This post will contain squids!

What if I told you to expect a super-awesome post tomorrow on a really cool topic?  All well and good– but what if I didn’t actually post that day?  What if I didn’t even apologize?  If I were my audience, I’d bug me until I posted the super-awesome post.  And if I found out that the post didn’t even exist and I was making an empty promise for fun, I’d be pretty upset.

This is called breaking promises, and it’s a very powerful technique… when intentional.  When you break promises by mistake, it’s horrible, and yet both instances have the same outcome.

The guaranteed outcome is hate.  No one likes an oathbreaker.  Even if someone is generally well-liked, they quickly spiral into the dirty gutter of disdain once they break their first promise.  This is how we separate our villains from our heroes.  Although the hero makes a deal with the traitor and keeps it, the villain makes the same sort of deal with the traitor and leaves him at the bottom of the snail pit begging for the promised salt shaker.  We hate the villains and love the heroes, all because of how much their oath means to them.

This is a surefire way to make someone despised.  Need a character to go from love interest to despised traitor?  Unapologetically break a promise.  Need a character with a stained reputation to gain nobility and heroism in one fell swoop?  Have them keep a promise.

Among Thieves by Douglas Hulick does this extremely well.  The protagonist is an information seller in the thieving underworld, surrounded by assassinations, hooliganism, and generally illegal behavior.  Through all this, the protagonist remains untouched by the stereotype that all thieves are horrible (which is of course untrue, but it is still a stereotype).  By stressing the character’s sense of honor, the author painted a trustworthy hero in the midst of villains.

Similarly, the army of the dead from The Return of the King turn from promise-breakers to promise-keepers.  At the beginning, we feel like we can’t trust them because they don’t keep promises.  By the end, however, they’ve finally redeemed themselves.  But having characters break a promise then keep a later one only equalizes their trustworthiness– it does not create nobility where there was none.  I’ll do a post on redeeming “bad” characters soon, I promise.

Making your characters break or keep promises is a very useful tool for character development.  However, that isn’t the only thing it does.

Breaking and keeping promises as a writer does the same thing.  Keeping promises is assumed– any promise you make should be kept, according to the readers.  Any promise you break is a pile of readers lost.

Promises you might make: to explain a certain concept, to describe a certain character, to give this interesting character a big part of the story.  I’ve heard this described as the gorilla in the phone booth.  If your character is walking down the street and sees a gorilla in a phone booth, but they don’t give it a second thought, that’s a promise broken.  By mentioning the gorilla, you promised to explain why it’s in a phone booth.  It might seem like a hilarious joke at the time, but your readers are going to get upset.  Similarly, if you mention a concept at the beginning of the book and don’t explain it by the end, that’s a promise broken.  Sometimes, the only thing that keeps a reader going through the book is the promise of something explained later on.  If you break that promise, you lost huge respect.

This topic is two-faceted.  You can use this fact to great effect with other people– don’t use it on yourself.

Squids!  There, this post contains squids.


112 thoughts on “Squids!

  1. Had trouble thinking of a relevant title, Liam?
    Thinking of promises made in the movie Tangled. Disney emphasized that Rapunzel never breaks a promise, even in the end of the movie when a promise would keep her imprisoned forever. Of course, then we get into the magic of Disney Death (good guys don’t stay dead).
    Why they keep a promise is an interesting point, too. Back to Tangled, Flynn only makes the deal because he wants the crown back, though of course, that doesn’t matter later.

    1. And see, we pick up on the contrast there. Rapunzel won’t break a promise, but Flynn would and we know it. By the end, though, both of them know the meaning of their word.

      1. Isn’t it interesting that we end up liking Flynn by the end of the movie… possibly because he kept a promise, but maybe because he ends up being the love interest and rescues Rapunzel. Or did we start liking him from the start, rogue that he was?

      2. We started liking him from the first, but we knew that he was a scoundrel. Since we liked Rapunzel a little better from the first, and we knew he was going to renege on his agreement with her, we would have hated him pretty badly if he had actually gone through with it. But he turned out all right in the end.

      3. Yes, he did turn out alright.
        Behold! The magic of Disney Death! The love interest is no longer dead!

  2. Well, at least you mentioned squids. Brownie points for you.

    Your gorilla in the phone booth just gave me a brilliant idea for something I might be able to use for the mystery I’m supposed to write for a class. Maybe it could be a red herring….

  3. Very interesting. I had not thought about promise breaking as … well, I hadn’t thought about it at all. Lies? Check. Betrayal? Double check. Now I have a whole new type of emotional torture to throw at my characters. *Claps excitedly*

    Something almost as bad as breaking a promise to your readers is keeping the promise, but in a really lame way. I can’t think of a real example at the moment, but something like building up something as big and scary, then forgetting about it until the very end and waving off the explanation as something really simple, and not scary at all. *Tries one more time to think of a good example* Hm, nope. In any event, it’s terribly disappointing, no?

    1. Yes, that too. Promises have to be fulfilled fully, not just partially or worse, weakly. If you’ve built up to the resolution of this promise for a while, people will expect a big resolution. Good point.

  4. I am disappointed by the lack of squids in this post. Other than that, I like it. But seriously, there needs to be more squids in this post. This could have been done easily.

    Example of something you could have written:

    Squid 1: “Hey, Squid 2!”
    Squid 2: “Hey Squid 1! Want to go to the Superbowl tomorrow?”
    Squid 1: “Sure!”
    *Squid 2 then shows up the next day at the Superbowl only to realize that the Superbowl is over ten months away. He then realizes he can’t breathe above water and dies. Squid 1 laughs at him and continues his merry life underwater.*
    See how much we hate Squid 1 now?

    Once again, this post needs more squids.

  5. Yes… But you ever eaten squid? It’s very good… Dried squid! Mmmmm~ Or even better- dried squid, peanut butter flavor! You are not qualified to talk about squids until you’ve been brave enough to eat them- multiple times….

    Squuuuuuidward~~~! WHAT SPONGEBOB?!

      1. Really????? Well. I need that recipe. I am in Korea… and we always eat dried squid from our local grocery store… but actually last week they changed it to some interesting shrimpy stuff…. :/ I like the shrimpy stuff but where’s the squid gone?

      2. Uh… I didn’t realize you were serious. I think Liam’s bologna squid is in a story. It’s ficticious. He, as far as I know, did not invent the real thing. Sorry to be misleading.

      3. :O I’m very serious about my squid… No…. I’m kidding…seriously kidding… Lol

        AMANDA 😛 you can mention my name! 😀 LOL

      4. I assume you understand very well how I could’ve thought she wasn’t serious, Amanda.

      5. Yes, I understand completely, and if it was something other than squids, I would be in the same boat as you, Robyn. Ms. Journalism here can be pretty goofy, so she’s perfect for us bunch of crazy writers. 😉

      6. Just go look at your comment structure and see why I could not resist asking. 🙂

      7. Sentence misinterpretation then. That can get ugly for authors… I speak from a similar and worse experience.

      1. It wasn’t supposed to be funny. I just said “ha” because I stole your word. Perhaps “mwuahahaha” would’ve been more appropriate.

      2. “I want you to know that this is the wiedrest thing I have ever done!” ~Flynn Rider

      3. It will have to be later. I’m hunting down casual clothes and Easter shoes for my siblings.

      4. We have a family of mostly girls. Sometimes, shoes that one sister has outgrown will fit a little sister later. We store these shoes in totes in the shed. So I have to note what size the child wears, then go hunt down ones that are in that size range and are still nice.
        Plus, finding both shoes helps. 🙂

  6. I can’t reply to the squid thing for some reason so ill do it here:

    OMG! Yes! Yes! YES YES YES!!! You’re qualified! Forgive me for making sure! *bows* for no reason~

    *does a little SQUIggly dance*

    *plays the clarinet*

    GUESS WHAT. I am going to write a post on how AWESOME cartoons are.
    Bob the builder, can he fix it? YES HE CAN!
    M-I-C-K-E-Y M-O-U-S-E Its the mickey mouse club house, fun for you and me!
    104 days of summer vacation and school comes along just to end i, but the annual problem for our generation is finding a good way to spend it (LIKE MAYBE~ )

    These are all awesome and from memory~ Boo-yah!

    Now, I must ask…. Have you tried octopus?

      1. I like exotic foods. I have tried it… dead… BUT I might, very soon, have the opportunity to eat it alive… at the Korean seaside. That will take a HUGE amount of bravery.


        I’ll having “bragging rights”

    1. You definitely are random. Congratulations. 😉

      And, LIVE OCTOPUS? The most “exotic” thing I’ve eaten was either Chinese bean paste cake (no joke…our neighbors made us some years ago…), which tasted like rubbery glue and flour, or “local” alligator nuggets, which were actually pretty good. (By the way, “local” refers to the fact that the guy who cooked the stuff lives a couple miles from here and, ah, the gator came from his backyard.)

      1. Maybe its not the same~ I mean there are diff things you can do with bean paste and yours was CHINESE CAKE

      2. So, if your Grandmother, who lives in Georgia, ever receives a Japenese sweet potato from her Mexican neighbor… try it, but don’t expect greatness from something as profound as what I just said.

      3. Yesterday, one of my sister’s said “How is yeast alive? Is it like when I pour milk on Rice Krispies?”

      4. Oh, wow! Yesterday my little brother rollerbladed into the house because he had to use the restroom, but he kept slipping on our tile floors. Finally one of my other brothers had to roll him into the bathroom, where he promptly tripped on the bath mat.

        Oh, and my dad said: “If someone comes in with a creepy bunny head on, do we still have to give them a chicken sandwich?” (Looooooong story…)

      5. That’s pretty good. We would never think of this stuff if we tried.
        And then I had to tell her that Rice Krispies aren’t alive and I got mom to explain how yeast is. 🙂

    2. Hey, uh, as for how to reply to the comment…if no “reply” button shows up when you mouse over the bottom right corner, it means it’s reached the limit of “nesting,” so you just scroll up until you find the comment that’s a bit wider and click “reply” on that and it sticks you on the bottom. 🙂

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