confirmation it will lead to story complications. Something to look forward to: how will this storm complicate an already dangerous situation?
Now then: implicit promises. These aren’t directly stated, but implied by the story’s context.
When we’re introduced to Dr. Grant, the film’s main protagonist, he’s describing a Velociraptor’s hunting prowess to a skeptical kid:
“Try to imagine yourself in the Cretaceous Period. You get your first look at this “six foot turkey” as you enter a clearing. He moves like a bird, lightly, bobbing his head. And you keep still because you think that maybe his visual acuity is based on movement like T-Rex, he’ll lose you if you don’t move. But no, not Velociraptor. You stare at him, and he just stares right back. And that’s when the attack comes. Not from the front, but from the side, from the other two ‘raptors you didn’t even know were there. Because Velociraptor’s a pack hunter, you see, he uses coordinated attack patterns and he is out in force today. And he slashes at you with this- a six-inch retractable claw, like a razor, on the middle toe. He doesn’t bother to bite your jugular like a lion, oh no… He slashes at you here,” [makes slashing motions below the child’s chest] “or here… ” [above the groin] “Or maybe across the belly, spilling your intestines.”
Wow. That’s a big promise of danger. Tension later increases during the famous kitchen scene; as Lex and Tim are stalked by a pack of the creatures, the audience remembers Grant’s warning of their preternatural intelligence and ferocity, and so worry more for the kids’ safety.
Another example of an implicit promise is when Dr. Malcom (another expert hired by Hammond to verify the park’s safety) voices his indignation at the scientists’ recklessness:
“The kind of control you’re attempting is not possible. If there’s one thing the history of evolution has taught us is that life will not be contained. Life breaks free. Expands to new territories; and it crashes through barriers, painfully, maybe even dangerously, but there it is… I’m simply saying that life, uh, finds a way.”
This is not an explicit promise because Malcolm has no way of knowing the dinosaurs will escape on this visit; however, to the audience, the promise (based on the context) is clear: some big, bad dinos are going to break loose, and it’s not going to be pretty.
Promises: make them, don’t break them. Your readers will love you for it.
James, Steven. Story Trumps Structure: How to Write Unforgettable Fiction by Breaking the Rules. Writer’s Digest Books, 2014. pp 22-23.
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