Writing Excuses 5.19: Fulfilling Promises to Your Readers

Last week we wormcanned “fulfilling promises to the reader,” so this week we’ll tackle the discussion using actual examples. We start with a deconstruction of The Longshoreman of the Apocalypse, which Howard wrote and illustrated in 2008 and 2009. We then spoil the story of the game Borderlands, talking about the woefully-unfulfilled promise made to the player. We also spoil Legion for you, but that film kind of ruined itself. A lot. At any rate, in both of these latter cases we talk about the promises being broken.

Then we talk about how we, as writers, know when we’re making promises to the reader, and what those promises are.

Dan talks about how, in the first draft of I Am Not a Serial Killer, the main character won out in the wrong way, and how he had to go back and fix the ending. He also talks about the biggest complaint anybody has with that book, and how that stems from the plot twist that, to some readers, breaks a promise inherent in the book’s genre. And that leads us into a discussion of Million Dollar Baby and of the first outline of Mistborn, which could have had a very, very disappointing ending.

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: The World Without Us, by Alan Weisman, narrated by Adam Grupper

Writing Prompt: Pick a typical promise that a child might make, and use that as the promise you’re making to your readers.

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44 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 5.19: Fulfilling Promises to Your Readers”

  1. To expand a little, the idea of The Vault was cool. I was intrigued, and excited when I got closer to the end. It was being built up the entire game as this awesome place filled with treasure, weapons, etc. Couldn’t wait to see what it looked like, and what rewards it would net me as a player (ultimate weapons to use for the next playthrough? Maybe with each time you beat the game, you get something better?)

    Then, you’re basically told by the woman guiding you along, “Sorry, there is no Vault. If I didn’t say the Vault was filled with treasures, we were all going to die. Thanks!”

    The end.


    Didn’t ruin the game outright, I still had a blast playing it (and still do on occasion :) ). But, yeah, from a storytelling standpoint, ccmpletely lame.

  2. I see someone here has played Portal, as well.

    One thing that perhaps should be added to the discussion: as a writer, you have to make promises. You can’t say, “I will prevent breaking promises by not making any promises to begin with.” Because, really, there is an acute connection between your hooks and your promises. Promises are advertisements, and you have to keep advertising, even after the show has already started.

    If done successfully, the reader should say at the end of the book, “This was exactly what I was expecting and a little bit more.

  3. I disliked the Borderlands ending, but slightly less after I considered that the entire storyline (as vague as it was) kind of hinted at this, starting with the planet being named Pandora, and we were opening it’s “vault”

    Overall still poor storytelling though. However, Vader being eaten by a space Lobster would’ve been epic! <__<

  4. i just finished listening to the entire writing excuses catalogue (at least the topics that pertained to me and what i am trying to accomplish) over the last 3 weeks and have to say, thanks! I started working on my first book and though i think my instincts were pretty good, what you have shared has helped give a sharper focus to my vision and craft. Also, i’ve gained a great deal more confidence as i am resolved to see my book completed. Another great episode and another devoted listener… and thats a promise!

  5. Terry Brook’s “Gypsy Morph” he failed to fire Chekhov’s TANK… In a book where the main characters are running from an army of demons the only thing this tank does is breakdown at a time convenient to the plot. Twice.
    This was so frustrating to me that I haven’t read his Landover book I picked up at the same time. I’m not sure when I’ll get over it and be able to enjoy his books again. I have a bad taste in my mouth just thinking about it.

  6. Hmm….”I pwomise not to lie”? I think I’d have to break that one. “I pwomise not to break your stuff”? Well, all my books will be printed on C4 laced paper and explode randomly, so that’s tough to promise, too.

    I quite liked the surprise in “I Am Not a Serial Killer.” The degree of terror in that scene where the killer’s nature was actually revealed (and who it was) was so palpable mainly because it came more or less out of nowhere. I’m a fan of the profiling shows, so I knew enough to know that the guy broke standard profiling rules, but there are serial killers that break the rules without growing claws and absorbing body parts.

  7. Really good, interesting podcast. I think something related to this that I have difficulty with is beginnings, in that I have lots of “gorillas in phonebooths,” but I can’t deal with them all thoroughly right away–not without really slowing the story down. My thinking has been to try to tell the reader “I acknowledge this is a gorilla in a phonebooth, but it’s not as pertinent as these other three gorillas at the moment–we’ll get back to the other gorilla later,” but this is a tricky thing to pull off. People seem to always want to know everything about every single gorilla–right now. On one hand I see this as a good thing, because it makes the reader want to keep reading the story–but on the other hand it seems to often upset readers.
    I think a good film example of having lots of GIPs that aren’t dealt with right away is the movie Inception. For example, “What’s with the spinning top thing?!” could be something viewers could yell for the first half hour of the movie, before it’s finally explained that it lets Cobb know if he’s in a dream or not. Things like that didn’t bother me though because the movie was so exciting, intriguing, fast-paced, etc. Is that just the trick then? Keep the story exciting enough that readers don’t have time to stop and wonder about some of these GIPs? Which will be explained later?

