This week’s Make-Write Monday post will be fairly short. I just wanted to share something writing-wise that I thought would be useful in the revision stage or even the rough draft stage. I’ve always felt what it was implicitly when watching an anime or reading a novel, but I never put a name to its face until now, thanks to Nancy Kress’s Beginnings, Middles, and Ends in the Elements of Fiction Writing series.
Today, we’re going to talk about the implicit promises a writer makes to their reader.
Reading is not only an act of empathy. It is also an act of intellectual stimulation. Some genres, like romance and thriller, focus more on the former, wanting to titillate our senses or make our hearts race in different ways. Other genres might focus on the latter, crafting sentences that persuade or surprise. Although I’m totally down for a good cry fest, and I enjoy works that challenge my intellectual assumptions, I’ve found that my favorite books and stories often make me feel and think in some way or another.
Nancy Kress explains it in further detail in the first chapter of her book:
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 and you’ll see this world from a different perspective; (2) Read this and you’ll have confirmed what you already want to believe about this world; or (3) Read this and you’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.
Kress, Nancy. Elements of Fiction Writing – Beginnings, Middles & Ends (p. 7). F+W Media. Kindle Edition.
Yes, readers at their core, certainly read to feel first, as Dwight V. Swain so eloquently explains in Techniques of the Selling Writer. But here’s the thing: Readers are vicious. If your reader finds out out that you’re playing with their emotions without any reasoning behind it other than you wanting to play with their emotions, they will likely think you’re a sadistic tease and put down your book. Conversely, if you give them an intellectual feast but no story to serve as its emotional underpinning, your reader will likely think that you’re trying to show off how smart you are and put down your book.
And once they have reason to put down that book, they’re likely not to pick it up again.
I haven’t read Margaret Mitchell’s classic Gone With the Wind yet, but from what I hear about it, it is equal parts emotional drama as it is intellectual feast. Yes, according to scholars, it’s as racist as it can be and is in no way a perfect depiction of the South, but it still allows readers to “see this world from a different perspective” or “learn of a different, more interesting world than this.”
It still keeps its emotional and intellectual promises, and that is all that I, and you, dear writers, should ever ask for in a story.