Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Reader-Writer Contract

Each time someone picks up a novel an unspoken contract is made between the reader and the author. The reader offers to suspend his disbelief, to give up his precious time, and to place his fragile trust in the hands of the authors. But time, trust, and a suspension of disbelief are not free; a reader wants something in return.

So what is it that a reader expects from the author?

• That the author will treat him as intelligent. We have brains and they do work. So don’t say everything or open every door. Hand us the keys and let us figure out how to unlock it ourselves.
• That the story will fulfill the conventions of the genre the novel claims to be. If it is a mystery, there better be a puzzle that needs solving.

• That the rules will not change and the author will play by the rules he sets up. If in the world created birds can swing but not fly, we better not see flying birds halfway through.

• That in a similar way, the style of the first page will be the style of the whole story. Is the first scene a humorous incident? Then the author has promised humor throughout the whole.

• That an emotionally satisfying experience will be given. While great prose is appreciated, a great story is a must.

• That there’ll be good ending, a primarily source for an emotionally satisfying experience. A multitude of errors will be forgiven if a great ending is provided. And what qualifies as a great ending? The release of tension that come from the sense of rightness, the feeling that this is the way things should—had—to be, whether bittersweet or happily-ever-after.

• That the author will not deceive the reader. An author can mislead a character and therefore the reader, but the truth must be there and twists properly foreshadowed so that a reader can look back and say, “Duh! Of course, that’s what had to happen. Why didn’t I see that coming?”

• That the flip-side of that will be fulfilled—all foreshadowing will be fulfilled. Or as is talked about in playwriting, if there’s a gun on the wall, it’d better be fired before the end of the act.

• Finally, Christian readers expect Christian authors to provide hope. To do otherwise is to defy the character of the God we serve.

This, of course, is hardly an exhaustive list. And the more books a reader picks up by a particular author, the more complex the contract, for the reader builds expectations of what that author will or will not do—better known as a brand.

But that is a topic for another post.


Anonymous said...

nice post, thanks for sharing!

Anonymous said...

Great info here!

I thought you were going to talk about "showing the reader what's in the head of the POV character" without hiding it.

Randy Ingermanson wrote about that as a reader-author contract, but he was probably meaning it as just one part of the contract, as you've shown it to be much broader.


Rebecca LuElla Miller said...

Good thoughts, Chawna. I wasn't sure at first if this post was part of the tour until I saw the labels. So how do you think CM did by way of keeping the author's side of the contract?


Brandon Barr said...

Hi Chawna,
Great points.

Chawna Schroeder said...

I think Cyndere's Midnight did much better than Auralia's Colors. Still not perfect, but better.

I brought up the reader-writer contract here because I mentioned it briefly in the review for Cyndere's Midnight. So I thought it might be worthwhile to stop and provide a little bit on what that meant.

Travis Burnham Books said...

I used and cited your definition of the Reader-Writer Contract for a paper I'm writing on Aimee Bender's "The Girl in the Flammable Skirt". Thanks!

Energi optimering said...

Great post. very informative article. thanks!