Promises. You make them to create hooks, you fulfill them to create satisfaction, and you ignore them to keep things from being too satisfying too soon. I’ve spoken about this in depth before. The general idea, however, is that readers keep reading because they’re looking for the fulfillment of each promise– whether the promise is unraveling a mystery, or defeating an antagonist, or learning from mistakes. At the end of the story, all the promises are fulfilled all at once, creating enormous satisfaction.
But the end of the story isn’t the only place to fulfill promises. Most promises are fulfilled at the very end of the story, sure, but a promise could be fulfilled as soon as it’s made, and anywhere between there and the end. But as always, there are problems inherent in this technique.
It’s tempting, as you fulfill promises halfway through the story, to just keep fulfilling promises. That’s great until you realize you don’t have a story to tell anymore now that the character’s reached their potential. Even so, however, the tendency is to keep the character at a hugely capable high, where they can end the story in a few twitches of their magical fingertips. Don’t do that. Sure, you can tell the rest of the story with that character, but it won’t have tension, emotion, or anything pulling the reader along. Since the promises have been fulfilled, the story is, essentially, over.
Learn from Brandon Sanderson, in The Way of Kings. He fulfills so many promises over the course of the story. His main character is almost constantly capable, sympathetic, and proactive– but as I realized a while ago about capable characters, he has a big problem hanging over his head. Furthermore, to remind us of that, each time the character fulfills a promise and gives us another burst of satisfaction, his big problem comes back to bite him. Yes, he’s capable. Yes, he’s proactive. Yes, he’s sympathetic. But he has one big promise still unfulfilled, which drives him to the end of the story. Fulfill your promises carefully– don’t fulfill all of them at once.
It’s also tempting to drop promises once you’ve fulfilled them. With some promises that’s okay– if the main character is hungry, getting them a sandwich would fulfill their promise fairly quickly, and we don’t have to hear about their sandwich again. However, if the promise is unique, you have to be careful. A romance promise, for example. Usually a story has only one romance plot line for each main character. Even if they like two or more people at once, it’s all part of the same plot line, and therefore the same promise. If you fulfill that promise halfway through, to drop it would be to destroy all the work you did to make it satisfying.
Learn from Amy Tintera, in Reboot. She has a wonderful romance plot line going for about half the book, where she fulfills it and wraps it up with a bow. There is plenty of other conflict around to keep the story moving, but that subplot stagnates. It was such a source of tension and emotion at the beginning of the story that when it’s finally resolved, sure it’s satisfying, but it leaves a hole that the rest of the story fails to fill. Even though everything is going wrong and the story is roaring past, the romance itself was motionless and boring. I thought the same of Rick Riordan’s Heroes of Olympus series. Riordan fulfills the romance angle at the end of the Percy Jackson series, then introduces a new style of conflict at the beginning of HoO. He fulfills that promise at the beginning of the third book, then lets it go for the rest of the series (at least through book four). Although Riordan claimed that the fourth book was the book meant for fans of that romance, it stagnated for me just because there were no new promises to follow, no new satisfaction at the end. He fulfilled his promise, then dropped it.
This isn’t only for romance, of course. Any promise that provides a good amount of tension will have this effect if dropped. If half of the book obsesses over food supply and hunger, then the main character finds a sandwich and the entire thing is finished for the rest of the book, the readers feel cheated, led into something they didn’t agree to. If your promise is fairly small and doesn’t provide much attention, dropping it is fine. If the promise is unique and takes a big part of the story, acknowledge it even once it’s been fulfilled.
With that, it’s tempting to fulfill the promise, then wrench it away from the protagonist, just to create more tension. That’s the idea of the love triangle in the second book of a trilogy– while the romance was completed in the first book, there needs to be tension in the second book, and the author adds another guy or girl to keep things rolling. It’s annoying. The same goes for within a single book; if you fulfill a promise, then promise the same thing again by wrenching it away, it will annoy people. It might seem impossible to find a different solution, considering how many successful authors have gone the wrong route. However, it is both possible and easy to do. Look at it as a sequel in the middle of a story.
Learn from Disney, in Frozen. They fulfill an enormous promise early on in the movie– Elsa’s big Let It Go number. But that’s not all they do. As with The Way of Kings, there’s a bigger problem involved in that fulfillment. While Elsa’s story is technically over (all promises involved with her are fulfilled right there), she isn’t the only person involved with all this. The story continues by showing what happens after her promises are fulfilled.
I’m sure you’ve read a book or seen a movie where you can’t imagine that everything was perfect after the ending, even though it was satisfying. What about Star Wars, with all those renegade Stormtroopers and officers running around? What about The Lord of the Rings, life in Gondor with a king again, or life without Frodo, or life in Lorien? (Well, Lorien never really changes.) Imagine the promise as its own novel and imagine what comes next. Basically, find another promise in the first’s fulfillment. If the protagonist gets a sandwich, add indigestion, or the need for sandwiches for their friends. Think about it as if you need a sequel. Never steal satisfaction out of the reader’s hands; continue the story in a way that follows naturally.
I think my favorite promise fulfilled halfway through appears in The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss. I won’t give it away, but it was amazing. Rothfuss passed each of these temptations with flying colors, not fulfilling everything at once, following the same aspect of the story for the rest of the book with the same amount of involvement. Do you want to see how well this can be done? Read The Name of the Wind. Read The Way of Kings. Epic fantasy, I think, has the most potential for promises fulfilled in the middle.
Satisfaction isn’t meant exclusively for the end of a story. Dole out resolutions carefully along the way. They build engagement and tension alike until it’s time to completely satisfy all your readers.