Promises, Promises: Increasing Reader Investment in Stories

May 17, 2022

I promise to bring you back a cupcake.

Imagine a five-year-old, sitting by the window and waiting for her mom to come home and hold out that cupcake—white swirls of icing with green sprinkles. Maybe chocolate, maybe vanilla. Or what if it’s something special, like red velvet?

Then the mom comes back.

A cupcake? Oh sorry, I forgot.

As writers, there are many ways we can disappoint our readers. Our job is to not let that happen. But in order to avoid disappointing our audience, we first have to understand what promises we’re laying down through our words.

1. What is a promise?

If you’re unfamiliar with the concept of promises, I suggest reading the chapter on promises in Steven James’ Story Trumps Structure or listening to Writing Excuses Podcast Season 5 Episode 19, linked Here. But as a quick summary, a promise is when you implicitly or explicitly tell your readers that the story is going a certain direction.

For example, the cheesy five-second stare in cartoons makes you think, “Oh, those two are definitely going to develop romantic feelings for each other.” Or maybe one of the characters has been talking about going to a book signing event for the past 30 pages and now it’s time for them to finally go.

Depending on how the author handles the culminating event—the “get together” or the book signing—readers will either feel satisfied that the event was all that it was promised to be, disappointed, or in some cases straight-up angry.

2. Explicit promises

An explicit promise is when you tell the audience exactly what to expect, either through the voice of the narrator or another character. For example: “Mom looked at Red Riding Hood with concern in her eyes. ‘Be careful in the woods,’ she said. ‘There’s a wolf on the loose.’”

This is an explicit promise that, during Red’s journey through the woods, she will at some point encounter a wolf.

3. Implicit promises

Weight and length.

Or, in other words, the more weight you put on something and the longer you talk about it, the bigger the promise you’re making to the reader.

Weight is literally the weight of the words you’re using. Does she “glance” or “stare”? Is it a “yellow flower” or a “golden rosebud”?

Length is how much time you spend describing something. If you spend an entire page describing the layout of the cathedral, then that cathedral better come back in a very important scene. If it doesn’t, then the readers will have felt like you wasted their time.

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Hopefully now you have an idea of what a promise is and how you make one, which means the next question is: As a writer, how do you keep them?

Keep your eye out for the next article in this series, Plot #2, for the answer to that question😉

2 responses to “Promises, Promises: Increasing Reader Investment in Stories”

  1. Is the mother talking about a wolf an explicit promise? It feels more like it is implying it to me. Could you explain a bit more?

    1. Sometimes it helps to think about implicit-explicit promises as on a spectrum. So if the mother were to say “you will meet the wolf if you go in the woods” that is a very explicit promise because it is telling the reader something will happen. While the mother saying “be careful, there’s a wolf in the woods” is more implied than the first example, you can still think of it as explicit in the sense that the reader now knows there is indeed a wolf in the woods, although you are right that it is not explicitly telling the reader that Red will be running into the wolf.

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