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

16.51: Promises are a Structure

Your Hosts: Howard Tayler, Kaela Rivera, Sandra Tayler, and Megan Lloyd

Our next 8-episode intensive is all about promises and expectations. Our guest hosts are Kaela Rivera, Sandra Tayler, and Megan Lloyd. They’re joining us to talk about how the promises we make to our audiences, and the expectations they bring with them, are a structural format. In this episode we introduce the topic, and talk about some apex examples of success and failure in this area.

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

Liner Notes: Here’s the story of The Tropicana Packaging Redesign Failure.

Homework: Consider your newest “favorite thing,” whether it be a restaurant, a film, a TV series, a novel, a podcast, a webcomic, a computer game, or whatever. Ask yourself what promises were made to you by this thing, why you believed the promises would be kept, and how they were (or were not) kept. Write all this down.

Thing of the week: The Monster at the End of This Book, by Jon Stone, and illustrated by Mike Smollin.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key points: Promises and expectations. A structural layer. A troubleshooting tool. Audience expectations are what they bring with them. Promises are what you make, which set the audience expectation for what is coming. Be aware that audiences have a head full of stuff that you have no control over. This interacts with audience bias and diversity. The bookshelf genre vs. the elemental genre. Set the expectation, deliver on it, and make it delightful. Deliver more than the reader expects! 

[Transcriptionist note: I may have mislabeled one or more of the speakers.]

[Season 16, Episode 51]

[Howard] This is Writing Excuses, Promises are a Structure.

[Kaela] 15 minutes long.

[Sandra] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Megan] And we’re not that smart.

[Howard] I’m Howard.

[Kaela] I’m Kaela.

[Sandra] I’m Sandra.

[Megan] And I’m Meg.

[Howard] I’m so excited to have three brand-new to you guests, guest hosts, here with us on Writing Excuses. We’re going to go ahead and start by letting them introduce themselves. Kaela. Take it away.

[Kaela] Hi, everybody. I’m Kaela Rivera. I am the author of CeCe Rios and the Desert of Souls, a middle grade Latinx fantasy about a girl who becomes a bruja in order to rescue her kidnapped sister. It also just last month, or recently, has won the Charlotte Huck Award for 2022, so that was really exciting.

[Howard] Outstanding. Now, you say just last month and then you say recently. You realize this airs… This episode is going to do something that very few of our episodes ever do. It’s going to air the day after we record it.

[Kaela] Well, then, I’ll stick with a month ago.


[Howard] Fantastic. Congratulations. Sandra?

[Sandra] Hi. I’m Sandra Tayler. I’m a writer of speculative fiction, picture books, and blog entries. My most recently published books are Strength of Wild Horses and Hold onto Your Horses, which are a pair of picture books. But I also write short stories which I post to my Patreon, and you can find it over at patreon/Sandra Taylor. I’m also the Sandra of which Howard sometimes mentions at various times on Writing Excuses. Because we share a house and some children and a business.


[Howard] And Sandra is understating a little bit her latest books. Every time a Schlock Mercenary book comes out, it has seen the editorial hand of Sandra in all of the content and the layout hand of Sandra Tayler in everything. And Sandra’s done a bunch of writing for the new Extreme Dungeon Mastery book that’s coming out.

[Sandra] This is true.

[Howard] So, lots of stuff. I sometimes have to remind Sandra how awesome she is.

[Sandra] I was trying to be brief.


[Howard] Brief is fine. Brief is fine, but… Okay. Meg. Megan. Meg.

[Megan] Hi, everyone. I really just have one name, but it just sounds weird when you pair it with my last name, so… My name is Megan Lloyd. I am a storyboard artist and screenwriter working in the animation industry out in Los Angeles. I’ve storyboarded on a number of really cool shows. Some of my favorites that have released recently are Jurassic World Camp Cretaceous and Star Trek: Lower Decks. On top of my work as a board artist, I also write and also do development art for projects early on in the can, let’s say.

[Howard] So… You… Early on… And on is one of those anywhere a cat can go prepositions. Another anywhere a cat can go prepositions is under is in under nondisclosure.

[Megan] Yes. That’s the one.


[Howard] I mention cat because for those of you not benefiting from the visual video feed, which is pretty much everybody except the four of us, Meg has a cat perched on the back of her chair, which is kind of amazing.

[Megan] Isn’t he horrible?

[Howard] [garbled I didn’t know you could] get cats to do that.

[Howard] All right.

[Very cute]

[Howard] Promises are a structure. For the next eight episodes, we are going to talk about promises and expectations as a structural layer, as a troubleshooting tool, is a way in which you can look at what you’re working on and determine whether or not you’re correctly setting expectations, whether you’re making promises that you plan to keep, whether you’re… What’s the jargon? Writing checks that are going to bounce? I was tempted, because this is an eight episode intensive, I was tempted to call it (sunglasses) Eight Expectations.


[Howard] Explosion.


[Howard] But then I would have to enumerate this, break it into eight discrete parts. Because eight expectations is making a promise that I’m not actually prepared to keep.


