If you write in category, you write knowing there’s a framework, there are reader expectations.
Have you ever gone to a restaurant and ordered a Coke, then taken a sip and realized what’s actually in your cup is Dr. Pepper? You don’t hate Dr. Pepper. In fact, on any other day, you might very well love an ice-cold glass of its wonderful fizzy sweetness, but on that day, you wanted Coke, and Dr. Pepper tasted awful.
The audience you’re trying to reach with your writing is no different—they want their expectations fulfilled—and today, we’re talking about how authors can best accomplish that goal.
Expectations Begin with the Cover
From the moment readers choose your book over the millions of others available, their expectations have been set. The saying “Don’t judge a book by its cover” doesn’t apply here. Readers rely heavily on the hints and clues found in genre, cover art, cover copy, familiarity with your previous work, and reviews, all of which help them get a feel for what they’re stepping into.
Your ultimate goal should be for readers, upon finishing your book, to feel like they got exactly what they ordered. If they want a violent noir thriller and the cover of your book shows a Fedora-wearing ex-con-looking guy hiding in the shadows of a dirty alley, readers will naturally expect the text inside the book not only to live up to the cover but also to be in the spirit suggested by the cover. If the beginning reads more chipper than gritty, more lush than stark, readers will feel betrayed, and most won’t be able to push past that.
Once you’ve lost the trust of a reader, it’s almost impossible to regain.
Beyond the Cover: The Author’s Toolkit
Authors aren’t always in charge of the cover, blurb, or reviews, however, which means it may be up to the book’s first page to truly cement reader expectations, letting readers know beyond a shadow of a doubt what they’re going to get. This is accomplished in the manuscript itself through the three main tools of the author: tone, setting, and style.
Tool One: Tone
Tone is just a fancy word to describe the feeling induced in the reader by the words on the page (i.e., the mood the book is going to create). For example, the first sentences of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian go like this:
See the child. He is pale and thin, he wears a thin and ragged linen shirt. He stokes the scullery fire. Outside lie dark turned fields with rags of snow and darker woods beyond that harbor yet a few last wolves.
Contrast that with Julie James’s Suddenly One Summer:
Although people often said that divorce was an ugly business, Victoria Slade had a different perspective. Typically, by the time clients arrived on her office doorstep, it was the marriage that had gotten ugly. Divorce was simply the part where the truth came out.
In both instances, readers immediately understand the tone and expect that tone to be used throughout the book—in other words, they expect continuity. If the beginning of your book reads like a just-the-facts travelogue, for example, then the appearance halfway through of a crazy Wild West-style shootout with a main character reminiscent of James Bond is going to throw readers for a major—and unappreciated—loop.
The biggest challenge of my career, which is something that authors of genre fiction face all the time, is writing something fresh and new and at the same time meeting reader expectations. When somebody picks up one of my books they have a certain expectation. Certainly not every reader has liked every one of my books but I think that’s a good thing because it means I’m not repeating myself.
Tool Two: Setting
When continuing to feel out a book, readers also take note of the setting: where and when the story takes place. If they want to take an imaginary stroll through Dickensian England, they need to know from the outset that’s where the writer is going to lead them.
A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens famously begins:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us …
Readers are never going to read that opening and wonder about the setting!
Tool Three: Style
When building reader expectations, equally important to setting and tone is the writing style: the one-of-a-kind way in which an author writes (sometimes called voice). No two authors sound the same, though they might sound similar—which is how both publishers and retailers are able to offer recommendations for buyers: “If you like [favorite author], then you might also like …”
Style can even become a calling card. Stephen King, for example, is well known for his writing style. So are David Foster Wallace, Agatha Christie, and Oscar Wilde.
Style is so important because readers look for that unique voice from the beginning of a book to its end. When a reader falls in love with flowing, descriptive prose on the first page but the following pages devolve into sparse, simplistic sentence fragments, readers can—understandably—become confused and feel both let down and lied to as they continue to read.
Combining All the Tools to Meet Expectations
The good news is that between the three tools—tone, setting, and style—writers can properly prepare readers for the journey ahead, building readers’ trust that their expectations will be met.
In the wide, wild world of literature, what you see isn’t always what you get. Covers deceive, blurbs are notoriously vague, and reviews can be bought and sold for a song. Readers should always be able to rely on authors, however, to deliver on the intrinsic promise of the first page. The keeping of that promise inspires loyalty, and once readers are loyal, they’ll follow an author almost anywhere.
Readers have a loyalty that cannot be matched anywhere else in the creative arts, which explains why so many writers who have run out of gas can keep coasting anyway, propelled onto the bestseller lists by the magic words AUTHOR OF on the covers of their books.
—Stephen King, Bag of Bones: A Novel