Once a storyteller hits a certain level of competency, much of her reader’s investment comes down to how well expectations are established and met. I’m not talking about genre tropes a writer uses and a reader expects. Rather, I mean those methods of storytelling that convey, build, and sustain emotional investment.
It’s been twenty-mumble years since I first decided I wanted to write novels. I sucked at it. I sucked hard. I mean, a lifetime of theater and reading had given me an internalized understanding of story arcs and the importance of emotional investment. But my plots had holes as deep as the Mariana Trench. The characters—young and old—indulged in the emotional roller coaster of adolescent melodrama. Plot stuff happened because those happenings gave me an excuse to shoot the characters into the next Big! Emotional! Scene!
And because I sucked so badly—and because I was so on fire to write I was churning out about two thousand words every day or so, by hand with a Uniball pen on college-ruled notebook paper—I ended up learning a great deal. I didn’t learn from writing alone, or from writing with a critique group, or from completing an entire long work before begging for feedback. I learned because I had a friend who’d read every chapter within hours of being handed those loose sheets.
She wasn’t a writer. Neither one of us knew the usual language or process of critique. We had no idea what “constructive feedback” was supposed to be. I was writing a story. I wanted to know if she liked it.
Since I began writing in ancient times, I could get her feedback only if I was near a landline phone at the same time she was near one, or if we met in person. So we’d get together for coffee every couple of days and she’d give me her reaction.
Sometimes her feedback focused on what made sense and what didn’t, but she mostly told me what she liked and what she didn’t like. But the most valuable information she shared with me was what she thought would happen next and what she hoped would happen next.
Remember: I had no idea what I was doing, writing novels. I had no outline. I had no mentor. I had no writing group. I was just writing to that one clear scene I could so fully envision. I was utterly clueless. Experience-less. Tool-less.
I didn’t know that giving an early walk-on character a few clever lines (edit: lines I thought were clever) signaled the reader to pay attention because that character was likely to show up in some significant role later. My first reader taught me this by gushing all over a character I’d just tossed in and planned to toss out just as easily. I ended up working that character in to later scenes.
I didn’t know the difference between giving the reader well-founded plot surprises and playing a mean game of Gotcha. I learned this when my first reader was upset I’d not only misled her, but so shocked her with an unsupported plot twist that she wanted me to change it. I ended up making the change for her, then in revisions a year later, putting that plot twist in after I’d set it up properly in earlier chapters.
Every step of the way, my reader guessed and hoped and extrapolated. After every chapter, I listened to her reactions and ideas. She wasn’t trying to write the story for me. She was just as excited to be talking about a story she liked as I was to be writing that story. Sometimes I’d tell her the guesses she made were wrong. Other times, we collaborated.
In every meeting, I got to see, chapter by chapter, what story I was creating in the reader’s mind—something often quite different from the story I thought I was writing. Had I waited to get feedback until I’d completed the novel, I would have missed out on what I consider the most important “growth spurt” I had as a writer.
Through trial and error, over the course of two years and four handwritten novels, I figured out the basics. The amount of screen time a character gets indicates importance, but so can the emotional intensity of the given screen time. Plot twists should be surprising, but logical and supported by what preceded them. Large arc conclusions must hit the level of resolution that allows people to sleep at night.
And if I wanted to sidestep or blow up the expectations I’d already created, I’d better acknowledge what the original expectation was. The gun over the fireplace doesn’t always need to be used, but it damn well better be acknowledged.
Most of all, I learned I’m the sort of writer who is much better off getting readers invested in characters than in outcomes. If I push reader-investment in a particular plot outcome, I’m tied to hitting that outcome. If I push reader investment in characters, the reader gives me greater flexibility in plot, and that works better for me.
Regardless of which set of expectations I emphasize, it all comes down to emotional investment. That’s what an expectation is, after all. It’s longing or dreading. Fervent hope or keen fear. A wish or a denial. Faith or disbelief. Anticipation strong enough to keep the reader in a make-believe world until the writer wants to let her leave.