Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

16.29: Building Trust

Your Hosts: DongWon Song, Mary Robinette Kowal, Dan Wells, and Howard Tayler

How do we build trust with our readers? What does that even mean? In this episode we discuss ways in which we let our readers know what they can expect from the book they’re holding, and how we set about getting the to trust us do deliver on those expectations.

Credits: This episode was recorded by Marshall Carr, Jr., and mastered by Alex Jackson.

Homework: Write down every character in your first chapter on an index card. Write each character’s wants and needs? Ask yourself what stakes can be put on screen now.

Thing of the week: The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson.

NOTE: We’ll be talking about the first page of this book next week, so you may want to add at least page one of this book to your homework.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key Points: Think about hospitality. You are inviting the reader into a space you have created, and you need to make sure they feel comfortable and know what to expect. They need to know what kind of ride they are taking. What are the stakes? Help people decide whether they want to keep reading or put the book down. Set the expectations. Raise questions and answer them. Your starting stakes are not necessarily the stakes of the whole novel, but they should be a microcosm, a small bubble that shows us the kind of story this is.  

[Season 16, Episode 29]

[Dongwon] This is Writing Excuses, Building Trust.

[Mary Robinette] 15 minutes long.

[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Howard] And we’re not that smart.

[Dongwon] I’m Dongwon.

[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.

[Dan] I’m Dan.

[Howard] And I’m Howard. And you should trust me.


[Mary Robinette] Wow. We’re going to have to work really hard to convince the audience of that.

[Howard] It’s going to take more than the first line, I got to tell you.


[Mary Robinette] So, how can we build trust with the audience?


[Dongwon] So, one way I think about this is… One of my friends and clients, Amal El-Mohtar, has this really beautiful metaphor that… whenever she talks about writing a book, she uses this metaphor of hospitality. Right? You are inviting the reader into a space that you’ve made for them. Your part of your job as the writer, is the creator of this space, is to make sure they feel secure, they feel well cared for, and they feel comfortable. Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean you have to invite them into a cozy, friendly space. You might be writing a horror novel, and the thing that you’re inviting them into is a goddam haunted house right? So if you are doing that, then you are taking them and you are holding their hand and saying, “Trust me. I built you a scary experience.” But one of the things about a haunted house is you know what you’re signing up for. You know, at the end of the day, a murderer is not actually going to stab you. If you violate that boundary, then you’ve made a very bad experience for your reader. So one of the things you’re trying to do…

[Mary Robinette] They’ve been stabbed.

[Dongwon] Exactly.

[Dan] Now all I can think is how can I get that to work.


[Dongwon] But one of the things you want to communicate in the opening page is this is the kind of ride that you are on. This is the kind of story that you’re on. But also, I know what I’m doing and you should trust me. I’m going to take care of you. Right? I think those are important things you really want to communicate to get that sense of trust and also authority. Also, I am in charge here. This is my house. Welcome. This is my space. You’re going to be okay.

[Dan] Yeah. I really like the this is the ride you’re on metaphor, because that makes so much sense to me. I hate roller coasters. If I get on a ride at a park with my kids thinking that it’ll be some fun little like Peter Pan thing, and it turns out to be a roller coaster… I’m never going to that park again.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. A lot of this is just about things that we started talking about last week and the week before about establishing the breadcrumbs. There’s a number of different ways that you can build trust with the audience. One of those… One of my favorite tools to use is the voice of the character. I… Like, I enjoy… Whether I’m doing third person or first person, when I pick up a book, the voice… The tone tells me so much about what kind of character… The character of the book and it gets into the character of… The character. I’m a writer, I’ll go back and edit that later.


[Mary Robinette] But the point is that it… This, it your word choice, your sentence structure, what the character is thinking about, what you’ve kind of focused on, all sends a signal to the reader. This is… You’re going to get more of this. Come with me, and I’ll give you more of this.

