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 After all, unpublished authors have readers too—agents, contest judges, and critique partners/beta readers.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!