Friday, September 16

The Unspoken Reader Contract

Ava here! I recently had a lengthy conversation with a new writer who was working to complete her first novel. She mentioned some points in her story that are notoriously “against the rules.” I didn’t lecture against her decision for two reasons: 1) I wanted to be supportive, and 2) snark and sarcasm roll off my tongue way more readily than true wisdom.

But it got me to thinking about why these were “against the rules.” So I’m using this blog as the platform for the answer I should have given the newbie writer.

Within each genre, there are a set of “rules” by which we authors should abide, in addition to basic grammar and writing mechanics. Romance includes such rules as “there has to be an over-arching theme of romance growing into love,” “there has to be a happily-for-now, if not a happily-ever-after,” “with the exception of YA, the main characters have to be 18+ years old,” etc. These are genre-dictated rules we cannot break. But there are other “rules” we writers have to understand as well. Such as “the hero never rapes,” “you have to introduce both the Main Character and his/her love interest within the first couple of chapters,” “you have to indicate the main conflict of the story within the first chapter,” etc.

You balk at this and declare that “rules are meant to be broken.” And some writers break them very effectively. But they do so with the clear understanding they are consciously breaking not only a “rule,” but an unspoken contract with the reader. This is what our chosen genres are: Unspoken Reader Contracts. These Unspoken Contracts give readers the safety net of knowing that when they choose a romance novel, there will be a HEA or HFN. Then when they choose a suspense novel (romance or otherwise), there will be plot twists and turns. That when they choose an inspirational romance novel, there will be a heavy theme of faith. Than when they choose an erotic romance, there will be lots of graphic sex.

This Unspoken Contract also includes what to expect within the course of the novel. Readers of romance understand (and therefore expect) that the Main Character and the Love Interest will be introduced very early in the book. As will the main conflict that evolves into resolution by the end. They understand a romantic relationship will evolve into love and the characters themselves (most especially the female protagonist) will also grow as individuals. That there will be a “dark moment” when all hope seems lost, and there will be a climax (more than one, if you’re reading erotic ;-) when it is all resolved and what needs to come to fruition (hopes, dreams, love…) will do so.

To choose to structure our romance novels any differently is to disregard that Unspoken Contract at the author’s peril. Gifted writers can do this. Those of us who are less talented need to stick to the expected, lest we anger and frustrate our readers.

But my family and my Beta Readers liked it. Of course they did. When we send our stories to friends, family, Beta Readers, etc., we send them to people who like us, and who therefore begin the process wanting to like our stories. They already have an emotional investment in the story, so they start from a spot well ahead of where readers start. When a reader pick up a book, it’s because they like the pretty cover, the blurb piqued their curiosity, it was recommended by a friend… Whatever they case, the reader begins the story with a vested interest in liking the characters and the story. We, the author, have yet to earn the reader’s approval. We have to prove ourselves, and we do so by making sure the reader enjoys the journey of the characters, and that our story holds true to the promise of our blurb. If we break too many rules (especially early-on) in an unsatisfactory manner, we frustrate the reader because we have not upheld our end of the Unspoken Reader Contract. Disappointed, let-down, and even angered, the reader will walk away from us. And probably leave a fairly scathing review!

So, while friends and family might like our story (because they like us), we also have to keep in mind the reader who doesn’t know us and who is therefore emotionally neutral about us and our stories. Who doesn’t have a vested interest in our success except that they like the genre in which we have chosen to write. If we are careless with their expectations, if we are cavalier with the Unspoken Reader Contract, we’ll lose them forever.

So, those are the words (more or less) I wish I’d said to the newbie. Hopefully, I’ll have the presence of mind to say this the next time I’m in a similar situation or the next time an old-hat author says “that’s against the rules.”

Am I on the money? Off the mark? What are your thoughts on this?

15 comments:

  1. Yes! I completely agree! I once read a "romance" novel, where the heroine started off married to a guy who died halfway through the book, and the author introduced a new love interest who had barely merited a mention in the beginning of the book. And yes, I felt betrayed. I will never read that author's books again. Perhaps that's harsh, but I just don't want to waste my time and/or money on books written by people who either don't know what they're doing, or just don't care about the reader experience. I'm honestly more upset about that than I am by the historical author who got dozens of details wrong, and clearly didn't bother to research such basic things as when people began staying in motels instead of hotels.

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    1. I'm sorry you had a disappointing experience with an author, but totally understand the experience! As much as we authors should write the book "of our hearts," we do need to keep in mind we are writing for our readers as well. I hope all your future reading experiences are much more satisfying! :-)

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    2. There are a lot of good books and a lot of books that need an editor floating around out there. And aren't we blessed to have so many options? But yes, as writers, we need to make sure we are not "breaking the rules" just to break them. I just wish I could tell all the self-published authors, "Good for you. Just hire an editor!"

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  2. I think you're right on the money, Ava. We have to remember that a book is meant for a reader, and it's not just a vehicle to prove how clever we are. If we can break rules while still delivering a wonderful story, great. But I believe honoring that unspoken reader contract is our first obligation.

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    1. I'm happy to abide by the rules, because I know I'm not clever enough to break them well! ;-)

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  3. This is all true. There are reasons that stories have a general structure and it's best to follow that, for everyone involved. :) Staying within guidelines doesn't stifle creativity, either. Someone recently pointed out that "Star Wars" and "Harry Potter" are essentially the same stories, so there's plenty of room for variations within a broad framework.

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    1. Good point! I never thought to compare Star Wars with Harry Potter, but that would be a fun exercise! And it goes back to the old saying that there are no new ideas. :-)

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  4. Yes - and I love what Cathy said: rules don't stifle creativity. I think, in some ways, rules make it simpler to be creative. Great post, Ava.

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    1. I once thought Picasso was a horrible artist, until I saw his early work and realized he knew how to draw and could do it beautifully. *Then* he chose to redefine art by breaking the rules. Now I better appreciate his "periods." :-)

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    2. Knowing the rules certainly gives me a sense of a solid foundation from which I can build my stories!

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  5. At a workshop given by Eric Witchey, he said you have to master the craft before you can break the rules. Because only then do you know how to do it correctly and effectively.

    And the other thing about people you know reading your book and loving it is that if you give it to non-writers, they are impressed that you actually wrote that many words. LOL

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    1. Good point about friend-readers! My dayjob boss is so impressed with the discipline it took me to write a book... and I'm like "you run 5 miles a day. THAT'S discipline!"

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  6. Rules are there to guide us. You have to know those rules before you can break them, that way you can explain why you broke them and how breaking them benefits your story. Great post.

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    1. Thanks! I also think this helps us writers when we get huffy about [insert big time author] who always breaks [insert rule you're not supposed to break] and gets away with it! ;-)

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