I’m going to talk about some of the types of promises we make in our stories, some of them are obvious and some of them not so much. Key to recognising all of them is paying attention to where you spend your time.
The Genre Promise
This is the most basic promise your story makes, sometimes your reader is aware of the promise before they open the first page of the book.
For example in a mystery the most fundamental promise is that we solve the mystery, note I don’t say catch the bad guy, you may or may not do that, but in 99 percent of cases you will solve the mystery or you better give us one hell of a good distraction as to why you didn’t.
In a quest story the basic promise is that your hero will complete the quest.
What’s the basic promise of a Romance?
That’s right, happily ever after – the hero and heroine will be together at the end of the novel.
So we’ve spent our time, solving mysteries, going on quests and falling in love. Seems pretty simple.
Following on from that we have the Conflict promise
We promise the reader that we will resolve the external conflict of the story – I’m not going to touch on internal conflict – that’s a whole other can of worms.
Now let’s look at this scenario.
Our heroine owns a dairy farm on the picturesque darling downs, the farm is in financial trouble and mortgaged to the hilt, she is under pressure to sell to Developers.
The attractive Italian stepson of the developer comes to the farm to try to persuade her to sell and prove to his father he has what it takes to takes to be part of the family business now that his mother has passed away.
Our hero and heroine meet and at once they are consumed with passion they spend a wild weekend in bed - eating the delicious bread and cheese that our heroine makes. At the end of the weekend they decide to leave all of their troubles behind and run away to the Amalfi coast to pick oranges. He quits his job and she lets the bank foreclose on the farm and sell it to developers.
What? You don’t like that ending?
Ok let’s try another one.
Ok they spend a passionate weekend in each other’s arms and first thing Monday morning our heroine get’s a telegram saying that an Aunt she’s never heard of has passed away and left her enough money to save the farm.
I hope you still want to kill me after that.
The unspoken part of the conflict promise is that we will resolve the conflict and our hero and heroine will be the one’s that resolve it.
No deus ex machina’s for us (excuse my bad latin). Think about war of the worlds - the deus ex machina or god in the machine is the planet itself - in the end of that book, man has been battling aliens for the whole story and then all of a sudden a bacteria kills them all.
It’s just the teeniest bit of a letdown right? I mean hooray we’re still alive, but only through chance.
Just like the aunt no one’s ever heard of leaving our heroine money, it’s ultimately unsatisfying.
No the much more satisfying ending would be a something a little like this....
Our hero and heroine spend a passionate weekend in bed, during which they eat delicious food and she serves him some of the amazing cheese she has been making with leftover milk. He tells her of the hard cheeses his Nonna in Italy makes and how the heritage stone cottage on the farm would make a wonderful place to mature the cheeses.
Our hero decides to leave the family company and use his inheritance from his mother to help our heroine set up a small cheese factory.
They are a success and save the farm.
Now I haven’t resolved our hero’s conflicts, but if I do that I might as well write the whole novel, right?
Now all of this feeds into Character promises.
The important thing is that the traits and skills we give our character at the beginning and throughout the book must be part of the resolution.
I’m going to leave the dairy farmers to their cheese and lovemaking and tell you about my novel for a moment.
In the very beginning of my story my heroine Beatrice, saves her mother from assassin by throwing herself bodily at the attacker. She acts while nearly everyone else stands still.
Imagine how my readers will feel if at the end of the book my impulsive princess suddenly dissolves into a pile of girly goo and let’s our wonderfully brave hero take the lead?
They’d throw my book across the room, right?
Just like our independent dairy farming heroine would never abandon her family farm to run off to the Amalfi coast, my heroine would never sit quietly by and let someone else take the lead.
And so, the traits I’ve introduced at the beginning of the book have to show up at the end one way or another.
So those three are the easy ones right?
Now I want to tell you about Chekov’s gun.
Anton Chekov was a playwrite and he said (and I’m paraphrasing here)
“If there is a gun on the mantle piece at the beginning of the story then someone better get shot in the ending.”
Seems pretty obvious when you put it like that. I know what you are thinking – I don’t have guns....
Have you ever found yourself lovingly describing your heroine’s gorgeous, vivacious, neighbour/friend/boss. You tell us how her hair is the colour of ripened wheat, her eyes the green of the ocean, her voice the type to make men’s toe’s curl, and her name, you’ve introduced her by her full name so we have no doubt who she is. Toni St clair. What a showstopper.
The problems is, she’s not just a showstopper, she’s a bookstopper.
How many words get devoted to the lovely Ms St clair beyond her initial oh so detailed description? Oh about 100, she’s just there to tell your heroine the cows have gotten out onto the road interrupting a tender moment between our leading couple. Then she’s gone.
Your readers are going to wonder where this woman fits in, she’s beautiful, is she a rival for our hero’s attentions? Did she let the cows out to sabotage our heroine’s chances of saving the farm.
No? Well then we probably don’t need to know quite so much about her.
At the RWAus conference last year Bob Mayer mentioned that you shouldn’t name any character who’s not important to your story. I think he takes it a bit too far but I agree, don’t give us detail about someone unless you plan to give us a resolution to their story.
Don’t hang a gun on the wall unless you intend it to go off.
So go with all of these things in mind and look at your novel, look at where you spend your time, what settings, characters or events you describe in detail and make sure that those things inform your ending.
Run through the following questions:
What’s the genre promise of my novel?
What’s the conflict promise and how do my character promises ie their skills and traits help me resolve that conflict?
Where have I spent my time and have I hung any guns on the wall?
This was originally a ten minute workshop presented at one of our MRWG Meetings.