[Dongwon] In addition to the voice, I think one of the things that really establishes what kind of ride we’re on… I think voice is sort of setting the stage, but then communicating the stakes of your story, I think, are one of the best ways to really communicate what are the dangers here, what are the threats here, what kind of genre are we in, what kind of story is this. By genre, I really mean sort of the concept of the elemental genre. Is this a thriller? Is this horror? Is this twisty? Is this a romance? The thing to think about stakes in this kind of goes back to what we were talking about last week in terms of don’t start with an action scene because violence and death are actually not great stakes in the beginning of a story because you don’t care about the character yet. Stakes are about relationships. We are people. So we are wired to connect to other people. I think that’s one of the main ways that stories work is we connect to a character’s experience. What makes that relatable is their relationships to other people. Right? Stakes are about a character’s connections, their feelings, their conflict between themselves and another person in the world, or sometimes a mind divided against itself. Sometimes an internal conflict within a character establishes the stakes of the story. I think as you can communicate that upfront, that can be the most effective way to sort of establish what kind of story and what’s on the table and where we’re going.

[Howard] I… In the first episode we did, Dongwon, you talked about nobody wants to read a book. Your first line is there to prevent people from throwing your book in the trash. I think that on the topic of building trust, at some point, you have to be willing, in that first page, to tell people if you don’t want to be on this ride, it’s okay to put this book down. Because there are people for whom this is not a book they want to read, and I would rather they know that soon then be angry at me for having found it out 60 pages later. The example that I use is the opening scene of the 2011 Three Musketeers movie in which a guy wearing steam punk-ish scuba gear emerges from the waters of Venice and fires repeating crossbows at his enemy. I looked at that scene and thought, “Oh. Oh, that’s the ride we’re on. Okay. I’m here.” But, you know what? If your suspenders of disbelief have already snapped, just pull your trousers up and leave the theater and be done. Because this isn’t a movie for you. So when I think about building trust, I want to make sure, yes, that I’ve planted the hooks so that everybody is going to read to the end of the first page. But then on the first page, I’m going to include things that tell people this is what you’re here for. If this isn’t you, it’s okay to leave.

[Mary Robinette] This is why when you… You will often hear me talk about like within your first 13 lines, try to get some hint of your genre element, preferably like within that first three. So that readers know what they’re in for. Using the example of the Three Musketeers, if we had started with a historically accurate beautiful court scene and then moved to the repeating crossbow, when you get to that, you will flip the table and storm out. Whereas the other way, you’re setting expectations. It’s like, “No. You’re going to get the pretty clothes, but that’s not what this book… This film is about.”


[Mary Robinette] So, a lot of it with this is making sure that the reader understands kind of the scope, in addition to all of those other things.

[Mary Robinette] Why don’t we take a moment here and pause for our book of the week?

[Dongwon] Yeah. So, our book of the week is actually going to connect to next week’s episode. So, we are talking about Shirley Jackson’s masterpiece, The Haunting of Hill House. This is one of the greatest horror novels of pretty much all time for me. I think it’s one of my favorite books ever. It’s very different though from what we expect if you’re thinking of horror as Steven King novels. It’s very moody. It’s very atmospheric. The thing that were going to be talking about is that first page. Really, almost just the first paragraph of that book. So, if you’re not really up for reading a whole horror novel, just feel free to read that first page. But for those of you who are open to it, I think it’s one of the most incredible pieces of literature out there. It is also an excellent TV show that’s been made out of it that has very little to do with the book, but it’s also very enjoyable.

[Mary Robinette] You… Thank you. So that’s The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson.

[Mary Robinette] You looked like you were about to say something right before we paused for the book of the week. What was that, Dongwon?

[Dongwon] Oh. Really, talking about this idea of setting those expectations in that first paragraph, when… One of the most important questions in publishing, I think, for me… Sometimes I talk about it as maybe the only question in publishing and everything else is some version of it, is deciding who this book is for. But when you decide this book is for this person, inherently in that statement you are saying this book is not for this other person. Right? That’s okay. It’s okay to have your book not be for a certain segment of the audience. Dan doesn’t like roller coasters. You shouldn’t try to make Dan get on your roller coaster. So, I think communicating that in the first part…

[Dan] Don’t say it that way, because now everyone is.


