December 23, 2010

What Do Readers Expect?

Sad girl

We’ve all been disappointed at some point during our lives.  As a child, I once discovered my Christmas presents early, hidden in my parents’ closet (it was by accident, I swear!).  My fingers ached to play with all those toys and I couldn’t wait for the big day.

But when Christmas Day rolled around, I felt subdued.  Disappointed.  Why?

I’d spent the previous couple of weeks anticipating the actual day so much that the reality couldn’t possibly measure up.  Reality couldn’t match the perfection of my imagination.

That experience taught me a lot.  First, toys always look cooler in commercials than they really are.  Second, even though my parents didn’t know their hiding place had been discovered, I never snooped for my Christmas presents in the years after that.

Most of all, I learned how important our expectations are for our perception.  Expectations shape our reality.

How many movies have you anticipated weeks in advance only to have it feel flat once you see it?  Or maybe you’ve heard people gushing about a book, so you expect to love it, only to be left feeling it was only so-so.

Was the movie really disappointing?  Was the book really bad?  Or was it just that they couldn’t live up to our expectations?

This is understandable human behavior.  The question is, can it be managed?  Can we, as writers, avoid disappointing our readers?

Managing Reader Expectations

Some aspects of reader expectations we can’t control: word-of-mouth or reviews, our cover art (unless we’re self-published), back cover blurbs, etc.  But some things we can control, and it can start even before we’re published.  After all, unpublished authors have readers too—agents, contest judges, and critique partners/beta readers.

  • Does our query letter let agents know what kind of story to expect?  If our first five pages don’t seem to match our query letter in terms of tone, characters, or basic plot, agents might assume we don’t have a good handle on our story.
  • Does the first page—heck, the first line—reflect the genre of the story?  If the first line is about an action-packed shoot-out, we wouldn’t expect the rest of the story to be a quiet examination of the nature of reality.
  • Does our first chapter at least hint at the overall story questions to give the reader an idea of where the plot will be going?  Personally, I enjoyed From Dusk Till Dawn, but many people didn’t like that movie because of how it dramatically switched gears in the middle.
  • Are our characters introduced in a way to correspond with the impression we want readers to have?  If a character starts off being whiny or a bitch, it might be hard to change the reader’s mind later.

Every scene, every paragraph, every word is a choice.  We create our readers’ expectations with the reality we present in our story.  I’ve read books where I expected one character to be the love interest, only to discover another character filled that role instead.  How did that happen?  The authors created an impression with the choices they made in how to present those characters.

Obviously, many times we don’t want the story to match our readers’ expectations.  Plot twists and turning points shouldn’t be expected.  However, a reader’s experience should match our intentions.

When I beta read, I’ll often comment with stream-of-consciousness thoughts of my expectations to let the author know how I’m interpreting things.  As authors, we already know what we’re trying to say, so it can be difficult to know if others perceive our words the way we want them to.  See if your beta readers can share their at-this-moment story expectations when they read for you.

Find a way to tap into knowing what readers are expecting from your story.  If it matches with your intentions, great job!  If not, some tweaking is in order.  Try changing how you focus on different actions, dialogue, and emotions.  Shape your readers’ expectations with your choices.

What books or movies have disappointed you?  Why did they disappoint you?  Could the author or director have done something different to fix the problem?  In your own work, do you have problems getting readers to interpret things the way you want?

And whether you celebrate Christmas or not,
I hope you’re not disappointed during this season.

Merry Christmas & Happy Hanukkah, heck, Happy Everything!

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Todd Moody

Great post! I really enjoyed reading it and all your points are relevant! Merry Christmas!

