Promises are the lifeblood of your story. A promise at the beginning is your hook, creating in the reader an expectation that will drive them to finish the story. When the promise is fulfilled, the reader comes away from the story feeling satisfied that you knew what you were doing. However, promises are not that straightforward.
When you break a promise, in the reader’s eyes it’s treachery. (I spoke about that with regard to characters in this post.) You promised them something awesome—that was why they were reading your story. But after they agreed to read your story, you ignored them. You created an expectation, and then pulled the rug out from under them. That’s bribery. Unfortunately, you might not even know you’re doing it. The readers do, however, and it reflects in their reviews.
For instance, one of the silliest parts of the Inheritance Cycle was the very end. In the third book, Eragon makes a lot of promises to a lot of different people– one in particular to the Menoa Tree, a giant sentient tree that gave him his sword. In the fourth book, he conquers the evil spreading over the land, solves all sorts of subplots, and then goes to see the giant tree to see what he has to do to complete that promise. The tree, however, just tells him to go and be happy, or something like that. That was the biggest letdown of the book. For two entire books, each the size of a hippopotamus, we thought Eragon would make a terrible sacrifice trying to please this giant tree, and then it suddenly doesn’t matter. The author didn’t want to make his series any longer (because he wasted so much time on battle scenes), so he dropped his promise.
The problem with promises, however, is how innocuous they seem. Nowhere does an author say, “I hereby swear to make these two characters kiss by the end of the book.” But we as readers know the promises exist– otherwise, we wouldn’t stick around until the end of the book. The author somehow created an expectation without us realizing it. We know it works for published authors– a good hook and some fulfilled promises can turn unpublished writers into published writers, after all. So how do we, the unpublished, harness this for our own use?
The first step is straightforward: look at the promises you’ve made and decide to either keep them or scrap them. The promises you make will usually appear near the beginning of the book. As you establish setting, characters, and plot, little things are going to come up that you’ll gloss over, in order to leave room for growth. These are promises.
Suppose your main character is half human, half Twysdrn (just an example), and she’s stuck with a sidekick who despises the Twysdrns for whatever reason. Luckily, the main character doesn’t look like she’s half Twysdrn, but we all know these two characters are going to come into conflict sometime. That’s a promise you’ve made without even realizing it. Somewhere along the way, you’re going to augment their subplot until things blow out of control, but we all know the two characters are going to get back together and defeat evil. When that happens, you’ve completed your obligation– you’ve kept the promise you made in the beginning.
The same goes for promising romance and conflicts, but promises concerning ideas or explanations are a little bit different. Explanations are simple– hint at something, and the readers will remain curious until about your midpoint, when you explain everything. Ideas and concepts, however, are interesting.
Do you remember the Marvel Mistake? Basically, the hero makes a small mistake at the beginning of the story, when he’s learning to use his powers/cope with this new world of his. He later masters that mistake and tricks his enemy into making the same one. That’s an example of an idea promise.
When you make a promise about an idea or concept, you promise to use that idea or concept later in the novel. For instance, your human/Twysdrn main character might, in the course of their quest, realize that her sword explodes when she bites the hilt. She sits up, dusts herself off, and puts the sword carefully away, thinking she’ll never bite that sword again (although it really was tasty, and the comic relief character needed a chew toy). Later in the novel, the characters are hard-pressed. The main character is weakened, surrounded by her enemies, who bear special Twysdrn-half-breed-killing weapons. Suddenly, she gets an idea and sticks her sword in her mouth. The ensuing explosion blows her enemies away.
The first part of this Marvel Mistake was a promise to the reader– this is something that no one could have seen coming, but now that we know how to use it, it’ll make a good tool. Those promises create the ultimate fan moments.
Promises made in the beginning of the story, however, aren’t the only promises to watch out for. Some promises are fulfilled without ever having been made, creating anything but the effect the writer wanted.
Consider, for a moment, the above example of the exploding sword. What would happen if you forgot to add the Marvel Mistake? The main character goes through her quest without realizing her sword could explode if she gets hungry. Now her enemies surround her. Her swordsmanship has always left something to be desired, and she can’t fight off this many foes. Befuddled, she sticks her hilt in her mouth and chews it, trying to think of a solution. Her sword explodes, knocking away her foes.
What is that? It’s a coincidence! Even in the final battle, when things have stopped getting worse and worse, you cannot use a coincidence to get your character out of trouble. (That’s called a Deus Ex Machina.) In this case, you fulfilled a promise you hadn’t made in the beginning. You’re a time traveler, trying to fix things when there was no problem in the first place. You’re creating an emotional release without the tension that makes that release possible.
So how do you fix this? I think that’s obvious– create a situation in which you promise something early on in the story. You really are a time traveler. Stick that sword-biting thing in early so the emotional payoff later will exist. Without it, you’ve just got a coincidence. In order to fulfill a promise, you need to promise it first.
The last part of this is extremely important: define what constitutes a fulfilled promise. The promise of romance is easy– have the characters take the next step, whatever that may be. Sometimes characters go an entire book without kissing, then at the end of the book they kiss. That fulfills the promise. With plot promises, it’s the same. At the beginning, the character promises to defeat whatever antagonist he or she is pitted against; at the end, he or she shall defeat said evil. That’s the end of the plot– if the characters die directly afterward, that’s still a satisfying ending. If you promise a happily ever after and kill the characters at the end, however, you’re sunk.
For instance, we can learn from a bad example: the Inheritance Cycle! (If Paolini didn’t want it to keep rolling around in my posts, he shouldn’t have made it a cycle.) Through all four books, we are promised an enormous emotional payoff through the romantic subplot. Sure, I didn’t really like the couple in question, but there was a promise there, and I wanted to see it kept. It wasn’t. After building romantic tension up to fever pitch, Eragon sails away to a new life and leaves his love interest behind without any sort of conclusion. The promise was forgotten. Paolini could have created a satisfying ending to this subplot and then ended the whole thing with Eragon’s sendoff, but he didn’t. It was unfortunate.
A satisfying ending is a happy ending. Fulfilled, a promise can create an enormous emotional payoff. Left unattended, however, it can destroy a story’s ending.
A promise at the beginning of the story is just a useless scene, a disappointment, if not fulfilled by the end of the book. If you leave it like that, the reader will see your story as having potential, but incomplete– not worth the read, but perhaps worth a rewrite. (Consider, for instance, my long-ago review of Dormia— I said almost the same words about that book.)
A promise that was never promised is another useless scene– an emotional payoff without the emotional payoff. You want to stay away from coincidences, and the way to get past this one is the same as any other coincidence: foreshadow. Create expectations for the promise, then fulfill the promise. The emotional payoff will be astounding.
Finally, know what you mean by a fulfilled promise. If your romantic subplot includes life beyond the end of the book, don’t kill your main characters– neither should you make it uncertain whether the promise was ever fulfilled. However, if your promises only include the defeat of the antagonist and perhaps a kiss, feel free to kill anyone you want. Know what you’re doing, and you’ll be fine.
Promises have so much to do with fiction. They are our hooks at the beginning, our tension in the middle, and our resolution at the end. Don’t treat them as things you might get to eventually– they are your livelihood. Treat them as such.