[Dongwon] I think really being clear about that is really important to let people opt out as much as you’re letting them opt in.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. Absolutely. The other thing, for me, when we’re talking about building trust, goes to something that Howard said last episode, which was raising a question and answering it. This is one of the things that I find… One of the most effective tools that you can do to build trust with the reader is… Because writing a novel, writing a short story, is about withholding information until the point at which you want to deliver it. So what you want to do is you want the reader to know that you will deliver the information when they need it. One of the ways you can do that is to raise a question and immediately answer it, raise a question and immediately answer it, raise a question… Don’t answer it. They know, “Okay. I’m not getting the answer right now because it’s not important at this moment. I will get it later.” But you want to make sure that those… That the ones that are kind of obvious questions, the ones that the reader is going, “well, hang on,” are thematically linked to the thrust of your story. Just a question for the sake of why is that happening is going to… Again, with the breadcrumbs, draw them down the wrong path. So, like when I’m talking about a thematically linked question, if you’ve got a murder mystery, why is that dead body on the floor, that’s a thematically linked question. You don’t want to immediately tell them why the dead body is on the floor, because they have to figure it out. Whereas if it’s a battle, why is that dead body on the floor isn’t the question. Right? That’s… It’s like, “Ah. There’s a dead body on the floor from a bullet wound. It looks like… It’s… One of the enemy soldiers is on the floor.” You want to answer the question almost before they get to it. So that they aren’t…

[Howard] To extend…

[Mary Robinette] It popping up.

[Howard] To extend the dead body metaphor…

[Mary Robinette] Which we love.

[Howard] The vast majority of us have never been in a room with a dead body. So, often the question is why am I reading a story about a person… Why is this person in the room with a dead body? Is this a police procedural? Is it a war documentary? What is it? So that’s… I like that question.

[Dan] Well, I think it’s important to… This is such a wonderful example, because you can illustrate a lot of different ideas with it. There are a lot of authors, and Dongwon mentioned this, I think last episode, that you have already spent hundreds of thousands of hours thinking about your book and your characters. So to you, this might not be a question. You might not realize by putting that dead body on the floor that you are posing a question to the reader. Perhaps what you’re trying to do by not explaining the body is to illustrate that the people in this war scene are inured to death and they are desensitized to violence. You’re just trying to show how grim and dismal their life is. But it actually is a question, and the readers are going to wonder about it and that’s going to lead them off track.

[Dongwon] Often times those questions, we also talk about them as story promises, right? You asked the question, you are promising to the reader I will address this in some way. Maybe in an offhand way, maybe in a small way, maybe a big way. I think when Mary Robinette was talking about that series of questions that are asked and answered, I think of those in terms of… As we talk about the story stakes, the way in which the stakes in your opening scene don’t have to be the stakes of your whole novel, right? Because if you’re giving… If you’re writing 150,000 word epic fantasy, the stakes of the whole novel are not going to exist in that first scene, and it would be madness to try and get them in there. But you need to give us some stakes, and those need to be thematically connected to the big stakes. But you’re doing a little microcosm, you’re giving us a small bubble in which we can understand the kind of story that we’re in and where we’re going to be going with that. So think about ways that you can have a nearer, smaller version of the stakes of the story as what’s in that first scene, what we’re engaging with there. So that then we have an idea of where it’s all going over the course of the 800 pages that come after this.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. One of the things that we talk about so often when talking about stakes, when talking about how to make a novel more immediate, is the character. The character of the no… The character that you’re along the ride on. Something that I have recently had an epiphany about… When Dongwon was talking about a mind divided against itself, that when you’re on a character story, that the essential question that the character is asking is who am I. That they’ve hit something that has caused them to have some doubts or some conflict about who they are. So you can begin to show those cracks in who… Who their understanding of themselves is even in that opening scene when they have to make a small version of a larger choice that they’re going to have to make later. That who am I… Am I the person who takes the call from my mom or am I the person who finishes ordering my coffee? That call later is about something much, much bigger. It’s… That’s a very small stake-y thing, but it is… It’s that who am I question can often lead to more specific and personal stakes later.

[Mary Robinette] Actually, Dongwon, do you have, speaking of characters, do you have homework for us?

[Dongwon] I do have some homework. The thing that I want you to do is to break down every character that appears in your first chapter. Ideally on an index card. Then, on those cards, write out what each character’s wants and needs are. What does the character think they want? What does the character need to get to resolve their arc? Then, ask yourself, what stakes are on the page there that you can work into this scene in an explicit way? If you have a strong idea of where each character is going, then you can start injecting those stakes and making sure there represented on the page in those opening scenes. I have a second piece of homework, which I mentioned briefly earlier. Which is, we’re going to be talking about specific examples for the next few episodes. Next week is going to be The Haunting of Hill House. So do yourself a favor and read that first page. Then when we get into the in depth conversation, you’ll have a little bit more context of where we’re going.

[Mary Robinette] Thanks so much. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses. Now go write.