Basics of writingNovel writingStory Details

Reader expectations-part 2: story expectations

From Rick:

Previously I talked about what readers look for in terms of the writing style: clean and follows good writing conventions, or if it’s unconventional, it’s not so difficult to read that the reader becomes frustrated and puts it down. I also mentioned that the reader wants to trust the author to tell a good story that doesn’t disappoint.

Here’s the article:


This time, I want to cover some other things that readers look for and expect in a novel. Some of these fall under trusting the author.

First item: GENRE EXPECTATIONS. By this I mean the story conventions that are attributed to different genres. For example, there is usually the expectation in a romance novel today that the story will have a happily ever after (HEA) ending. You’ll hear it debated, sometimes forcefully, that you can’t call a novel a “romance” without the HEA ending. There are many love stories that lack this sort of ending, but many will argue against calling them romances.

Here’s one take on that subject:


Other genres have expectations, though some not as rigid as romances—and some, like fantasy and science fiction—can be extremely broad in what they comprise (although they have subgenres that can be very focused). The writer would do well to understand what’s expected in the particular genre he or she is writing and to be careful when labeling the work.

At the same time, some stories defy labels. Christopher Moore’s novel, Bite Me: A Love Story, falls into that category. It has elements of romance (and I won’t say whether the ending is HEA or not) along with genuine horror elements (a rather powerful vampire), and humor. Moore’s writing is quirky if nothing else, and maybe it’s best to label him as humor, not horror. Still…

Moving on.

Second item: WHAT READERS WANT TO KNOW. Readers want to know certain things in a novel. For one, they want to be grounded regarding time and place—where and when the story takes place—but not given a dissertation on these. They expect certain story details to be given, like who the players are, unless there’s a very good reason to keep that information secret). Even then, reader do not expect to be teased (in a bad way) by making them guess or figure out things that there is no reason to conceal. Don’t make readers assume, again without good reason.

Let me give my favorite example that I’ve railed against in other posts. When using a first-person narrator, do NOT make the reader guess or assume the gender of that narrator. I find few things more frustrating than a writer who fails to reveal the gender of a first-person narrator. Unless there is a compelling story need not to reveal that, DO NOT MAKE THE READER ASSUME IT!!!

Why? Because far too many times I’ve seen stories where assuming that information gave the wrong impression.

This goes for any important information, even setting (especially if it’s not Earth or not present day). Make sure the information moves from inside your head onto the page. Don’t drop some obscure (or not obscure) historical clue into the story and assume the reader will automatically know.

Third item: CHECK YOUR FACTS. Readers expect accurate facts, plausibility, and believable characters and concepts. If you put factual information in your story, research it to be sure it’s accurate.

Fourth item: CONSISTENCY AND CONVENTION. If your world is not Earth-normal, or something you made up (be it future, another world, a fantasy world with magic), consistency in your world setting is vital. If you’re going against some genre conventions, you need to define your rules upfront.

Vampires are a good example. Classically, vampires are undead, supernatural, blood drinkers with fangs. They sleep in coffins during the day, cast no reflection in a mirror, burn up in sunlight, are killed by a stake through the heart, are afraid of crosses, are burned by holy water and the touch of silver, etc. And some readers expect most of these to be true in a vampire story.

Anyone who reads a variety of vampire fiction and has seen some of the vampire movies (yeah, including Twilight) knows that there are myriad variations for vampires, what I like to refer to as “alternative vampires.”

SIDE NOTE: I’m planning a future blog on “How to write about vampires.”

You can change the rules of vampires (possibly at some risk), but if you’re going to bill your novel as a “vampire” novel, then you probably should define your vampires’ differences in the beginning. Otherwise, you set up the expectation that your vampires are the traditional kind. Some readers won’t care (as long as they know), but you don’t want a hardcore vampire fanatic assuming your vampires are the traditional kind only to find out too late they aren’t. And make sure that if you do buck tradition (any tradition) that your story is INTERNALLY CONSISTENT.

This last item/principle applies to any story or genre you work in. If your story is going to break with traditional lines, be sure you follow through all the way. Some critics love to cite some of the scientifically impossible things of Star Trek, yet the writers were consistent in their treatment of science and stretched or bent it so it still made enough sense (most of the time) and was consistent.

You may not always give readers what they want, but you should strive to give them what they expect: well-thought-out stories that are internally consistent and have believable characters. Make readers applaud your creativity, not boo your carelessness.