  8. I read IANASK, and my wife did as well. Since I’m into sci-fi/fantasy, when John says “that was before the demon came” I just figured that he meant a real demon. But when my wife read it, she didn’t really process it. So when the killer was revealed, I wasn’t as surprised by the fact that he was a demon as I was by the kind of demon that he was. My wife wasn’t sure if she liked it, and didn’t return to reading the book.

    But there is a point about artistic integrity, because as soon as you have John Cleaver killing real humans instead of malevolent demons, then he really isn’t any different from a real serial killer.

    Also, Longshoreman was my favorite Schlock story so far, and it has everything to do with the revelation of the Longshoreman of the Apocalypse.

  9. The IANASK genre switch really threw me because I mistook which genre he switched to. I thought he switched to horror. I thought it was the horror monster reveal which as was mentioned once in a podcast practically kills a horror story.
    I then thought the book would be about facing this demon which seemed boring. When I continued reading and I understood ‘The killer is X ,who is also a demon.’ the story caught me again. Being a demon was only a part of the killer’s character.
    The killer being a demon hijacked the main plot because it stripped him of his humanity. It wasn’t until I realized he was not a mindless evil thing that everything clicked back together for me. Still it derailed the book for me for a while.

  10. I liked this show because it made me rethink the story I am currently writing. I my haste to have a big twist surprise ending, I had written a similar ending to what was described in that game. I had my hero getting beaten in the climax by the evil warlord. One of his own men killed him while he was distracted toying around with the injured hero. Now that ending doesn’t sound right to me so I am going to have to make some changes and allow the hero a better chance to do what she was born to do… or will I?

    Thanks for making me think about this.

  11. @Oletta: As Brandon pointed out during the ‘cast, deus ex machina is really just failed foreshadowing.

    If you’ve promised the reader that the hero will prevail through heroic action, then you need to foreshadow that some of his heroic action includes changing the hearts and minds of others, or something along those lines.

    This is typified in the ending of Return of the Jedi. Luke could not beat the Emperor, and could not bring himself to kill Darth Vader. But his heroism and devotion prompted Vader to dispose of the Emperor while the tyrant focused on torturing and killing Luke.

  12. Thank you. I suspected a problem with last week’s prompt. This podcast confirmed and identified it; I’d made a promise that I didn’t return to. Now to fix it.

    Until then, this week’s response: http://bit.ly/hXlMLI

  13. Regarding fulfilling (implied?) promises to your listeners… this isn’t in iTunes yet. How soon do these usually make it over there?

    Sigh. I guess my reward for wanting to listen to it promptly instead of forgetting about it until midweek the way I usually do is that I have to do things the hard way.

    I hate to complain but somebody’s gotta do it. :^)

  14. Another good one – though I would have liked at least a half hour on the subject.

    When I read IANASK, I was concerned a bit about the supernatural appearing so far into the story. It ultimately did not bother me, I like supernatural elements, but I wondered if other people would have a problem. And I couldn’t think of a way to introduce the possibility of the supernatural earlier in the book. Putting something on the cover sounds like a good way to get around that.

    Love Gorilla in the Phone Booth – though I sympathize. Is there anything harder to cut out than a joke? And Darth Vador is eaten by the Space Lobster – that got an out loud laugh from me. Any other categories? Perhaps a pithy name for the hard core SF that turns into a werwolf romance – though I guess that’s a bait and switch.

  15. ~ Howard

    Thanks for checking… but still not showing up for me at around 1:40pm Central. Oh well, already downloaded it manually and will enjoy it later today.

    I’m still new to iPod and iTunes, but I don’t think I’m doing anything too silly. I just type “writing excuses” into the iTunes store search bar and there’s everything from episode 4.22 up until episode 5.18. No episode 5.19 yet though.

    I thought someone was just being, er, inept, several weeks ago when this person had a similar problem. Now I’m entertaining all kinds of odd theories as to why it would show for people in some places and not in others for others. Vague notion of not-yet-updated local server caches possibly being used instead of going to the proper source in some lame corporate bid to save a tiny bit of money/bandwidth. Wandering off into story territory here… what could result from different experiences of reality where we’d expect realities to be the same… hm.

    Or maybe the Internet is achieving consciousness… and it hates me.

    Hey! There’s a decent writing promp—-
    ack! gack! keybrd stp tht11!
    ay my earS!! spekers u toooo?
    Hlep! my nmoniter flaching freq 4 epilpt seezr

  16. Hi. I really enjoyed this episode but would have like it to have been longer. I’m still having difficulty grasping the concept.

    I’m writing a YA Fantasy novel and the only promise I can think of is that curse that was placed on the main characters will be lifted at the end of the novel, but is that a promise to the reader or is it just the plot and how can I tell the difference.

    Would it be possible to post a few more examples or have a follow up podcast maybe going into more detail about to figure out what promises you are promising in your writing.


    David G. Lein

  17. Good podcast, guys. I specifically liked your Borderlands example; playing through it the second time the plot is just laughable because you realize that you don’t actually need to do anything. Your character could’ve been sipping martinis the whole time and the plot arguably would’ve turned out the same way.

    I was a little disappointed, though, that you didn’t have some more advice about identifying the promises in one’s own stories. As I’m writing the end of the first draft of my novel, I’m constantly worrying, “Have I foreshadowed this enough? Did I accidentally foreshadow something else?” Maybe just by thinking about it I’m more likely to catch those types of mistakes, but I’m afraid that I’ll throw a “Longshoreman moment” in there and not even realize it.

  18. Brad and David — I’ve forgotten which episode it was, but Howard has described how he identified promises he was making in a bonus story — he got some friends to read the beginning and tell him what they thought it promised. Sounded reasonable to me?

  19. Going to agree with others. I would like a podcast on how to identify the promises that you have made. I think this is one of the most important topics you guys could cover, so I would appreciate it if you took the time to get deep into it.

  20. Hrm. The discussion of IANASK and the supernatural element puts me in mind of a very similar situation… the Dexter books. You think going halfway through a book before introducing the supernatural element is disappointing for some people? Dexter goes through TWO books before finding out that his ‘Dark Passenger’ is really some sort of parasitic god-child hiding from its Evil God father… and, while I haven’t read the fourth book, I understand that there is no mention of this development at all.

    Interesting topic, as always. Got me thinking over my current story and wondering if I’m making the right promises. Right now, I worry that the story is building up too slow, that it might be boring to someone else… and, thus, that the promises are boring ones. And not ones that suit the kind of story I want to tell. I guess I’ll keep writing and see how it develops.

    As for the writing prompt, on first blush all I can come up with is this:
    Can you keep a secret??

    Shhh! Not so loud!

    So, can you? I can. I know lots and lots of secrets. All sorts of things. Stuff so cool, you’d want to know too. But I can’t tell. I never tell. That’s what makes it a secret. I never tell anyone my secrets.

    No! I can’t tell you! Then it wouldn’t be a secret! And I never tell secrets. It’s so cool having a secret, and knowing stuff that other people don’t know. I never tell. Never ever.

    Like, I never told Mom that it wasn’t the dog who ate the steak a couple of weeks back, Dad just dropped it on the floor. Or that Billy Jones has a HUGE crush on Samantha Kingswood and said he wants to kiss all her freckles. Or…


    Awwwww, man….

    Um… can you keep a secret?

    Not really my usual kind of story, but oh well.

  21. What about Red Herrings? What about when we WANT to throw readers off the scent with a gorilla in phone booth?

    Can listeners call Can of Worms?

    If you make a comment with only interrogatives is it really a comment?

  22. Red herrings and false protagonists. Can these be seen as breaking a promise to the reader? Have you guys done a podcast on red herrings and false protagonists?

  23. It was great to hear Dan talk about IANASK in terms of this topic. I certainly noticed the moment I realized that the book was going in a supernatural direction. Of course that means I cheered, since I love supernatural horror. I wouldn’t have wanted the book written differently in this regard…

    **slight spoilers below**

    …Specifically, John Cleaver had no more sense than the reader that there were demons in his world. So his shock and panic with that discovery worked really, really well. If a supernatural world had been hinted at early on I’m sure it still would have been a good book, but Dan would have had to work a bit harder to pull off that oh-my-gosh-there-are-demons moment and everything that John did to adjust and tackle what that meant for him would have seemed more inevitable and less ingenious and adaptive.

    Great podcast.

  24. @David, Brad

    The first time I was introduced to this concept was Nancy Kress’s “Beginnings, Middles, and Ends” which is one of my favorite books on writing ever. Your local library probably has a copy.

