I have a confession to make. I am still getting my ‘sea legs’ as a blog writer. I think a lot about the craft of writing. The profession fascinates me for its level of nuance and the many ways its tools can be used so differently and yet so successfully by a host of different writers. But it’s one thing to contemplate on the craft and it’s another to write about it in the manner of short musings.
I started this article as a commentary on the challenges of writing good fighting scenes. It quickly morphed into the “Authorial Promise” because to muse on the former, I first feel like I must cover the latter. So I’m going to delay my commentary on combat and will focus today on the promise.
Every book begins with a fundamental promise. It isn’t stated outright, but it emerges very quickly nevertheless. In this promise, the author tells the reader what kind of book they’re reading and what to expect. To some degree the genre itself forms part of this promise. A reader has different expectations when picking up military fantasy or high fantasy or paranormal fantasy or, to expand outward, thrillers, horror, historical fiction, or romance. Each genre has its expectations. Each one tends to approach character, setting, and action in different ways and different measures. A horror novel must horrify, and that horror must be the centerpiece of the story. Other genres may also horrify or they may not. And, of course, there are the blending of genres such as space-horror. Authors sometimes challenge norms and push the bounds of their genre to great effect. But whenever this is done, they risks alienating their audience. It has to be done in just the right measure.
One of the greatest promises an author makes, and the fundamental point of this article, is whether the ending will be “happy” or not. In using the term “happy”, I don’t mean everything ends as sunshine and roses. The hero doesn’t necessarily even survive. No, by “happy”, I mean that justice prevails. That the world, be it on the micro or macro level, is better off than it was before. There are benefits to creating doubt regarding this final triumph because doubt creates suspense. Yet many readers like a measure of certainty. I am one of those readers… and one of those writers.
I believe that fictional stories serve two purposes. First, they are a mechanism to explore our world and our own experiences through a different lens. Second, they are an escape. To me, an escape means that “good” triumphs. If I want to see examples of “bad” triumphant, all I have to do is turn on the news. To quote G.K. Chesterton, “Fairy tales do not tell children that dragons exist. Children already know the dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children that dragons can be killed.”
In choosing an approach of good-triumphant, I limit my options and I potentially diminish suspense in my stories. But there are still many outcomes available to me. As I mentioned above, the protagonist may die. Evil may be defeated but not destroyed. And, of course, victory may take any number of forms.
Every book has its promises and these promises narrow possibilities. But the options available to a creative writer are still vast. The blending together of expectation and surprise provides suspense for the audience and contributes to a satisfying narrative and a pleasing conclusion.
There are some authors, I think, who try very hard to avoid making any promises in order to ratchet suspense as high as possible. But even this absence is a promise. The author is announcing that a reader should never get too comfortable with anything. That anything can and, quite probably, will happen. That it may come to pass that all our heroes will all fall and evil will rise triumphant. Recognizing that announcement of uncertainty will pull some readers into the story while driving others away. The key point here is that this is still a promise (or an anti-promise, if you prefer). If the author asserts that there is no “promise” of anything, but then fails to keep his readers fearful of everything, he has still failed to deliver on his guarantees.
In other words, whatever form an authorial promise takes, it is important. The author creates expectations and must live up to them. One who promises unpredictability and ends up being predictable fails. One who promises the triumph of “good” but ushers in “evil” fails. I tend not to be a fan of truly tragic endings, but a tragedy well-told can be a wonder to behold. In contrast, a promise betrayed is garbage. It is, perhaps, the greatest crime an author can commit.