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. I read the first book in the series many moons ago and loved it. I also enjoyed meeting Diana Gabaldon at a writer's conference in Dallas shortly after the book came out. I was amazed at her process of writing, which had little outlining or structure, yet she was able to weave all those story and character elements together in one seamless whole. I am amazed again every time I think of how she did that. I know she did an incredible amount of research for her thesis, so she could draw from that for the historical details, but still... Quite an accomplishment.

  2. I've grappled with the fact that my stories don't fit nicely into a single genre cubbyhole. The idea of layered genres (how many books don't have elements or more than one?) has crossed my mind, but not in that terminology -- which, by the way, describes the situation quite well. This is great food for thought that I can munch on for a bit. Love your bottom line, Diana. After all, a great story should always be our priority, right?

  3. I'd have to outline that monster, make that series of monsters, to keep it all straight.

  4. Interesting assessment of Outlander. Always thought it primarily historical fiction. Years ago, Donald Maass asked me this question about my upcoming book, "Coronada." Set in contemporary and colonial Mexico, I'd say it's historical fiction primarily and the romance is secondary. May have to take a second look after reading this, and reconsider.

    1. Science Fiction = Time Travel + Historical Fiction + Romance

      Wait until you come across one of the characters trying to work out a theory that applies to Time Travel through Stone Circles.

  5. I've always understood the necessity of defining a book by category in order to sell it. You wouldn't buy "an article of clothing" without knowing if it was a top or bottom, the color or the size. That's why beaking a story down into layers and understanding the central question brought it all into perspective for me. The world would be boring if every shirt was white!


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice.