The Promises of a Story

If you've been around for any length of time, then you've probably heard me talk (or read me write?) about how the introduction to a book or story makes promises to the audience. But how are these promises made, and what do they mean?

Let's dig in.

So when you open a book or start a movie, there are some things you're immediately looking for, even if you aren't conscious of it.

1. Who/what is this story about?

2. How fast will this story be told?

3. Where is this story taking place?

The first is obvious; who's on screen, or what's happening on the first page? The second is a little more subtle, but you'll pick it up within the first five minutes - is this a guns-and-explosions fast-paced action story or is this a "Call me Ishmael" gradual opening to the story? Finally and least important (at least to my way of thinking) is where is this taking place. There are some very good stories out there that make a point of not saying where the events of the story are happening. For example - the story of 1,001 Nights would be just as interesting and evocative if it took place in Canada or Mongolia as it is set in the Middle East. The setting is incidental, and doesn't play a big part in the story itself.

On the other hand, you might have a story like J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, where the world plays an instrumental part in the story, and transplanting it into Mexico really wouldn't work. (I'm not saying that fanfic hasn't been written or that it wouldn't be good, but that the story would need to be fundamentally altered in order for a setting change like that.)

So what's the big deal with these promises?

It tells the audience what to expect for the rest of the story. The first chapter opens with a kid running away from an international spy by hijacking a submarine, and you can tell it's going to be a fast-paced story about a kid, one who's probably in some sort of trouble. Your video game's opening level shows you a turtle monster stealing a princess and a fat little mustachioed man in overalls chasing them, you can guess more or less what's coming.

The problem is when the story doesn't live up to the promises made in the beginning. Can you think of a movie that had an exciting opening, then dragged for the rest of the time? Or a book that started off with one character, then swapped out for a new one after a chapter or two?

Sometimes this is done intentionally, as in the first book in the A Song of Ice and Fire series, where Ned Stark is killed, even though he seems to be the main character. And it's important to note that it's not that this technique is Bad and Evil and you should Never Do It.

It's that this is the sort of thing you need to be aware of. What promises are you making to your audience, and how are you keeping them? Or how do you break them later on? What does that broken promise communicate?

Narrative is not something that should be done on accident. Be intentional with every choice you make. Be aware of what you're telling your audience when this character gets away with murder or when one of the options for this conversation is to blow up a building. Every choice in your narrative carries a message. Make sure you're delivering the message you want to, and not just the one that happens to show up when you throw your Scrabble tiles on the table.

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