Monday, January 21, 2013

Keeping Your Promise

“You promised!” is a cry often uttered by frustrated toddlers denied a treat. Frustrated readers feel this way when a writer makes a promise she does not keep.

At the outset of every story, a writer promises to tell the reader a specific sort of tale. This promise should be clearly stated in the synopsis or back cover blurb. There is a difference between premise and promise.

Premise is the story idea, such as a tragic love story about ferrets. The premise could feature giant cockroaches invading the planet, a guy meeting the girl of his dreams, a terrorist attack, aliens descend, a murder is committed, an asteroid heads toward earth, a mysterious virus strikes, a heist is planned, a criminal breaks free, a thief needs to be caught, a monster eats Manhattan, or an evil wizard seeks control of Wonderland. Translating the story idea into a novel-length manuscript is where the work begins.

You must pick a promise, also known as genre.

The term genre is often considered a four-letter word. I say, “Pshaw!” Think of genre as the skeleton key that opens doors instead of a cage that limits your freedom. Genre plays an important role in storytelling. Ancient man did not sit down at the communal fire and promise to tell a testosterone-filled tale about hunting then launch into a boring account of how he picked nits from his partner’s hair. He would have been justifiably chased into the woods by people armed with clubs.

A premise can combine several ideas such as vampires and a love story. However, you must decide if the focus is going to be on vampires killing off humans thus preventing the lovers from getting together or a Romance about people who happen to be vampires. Right off the bat, the concept of vampires will intrigue some and repel others. That is acceptable. You can’t please everyone. If you want to write a vampire tale, write it. If it is good, there will be an audience. If it is bad, there might be a key element of it that attracts readers anyway.

Romance genre readers may not read Horror and vice versa. Horror stories can have light moments, but Horror fans expect to be frightened from page one. If your story does not deliver on that promise, Horror fans are disappointed. Regency Romance lovers expect a love story set in Regency England. They are offended if you throw in a serial killer.

If a reader is warned beforehand that your story explores the mind of a pedophile, she may pass it by. If the cover tells her she is getting a light-hearted Romance and you toss in a pedophile, she will toss your book in the nearest trash bin. Next time she sees a book written by you, she will shudder and move on. I once sat down to read what was billed as a light-hearted Comedy. There were some funny lines, but the story was about child abuse. I was not amused.

Carefully selecting the promise you want to make to the reader then keeping it is the secret to winning loyal fans.

Diana Hurwitz
is the author of Story Building Blocks: The Four Layers of Conflict, Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict, Story Building Blocks III: The Revision Layers, and the YA adventure series Mythikas Island. Her weekly blog, Game On: Crafting Believable Conflict explores how characters behave and misbehave. Visit for more information and free writing tools. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter.


  1. Welcome to the Blood-Red Pencil, Diana!

    A very good point to remember to adhere to the expectations that readers have of a genre. There are so many cross-genres these days that it is easy for a writer to forget that they will be reaching fans who prefer certain elements to be dealt with in a certain way. If you're self-publishing it's worth labelling your book very clearly even beyond just its genre - do everything you can to avoid negative reviews from people who wanted and expected a different type of book to what was delivered.

  2. Cross-genre fiction is both an opportunity and a challenge for the writer. All of my novels are nominally thrillers (or action/adventure in some schemes) but human relationships, including romance, are also at the core of the stories. Under what rubric do they fall? I know that in violating genre conventions there is risk, but for me, these are the stories I want to tell: thoughtful thrillers, page-turners with perspective. I do try to make the blurbs both enticing and honest, but some buyers may still pick up the book with expectations that can't be met. It's the price of coloring outside the lines.

  3. Elle - it never ceases to amaze me that people will buy/read/review a book and slam it because it's not the genre they read. Just because it was free on Amazon doesn't mean you should "buy" it. Blurbs are so important these days, but people are often ... not sure I should use the word I'm thinking of here! I had a one star review for a book because it wasn't available in digital format. Sheesh.

    Larry, I write genre-straddling books as well. I call them "Mysteries With Relationships" although I've never put that on a cover. Publishers call them romantic suspense (and the 'suspense' moniker brings with it expectations I don't necessarily fill, since they're more 'mystery.') But as long as you're telling readers what to expect, you can toss the blame back at them--not that it'll do any good!

  4. I like to write cross-genre - paranormal suspense with romance - but i always try to make sure my descriptions reflect that so the only surprises are good ones.

  5. Premises and promises -- I like the comparison. I also agree with Larry about "coloring outside the lines." Genre no doubt exists to categorize books so readers don't encounter abuse in a story labeled light comedy, as you did. Perhaps your experience was as much poor choice as it was genre-hopping because the writer wanted to reach a larger audience. Whatever the reason, it obviously didn't work.

    On the other hand, strictly following genre guidelines can lead to two-dimensional stories. Characters who populate thrillers also have love lives, so elements of a romance will no doubt find their way into a cliffhanger. Similarly, an appropriate but slightly humorous scene may lighten an otherwise serious story and give the reader a much needed break from the drama.

    Perhaps the answer lies in balance. You make an excellent point about meeting reader expectations. As writers, we always want to do that. Still, we may be able to nudge boundaries between genres. We don't have to blatantly violate them, but we can expand the reading experience by broadening the scope of a story in non-offensive ways. Reader respect, care, and good judgment should always dictate what we write -- and we can include a warning in the front of a book if we know certain scenes might upset some people. A book I published for another writer did include abuse scenes that I knew would shock sensitive readers, but they were vital to understanding the mindset of the antagonist -- and the novel was based on fact. A brief note in the front of the book warned of such scenes so there would be no unpleasant surprises. The author received great feedback -- the warning apparently did its job.

    This thought-provoking post makes a great point about writer responsibility and reader expectation. Those of us who bend the rules need to consider how we do it, as well as how we can be mindful of not offending sensitive or genre-specific folks who may purchase our book. Thank you for sharing, Diana. This is a keeper.

  6. I have trouble determining the genre for latest tome ... which might explain (at least partly) why it doesn't seem to have much of an audience ... hmmm, I wonder if it is too late change my main characters into vampire lovers?

  7. The genres seem to be mixing and meshing these days. I think some of it is that writers are trying to reach different readers, so they write a Romance Horror or some odd combination.

  8. Thanks, Diana for the timely piece. I've been pondering if my book lives up to its blurb promise, and so, I decided to include that as a question for my beta readers. Labeling is difficult, since things such as horror can be so subjective. One man's spine tingler is another man's snooze.

  9. It drives me up the wall if an author conveys a mood throughout the book, then decides to change it. I'm all for not knowing everything that's going on, but there's a limit when it comes to expectations. One example: don't start a book out as a family friendly sweet fiction and turn it into an erotica. You get the drift.

    Morgan Mandel

  10. Oh Terry that's a horrible story about the one-star review! Diana sage advice suggests that not delivering on your promise is, on the other hand, an absolutely justifiable cause for a poor review. One of my favorite writing books is screenwriter Bill Johnson's A Story is a Promise for this very reason.

    If you are in a critique group, a really good question to ask your reader is, "After the first chapter, what did you think this book was going to be about?" Their answer will let you know if your promise aligns with your delivery.

  11. Fantastic post, and such a great analogy. Readers don't want to be tricked, or cheated, so it's so important to be clear what you are trying to give them. I agree with your comments about genre - like it's all of a sudden a dirty word!! We all enjoy reading and if you read a lot you want different books for different moods. Literary is lovely, but not always what I'm up for.
    So glad I've found this site
    Thanks so much for the post.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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