  25. So, correct me if I’m wrong, but what you are saying is basically twofold. If you spend any length of time developing something in your story you are making an implicit promise that there is a point to reading it, that it will be important to the story or have some payoff. Or if you mention something that begs an explanation, like a gorilla in a phone booth, you are implying that you will explain it sooner or later, preferably sooner

    Are there any other promises commonly made to readers aside from those two?

    Imagine you are having a conversation with a friend and you are talking about haunted houses. Then without any segue you start to tell this story about growing up in a small town. Your friend would think the story must eventually relate to haunted houses. If it doesn’t, the story, no matter how good it is will seem confusing and off topic. Is that the basic idea?

  26. I’m a grad student in the Publishing program at Portland State University and this winter I’m taking a class on Young Adult Literature. The class after this episode came out we were talking about our first book in class and I mentioned that there were some promises made at the beginning of the story that were not fulfilled. The response from my group: blank stares. Apparently no one in the class (or at least in my group) has taken a creative writing class, or even a literature class before. So I spent a good five minutes explaining this concept, which I think went very well thanks to this episode.

  27. @DallanRohlfing: That’s a good way to think about it. Story has this implicit promise, that the events are meaningful and related. Now, you may start with a combination of something familiar and something surprising, but somewhere along the way, you should show the reader (avoid telling them) how they are related. That gorilla in the phonebooth is fine, as long as somewhere along the way you give at least some hints that such a phenomena ties into the story somehow. Haunted houses and growing up in small towns… yeah, somehow relate them.

    As to other promises — part of this is genre based. For example, in mysteries, if the detective describes a list of stuff found in or around the victim or suspect, there’s a strong suspicion that something in that list is tied into the crime — and readers will happily scrutinize that list, thinking about ways that a wet handkerchief might relate to the strangling, and so on. And usually, along the way, several of the objects will be explained.

    Or look up plot vouchers… here it is http://www.ansible.co.uk/Ansible/plotdev.html for promises taken a bit too far.

    I think of this as the flipside of the admonition to make sure that everything in your story contributes to the plot. I.e., fulfilling promises to your readers says make sure that everything in your story has meaning, which in turn, contributes to the plot. Hope this helps.

  28. World Without Us is an excellent read for worldbuilders, especially post-apocalyptic worlds. I’d like to suggest another book, too.

    I have a serious pet peeve with most authors. They design worlds that are too compact to allow truly separate cultures to evolve. I am reading Brent Weeks’ Night Angel trilogy, and he does this. Robert Jordan is guilty of the same. There needs to be enough geographic separation between cultures for people to become culturally and genetically distinct. If you can walk from one kingdom to another all over your world, there is little hope that the people will look very different. It only works if you have large invading army coming from outside. If you live closely, there is too much genetic and cultural exchange.

    Take a look at Jared Diamond’s “Guns Germs and Steel” it is on audible. It talks a lot about the rise of civilizations, and cultures. He also has another book “Collapse” that talks about the fall of civilizations. They are both must-reads for worldbuilding.

  29. I think fulfilling promises is very important since essentially everything we put down on a page is a promise. If we describe a cherry as blood red, we just make a promise that something gruesome is coming. I was reading someone’s passage the other day, and in the middle of a plane crash scene, he used “reward” and a couple of other positive words. It drives me crazy because nothing positive comes out from the rest of that passage. So it’s not just the big promises we have to fulfill, but also the very small ones.

  30. I know this is from a while back, but I couldn’t help but think of Wheel of Time when Rand kills of one the male Forsaken by shooting a bar of balefire or something at him at the end of one of the books, maybe the end of #5? Rand wasn’t even completely sure he killed him. But he did. And this is a guy that had a huge scar across his face for thousands of years that he could have healed, yet didn’t because of the wrath he had for Rand/The Dragon. I was very sad about this, as I felt promised an awesome battle.

  31. Glad you warned me ahead of time that “I’m Not A Serial Killer” turned supernatural. I was indeed looking for for a psychopath vs a serial killer, not demons.

  32. Did anyone else feel in the movie Lincoln (WARNING: possible movie spoiler) that by going into biographical detail of each representative that it established a promise to the reader that they would do the same with John Wilkes Booth at the end?
    I certainly did. I fully expected that we would get to see Booth in the same detail as the reps, and when they did not go there and suddenly ended the movie with (what I feel) a cheap, anti-climactic trick, I was very disappointed, for this promise had been broken.

    Anyone else felt this way?

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