[Howard] This is a little more fluid than that. I do want to layout something, though, that promises and expectations are not truly interchangeable terms. In marketing, audience expectations are things that you set, or that you need to be aware of when you are doing your marketing. They… An audience will bring their expectations with them, before anything has happened. When we talk about promises, usually that’s because something you have said or done or written or put on the cover or whatever has made some sort of a promise to the reader, has set their expectations for something which is coming. I also want to point out that audience bias is huge here. Now, I’ve just done a lot of talking.

[Sandra] Well, I…

[Howard] I’m going to throw this one of to our… Sandra, go ahead.

[Sandra] Yeah. I was just going to say that last piece that you mentioned is a huge piece, because anytime you create a thing, audience is going to arrive at the thing with a head full of stuff that you have no control over. So one of the most important things to, as you are setting expectations, it is important to have a feel for kind of the Zeitgeist and kind of societal… If you placed your book as a fantasy novel, then the world at large is going to have a set of stuff in their head that they think fits fantasy novel and if yours doesn’t fit, then you have to adjust their expectations for what you mean. So it becomes a… Expectations is always a conversation with audience. Sometimes it’s a conversation that is like a message in space where you package it all up and then send it out and wait a minute and a half to get their response and you hope that you packaged it well. Other times, it’s much more conversational, where you can actually adjust on the fly. But… Yeah.

[Kaela] I would agree with that. I’d also say that there’s an interesting way that this interacts with, like, say, diversity in literature. When people come in, they don’t have any expectations, or they have very unfortunate expectations, or they have such an unfamiliarity with the subject matter that they expect to be taught everything, versus, like, for example, writing Cece, which is… It’s a complete alternate fantasy world, but it is set in… Inspired by the setting of Mexico in the 1920s to 30s, which is a very unfamiliar place and time for most people. So there was a lot of difficulties in getting… Initially, getting people to be willing to take that adventure on a fantasy in that kind of a space versus a medieval English sort of [sci?] fantasy. Because, again, you can’t write everything for everybody’s expectations, either…

[Sandra] No. I love that you bring up the diversity angle, because this is actually… And I’m sure you actually have more personal experience than I do, but a lot of times, publishing expectations for what we are looking for mean that some of the more diverse and alternate viewpoint novels get bounced because they don’t meet publishing expectations. That is actually a lot of what the conversation about let’s broaden what we’re offering is making more space for people to read works in which they are not centered, and learn how to engage with works that ask them to stretch a little bit.

[Howard] Let me point out here that during the next eight episodes, we’re going to talk about how genre, the genre you’re working in… And that can be what we call the bookshelf genre, which is where the publisher has put your book, or the elemental genre, which is what you think you’re really writing to. How those make promises and set audience expectations. As well as what kind of prose you use. What kind of cover art shows up? How weird it would be to have, say, a paranormal romance that doesn’t have a magical looking female on the cover anywhere. That would just be odd. The promises made by foreshadowing. The promises made, and then broken, by red herrings. These are all things that we’re going to cover.

[Howard] What I’d like to talk about now is are there some good examples of things that you’ve consumed, and it can be books, it can be media, it can be anything. Good examples of something that made a promise and then kept it for you in a way that was wonderful.

[Sandra] Oh. There’s so many. It’s like… But… You asked that question and, of course, my brain goes completely blank. Even though I’ve had time to study before. Right now, currently airing is Hawkeye on Disney Plus. They’ve got one episode left, and it feels like they’re going to land it. Like, all the way through, it’s been kind of predictable for me in a delightful way. It’s like, “Oh, this is going to happen next,” and then it does. It makes me happy every time, because they set an expectation and then they delivered it and they made me laugh a little bit. So right now for me, Hawkeye is living in this sweet spot of being exactly what I’m expecting and yet not being boring for it. So I’m really enjoying that one.

[Howard] What about you, Meg?

[Megan] I’m going to plug the Netflix animated series Arcane. Which, the expectation is, “Wow, this art style is beautiful. Will it look like this all the way through?” Yes, it does. Not only that, but they’re telling a very compelling and emotional story, that, like Sandra said, sometimes you can see what’s coming only because of how they’ve set it up, but it’s a very satisfying show to watch. Especially from a character development standpoint. And also visually beautiful.


[Howard] I wanted to bring up, just very briefly, Star Trek: Lower Decks because that opening scene of the first episode where they’re… He’s trying to record a Captains Log and then we find out he’s not actually a captain, he’s… So this expectation has been set that were going to take Star Trek tropes and we’re going to turn them on their head. Then she’s pulling things out of a box, and you realize, “Oh, it’s going to throw all the Star Trek nerdery at us as well. All the trivia.” Then, she accidentally slices deep into his leg with the bat’leth and we roll credits. We realize, “Oh, this is going to do some ridiculous things.” So, yeah, Lower Decks has been great.

[Howard] Before we move any further, though, I want to plug, or one of us should plug the book of the week. Who’s got that?

