Friday, June 8, 2012

The Reader's Contract

When the reader approaches a novel, s/he has a vague feeling of what it's about based on the cover art, blurbs, and/or reviews. As the reader commences to read, s/he should have some questions begin to form: Who is the body in the library? Who put it there? Who murdered the girl?

When this happens there is an implied contract between reader and writer. "Keep reading and I'll show you the answers to these questions." There are some things a writer ought never do, and failing to honor this contract is a Bad Thing. The longer the reader goes without these answers, the more impatient s/he is going to become. You don't want this.

And you don't want to be too hasty about answering all the story questions. It's a good thing for the writer to answer a question while raising another, bigger question. OK, the Bohemian guy put the body in the library, but why was she already dead when he found her in his living room?

I like Science Fiction, particularly, Space Opera. Any SF writer worth his/her salt will be adept at "world-building" creating a future history and populating that future history with various institutions and social constructs. The biggest mistake a rookie writer can make is to spend the opening ten pages of his novel describing the secret colonization of Sirius, the rise of the Terran Empire, and the Jim-Jones-In-Space cult called Camelot. The reader doesn't want to wade through the wars of Independence that brought about the stable configuration of great powers and non-aligned worlds that make up human space a few centuries from now. But the science fiction writer must know all this and keep track of it as scaffolding. Most never sees the light of day, but some of it spices up the narrative along the way through your story.

The reader parachuted into a Space Opera is immediately confronted with a bunch of story questions about the nature of the world s/he's reading about.

This is what I felt like when I began reading The Long Way Home, by Sabrina Chase. The story starts with a space battle with mercenaries and Fleet going up against aliens.

The hero is Moire, a girl who's on the run, and a very good pilot. She single-handedly saves the day for the humans and the reader clearly sees she's a tortured soul who's gone through hell. But we don't know anything about why and how she suffered. We have to read more to find out.

This is the stuff of page-turners.

What follows is the girl having adventures and keeping one step ahead of the evil corporation who's after her as well as a love-interest Fleet investigator who wants to arrest her for the Fleet's own reasons.

All along the way, she's just a decent person and that decency causes her to win friends. But to prevent the evil corporation from hurting those friends, she has to move on and abandon them. We see Moire sort of come out of her shell, but she doesn't really become a leader until the last quarter of the novel. Could Ms. Chase done a better job of showing Moire make that change? Mebbe.

The book had a Firefly/Serenity feel to it, and the evil corporation's chief minion had something of The Operative about him. And I think The Operative is the gold-standard for villainy.

The trouble with a book like The Long Way Home is that there are too many story questions in the first chapter to answer in the scope of a single novel. Most of those answers raise questions like "what's she gonna do about this?"

And this is why it requires a series of two or three novels to deliver satisfying answers to the reader. Happily, Ms. Chase is working on those sequels. I can hardly wait for them.

The bottom line is that you want to be intentional about how you disclose things to the reader and what you must NEVER DO is leave any story-question unanswered. I suggest you ask your beta-readers to keep a diary of story-questions that they consider while reading your work. Then you should take steps to make sure that every story-question has an answer either in this novel, or in a sequel.

Oh, and in The Big Sleep, how did the Sternwood's chauffeur die?

Was it murder or suicide?

Like I said, get your beta-readers to keep a diary of story-questions.


  1. Hi and thank you for this article. I am agree with it. Good luck:)

  2. very true. I write short stories and even though I don't include a lot in my narrative I always know the back story of my characters.

    1. I've written elsewhere about the stuff not included in the narrative that you must know. I call it "scaffolding" and my post on the subject is here.


Those more worthy than I: