David Farland’s Writing Tips: Promises to Keep

As a teen, I once read a fantasy novel that had a picture on the cover that showed a wizard fighting with some lizard men. I read the novel, and liked it pretty well, except for one thing: the mage on the cover was too old, and there weren’t any lizard men. I kept thinking, “It must come at the end!”

But the scene never did take place. At the time, I wasn’t familiar with the concept of stock art. I didn’t know that publishers sometimes bought high-quality artwork at a bargain rate to grace their covers, and then slapped the pictures on inferior books. So I learned to beware.

You see, every time a publisher did that, they engaged in false advertising. They promised their readers that a cool scene would appear, and it never did. I took it so far as to avoid reading any of the books offered under that imprint.

In the same way, Hollywood studios often try to mislead audiences. They’ll advertise a movie as a rip-roaring comedy, for example, but when you go to the film you find out that it was a drama that had only three good jokes in it—just enough to make a short trailer that makes the drama look like a comedy. Why? Because a comedy will earn the studio ten times more than the drama would have.

I once looked at an ancient newspaper from the 1960s, and checked out the movies to see how many of them I might recognize. I didn’t recognize any of them. But nearly every movie was advertised as “the must-see movie of the year,” and “instant classic.”

As authors, we tend to make promises that are more subtle. I have seen stories come to me in in the Writers of the Future contest submissions, and on more than one occasion that author has promised, “This is the greatest story ever told.” I’ve even had authors send release forms, asking me to promise not to steal their ideas, etc. Most of us authors don’t take ourselves quite so seriously, but we do make promises. We just tend to be subtle about it.

Very often I’ll get a story in my manuscript pile that starts off being funny. It may be beautifully written. It might have an engaging conflict. But when I reach the end of the story, too often I will find that the humorous piece turned tragic.

The author promised me one thing on page one, but delivered its opposite at the end of the tale.

In fact, as a contest judge, I’m keenly interested in the promises that you make. If you tell me in line one that “Love is forbidden in hell, but Jonas Derringer had gone to hell precisely because he was a bad boy,” then you’re promising me a love story. If Jonas doesn’t fall in love by the end, I’ll reject your story.

Author’s make all sorts of promises. For example, if you start your story writing in a quirky English voice that promises me that you’ll take indecent liberties with the language, you’d better be consistent and end in the same voice. If on paragraph one you open with a gorgeous metaphor, one that shows creativity and a sensitivity to the language, then you had better be creative and sensitive all of the way through the tale.

You may promise on page one that you’ve got a brilliant and original setting, or that your tale is populated by fascinating characters, or that you’ll deal with a completely original idea. You might promise a tight plot, or a tale that will reveal a profound truth. What you promise doesn’t matter much—only that you deliver.

As a reader, I want to know right up front that this is the kind of tale I want to read all of the way through. After all, if I’m opening a novel that might take twenty hours to finish, I want to know within three pages that it’s my kind of book.

There are certain inherent promises that every author makes. For example:

1) I will respect my characters.

This means that at the end of the story, I won’t kill my protagonist or have him fail for no reason. I may have him die a heroic death, but if I do, there will be a purpose behind it, a deeper meaning, a compelling reason to end the tale tragically.

This is important. When a reader becomes engrossed in a tale, the reader adopts the persona of your protagonist. It’s a lot like slipping on a glove. If the protagonist is likeable, is like us, or is very interesting, then we might find that it is effortless to adopt the persona, and we will then virtually live through the protagonist’s experiences. In fact, in the best tales, we don’t slip into the persona effortlessly, we do it enthusiastically.

So when an author decides to harm a protagonist, the reader feels attacked. As a professional author, I know better than to assault my readers.

2) The tale is worth its price.

As a novelist, I deal with an ephemeral art form: words on paper. If you think about it, that’s not much.

I’ve sculpted and painted, too, and both of those mediums allow the audience to get a quick grasp of what I’ve created.

But with a novel, the reader has to trust the author and publisher, believing that the piece of art really will hold up under scrutiny.

Readers get burned a lot. I’ve read books that critics have raved about, and I absolutely hated them. I’ve read books that have won major awards, and found them to be too opaque and self-indulgent to interest me. Too often, all I get is hype.

So when a publisher puts out a book in a nice package, I take note. It says to me, “This is a special book.” When I read it, I want the publisher to keep their promise to me.

But as an author, I want to keep my promises, too. For example, I want each of my books to be better than the last. I want to be known not just as a fine author, but one who surprises and delights readers at every turn. In short, I want to give my readers a compelling reason to go out and search for my books, knowing that each one will be well worth the price.

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“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”

—Ernest Hemingway

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