[Kaela] I do. I’m excited. So I chose for the book of the week The Monster at the End of This Book. Which is an old… Back from my child, little golden book, Sesame Street book with Grover the monster. I love it for talking about expectations because it’s right there in the title. You are promised, in the title, that there is going to be a monster at the end of this book. Then the entire book is about Grover being scared that there’s going to be a monster coming at the end of the book. Then, when you turn to the last page, Grover discovers that the monster at the end of the book is him, because he is a monster.


[Kaela] It is all safe, and adorable. Throughout the whole book, it’s very interactive with a child because, “Oh, don’t turn the page! Don’t turn the page, you’ll get us closer to the monster.” But I really love it because it totally sets up an expectation, and then walks you through. Then, right at the end, twists it to make the monster safe. It’s a delightful, joy-filled romp. So, if you are unfamiliar with this book, I highly recommend you go check it out and pick it up. Because it is a true classic.

[Howard] I love the illustrations where Grover has built this barrier. Now you can’t turn the page. I’ve bricked it up. You turn the page, and the next page is covered in brick rubble. Because you smashed through the wall that Grover made.

[Howard] I want to take a moment now to talk about some apexes. Exemplars and failures and the apex… What I’ve been told is apex middle ground. Have any of you seen Million Dollar Baby?

[No. Chuckles… I… Yeah, makes sense. Chuckles… I have not. I was young when it came out, and therefore not encouraged to go to the theater to see this movie. Mostly because of, I think what you’re going to talk about, the unexpected twist in the middle that completely changes the expectation of I thought this was going to be a fun sports movie.]

[Howard] Yeah. It’s… Here’s what’s fun about it, and why it’s… It’s an apex example of this middle ground. It has 90% positive critical reviews and 90% positive audience reviews across thousands of reviews on Rotten Tomatoes. Which is kind of weird, because when the movie came out, all I remember hearing was audience noise about “Hey, you promised me a sports movie and then you gave me something that was actually about euthanasia.” That’s not young people in the far east, that’s euthanasia all one word. Very deep. Very, very dark. But. What it did, it did brilliantly. My… I’m sorry, Rumba, I don’t know if you can hear the beep, but Rumba is behind me saying something about “I’m charged. I need attention.”

[It just wants to be included]

[Howard] “The floor is dirty. Please let me eat.” I don’t know what Rumba wants.


[Howard] My best example of an apex failure is the Tropicana Pure Premium art. Where, in January of 09, they replaced the orange with a straw stuck in it with a glass with orange juice in it. They paid like $30 million to an ad agency, to a marketing firm, to create this. They… Their sales dropped 20%, they replaced the old artwork a month later, and the whole debacle cost them well over $50 million. Apex exemplars? Do we have another apex exemplar? We need to wrap this up and begin talking about some of the specifics that we can be doing for making promises in our next episode. So, who’s got an apex exemplar for us?

[Kaela] I have an example. So, I think that the Lunar Chronicles actually does a great job of this. I know I’ve talked with people about when you’re really excited about the kind of idea that someone’s pitching you, but they don’t really lead into it and the story kind of swerves off. That’s really easy to do in a series as well, because you have multiple entries into this gargantuan story. But, the Lunar Chronicles, at least for me, did an excellent job of what it set out to do. I mean, it was like, “Hey, we’re going to do fairytales. But it’s in a futuristic sci-fi setting. How about that?” I was like, “I’m down. I want to hear more. Cinderella as a cyborg? Keep talking.” With each story, it does that. Where you get a really strong first entry, and it’s… It also creates… It culminates across the book into an overall very satisfying rebellion story where you can actually buy that the rebellion has happened and that it will work and how each main character does this. I love how it delivers even more than you expect. Like, you get… The second entry in the series, which is about… It’s a retelling of Red Riding Hood and the Wolf, right? But by the end of the series, they have done that story so it’s also Beauty and the Beast. You’re like, “Oh, my goodness! It’s also Beauty and the Beast.” [Garbled] Then, Rapunzel being… Rapunzel being… There’s no tower that makes sense in a sci-fi setting. She’s stuck in a satellite. You’re like, “Oh, my goodness. That makes so much sense.” You get all of the isolation, all of the same issues. But it makes so much sense in its setting. Each person adds up across the series to a really satisfying closure. The Snow White makes sense because, from the beginning, there’s the evil queen already, that you know about from all books. Then you find out, like, near the end, you’re like, “Oh, wait a second,” before you get to that last book, you find out, she has a stepdaughter. You’re like, “Oh. Is it going to be Snow White?” Then you open the last book and it is. It’s just such a great delivery on…

[Howard] That’s awesome.

[Kaela] Everything that you were hoping for.

[Howard] That’s awesome. Okay. Well, we are out of time, and I have your homework. So. Consider your newest favorite thing. It can be a restaurant, a film, a TV series, a novel, web comic, computer game, whatever. Ask yourself what promises this thing made to you. What expectations were set for you for this thing? Now… Write this down. Then ask yourself why you believed these promises would be kept and how they were or were not kept. So there’s your homework. We’re going to have seven more episodes about promises and expectations. We hope you’re here for all seven. You are out of excuses. Now go write.