Every story makes a promise to the reader. Actually, two promises, one emotional and one intellectual, since the function of stories is to make us both feel and think.
The emotional promise goes: Read this and you'll be entertained, or thrilled, or scared, or titillated, or saddened, or nostalgic, or uplifted—but always absorbed.
There are three versions of the intellectual promise. The story can promise (1) Read this andyou'll see this worldfrom a different perspective; (2) Read this and you'll have confirmed what you already want to believe about this world; or (3) Read this andyou'll learn of a different, more interesting world than this. The last promise, it should be noted, can exist on its own or coexist with either of the first two.
Thus, a romance promises to entertain and titillate us, to confirm our belief that "Love can conquer all," and to transport us to a more glamorous world than this one, where the heroine (and by vicarious identification, the reader) is beautiful, well-dressed and ultimately beloved. A mystery novel promises an entertaining intellectual challenge (Whodunit?), confirmation that the human mind can understand events, the satisfaction of justice, and—sometimes—insights into how human nature operates under pressure. A literary novel such as Toni Morrison's
Beloved, about slavery and its aftermath, delivers emotions of anger, horror, guilt or recoil—not pleasant emotions, but strong ones. Intellectually it may unsettle our view of the world. "Real art," writes critic Susan Sontag, "has the capacity to make us nervous."
As a writer, you must know what promise your story or novel makes. Your reader will know. She may buy your book because it belongs to a genre that promises certain things (romance, science fiction, horror, political thriller). Or she may come to your story without preconceptions, in which case she'll form them pretty quickly from your characters, tone, plot and style.
By the time she's read your opening, your reader knows what you've implicitly promised. A satisfying middle is one that develops that promise with specificity and interest. A satisfying ending is one that delivers on the promise, providing new insight or comfortable confirmation or vicarious happiness. Even when it's surprising in some way, the ending feels inevitable, because it fulfills the promise of the story. And—this is important—the ending feels satisfying only because the beginning set up the implicit promise in the first place.
Consider an example, Daniel Reyes's much-anthologized story "Flowers For Algernon," which was made into the movie Charley. "Flowers For Algernon" is about Charlie Gordon (the transition from page to screen apparently affects spelling), a retarded adult who is the butt of cruel jokes by his co-workers at a bakery. Charlie undergoes an untested operation to radically raise his I.Q. The story is told through Charlie's diary entries. They start out short, misspelled and simple, and become increasingly complex as Charlie surpasses in intellectual ability all the doctors conducting the experiment. Charlie's relationships with them, with co-workers and with women change drastically— although not necessarily for the better.
From the beginning, Charlie is portrayed as likeable; the world is portrayed as logical if not always kind; injustice is inherent in Charlie's initial situation—why should somebody so good be treated so badly? The promise is made that whatever happens to Charlie, it will follow the laws of science, will keep us on his side, and may not be fair, since the universe isn't fair. The middle of the story elaborates on these conditions, pitting Charlie's intense desire to be smarter against our society's distrust of the man who "gets above himself." The ending fulfills the promise. The effects of the operation turn out to be only temporary. Charlie slides back down the I.Q. scale; he has trouble even remembering what happened to him; he's once more at the bottom of the social heap but kept from unhappiness by his own indomitable, sweet nature. The ending delivers on the promise of the first two-thirds of the story.
Suppose, however, that Keyes had ended the story differently. Suppose Charlie had been hit by a bus and killed. Or suppose he had become a killer himself, enraged by all the injustices done him, and the story had turned into a bloodbath. Or suppose the operation had been permanent and Charlie had become as arrogant and unfeeling as the doctors. Or suppose the operation had been permanent and Charlie ended up happy.
None of these endings would have been satisfying. Being hit by a bus, a random death, wouldn't have delivered on the promise of logic implied by all the science. Charlie's becoming either a killer or a bastard wouldn't have delivered on the implicit promise that here was somebody we can like, somebody to root for. The happy ending wouldn't have delivered on the injustices of the world so carefully set up in the early scenes of a good man victimized by circumstances.
Note that this analysis implies that you must know from the beginning what implicit promise your story makes. Actually, this is both true and not true. The final draft must contain the same promise to the reader throughout, with the promise made in the beginning, developed in the middle, and fulfilled at the end. But writing a story isn't as mechanical as building a house. There are no blueprints. Sometimes a writer doesn't know what promise she's really making until it emerges sometime during the first draft. That's all right. We'll explore the development of the implicit promise, and its implications for revision, throughout this book. What's important to remember as you write your beginning is that you are making a promise to the reader, even though at this point you may not be sure just what it is.
In your first scene, however, your main goal is to keep your reader interested. You do that through focusing not on overall meaning but on the four elements that make a first scene compelling: character, conflict, specificity and credibility.
Was this article helpful?