Kay Whitby
Kay Whitby

I am almost always disappointed by any big-name movies that the media and general public start gushing about – usually because anyone who gushes about them hasn’t done much in the way of reading. The Matrix? My philosophy class with a sci-fi bend – I’ve got Vonnegut for that. Harry Potter? Psh. Jane Yolen did it years earlier and ten times better. Twilight? Do not get me started. There are a few exceptions (I’ve loved almost everything Studio Ghibli has ever come out with, and How To Train Your Dragon was excellent), and a few semi-exceptions (Pan’s Labyrinth was just this side of a masterpiece but dear god I never want to watch that again), but it’s still going to be a long time before I bother watching Avatar – and even longer before I pay for it. Speaking of expectations, though, it reminds me of this one excerpt from Beginning Level Game Design I found on a blog I used to follow. The original post is here. “What players expect from your game is perhaps the deciding factor in whether it will be a success or a failure. If you meet the players’ expectations, or even exceed them (in a positive way, of course), your game will be a hit. If you fail to meet the players’ expectations, well… Welcome to Nowheresville, baby. Population: You. Expectations are usually generated well before players pick up your game. They’ll be influenced by the scanty information you provide on your Web site,…  — Read More »

Clara Kensie

This is a great post, Jami. Excellent points!

Suzanne Johnson

Great post, Jami! Movie-wise, I’m almost always disappointed in movies made from books I love. I guess the Lord of the Rings trilogy was the exception–loved those movies. The biggest book disappointments I’ve had were the ending to JR Ward’s Lover Unbound (which she apparently caught hell for from readers) and a certain character who got killed off in Kim Harrison’s Rachel Morgan series (ditto). I’ve also been a bit disappointed in the last couple of Sookie books from Charlaine Harris, and fear the series might be winding down.


[…] I mentioned last time, whether or not we’re disappointed often depends on what we’re expecting.  After all, […]


Hey, I thought you said it was an accident? And I quote: I never snooped for my Christmas presents in the years after that. Busted!!!

You know what I’d love to see in a movie? A great romantic comedy – one where the supposed hero doesn’t sleep with the heroine’s mother, sister or best friend before he begins a relationship with heroine. I mean, why is there always some awkward, embarrassing or disgusting scene that’s thrown into the romantic mix to get a laugh? From whom? If I’m their target audience – they missed me. It’s almost as if the director/writer is trying to appeal to too many people. I hate that.

I’m just saying…


[…] and work to sell that ending to the reader through clues and subtext. Just as expectations shape how people percieve reality, authors shape readers’ expectations by embedding story goals throughout the […]


I’ve been browsing your blog for several days. As an undereducated wanabe writer, I realize the need to learn the craft from those who have “been there and done that”. Rather than continue a shotgun plan of reading a bit of what this writer has to say, and some more of what that writer has to say, etc., I’ve chosen you as my mentor.

Oh, you don’t have to do anything you’re not doing right now, and I won’t ask you to read my scribblings (unless I ever publish a manuscript). Starting with this, your earliest post I’ll read all the way through your blog and, hopefully, put your lessons to good use.

Thank you for your blog.

Serena Yung
Serena Yung

Hey Jami! I have something to say and ask about reader expectations, so I found this related post to comment on, yay! Okay well, sometime ago, I was worried because of these two opposite kinds of readers: the first is the reader who just digs unpredictable plots and dislikes predictability full stop. The second reader, is the type that wants all their expectations met, e.g. I want X and Y to get together and marry at the end of the book! (BTW, this is funny because one of my favorite kinds of endings is the “hero and heroine marry and have kids and live happily ever after” ending. Yet I have a friend who dislikes this marry and have kids ending because she finds it very cheesy. LOL! Oh us poor writers when we try to appeal to everyone, but of course we can’t appeal to everyone.) But recently, I thought of a solution, and most of the friends I asked about this so far thought it was a good way to solve this dilemma. So, I see that usually when the expectation-wanting readers are upset, it’s usually on major things, like which characters get together romantically, who dies (if any die at all), whether the main villain will be defeated or not or whether the protagonist will win, whether the protagonist will succeed in e.g. becoming the top scientist in her field, and who, if anybody, becomes or turns out to be a traitor. Therefore, in an attempt to…  — Read More »

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