"Wherever men have lived there is a story to be told." Henry David Thoreau

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Making Promises

We’ve all known the person who says they’ll call but never do, or who says they’ll meet you at the restaurant at 1:00 on Tuesday but never show. And when you call them to see what happened, they don’t even remember having made the date. We quickly realize this person is unreliable and, consequently, we no longer want to do things with him or her and we cease believing anything they say. They made promises they didn’t keep and they lost our faith and trust.

What exactly do I mean by promises in writing? These come in the form of dilemmas, obstacles, conflicts, and twists and turns in the plot. In each scene you make a promise that something is going to happen in the next scene and then the one after that. You suggest something is going to go wrong to mess up your character’s plans for the future he envisions for himself. You hint at impending disaster. You create suspense in everything your characters do and say and in how they interact. As you fulfill one promise, make another one, until each promise flows into the next and until each one is fulfilled in the book’s final resolution.

Readers anticipate the best–and the worst–and they darn well don’t want to be let down. If you keep promising something, but nothing happens, you’re going to be in big trouble. You’re going to lose credibility.

This makes me think of the famous poem, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” by Robert Frost. Although it had nothing to do with writing, the words still might hold wisdom for us if we apply them to our situation and read between the lines.

“The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.”

It is fun but challenging to navigate the “lovely, dark and deep” world of novel writing. We do have promises to keep to our readers, and we should not rest until we meet our ultimate goal of successfully fulfilling each and every one of them. If we don’t deliver on those promises, we won’t have readers for long, and we will become like that unreliable friend who forgets her promises as soon as they leave her mouth. We should always strive to be the writer our readers can trust for a good read.