Setting Reader Expectations (aka, why most prologues don’t work)

As a teacher, I tell my students that readers are constantly making judgments about what they right, trying to estimate what kind of story or information will follow. These expectations form an unspoken agreement with the reader, and if the writer violates those expectations too much, readers feel, at best, annoyed and at worst, betrayed. Mostly, though, we take those violations as signs of inexpert writing.

Recently, as a Pitch Wars mentor, I had the opportunity to read dozens of queries, first chapters (around 80)–and for manuscripts we requested, synopses and multiple chapters. Some of these were very good (in general, I was impressed by the quality of writing!), but one of the common reasons for me to stop reading was a mismatch between expectations and what I saw on the page.

1. Query

One of the mismatches I saw was between the query letter and the story I started reading. There are lots of successful queries floating around the web, and many of them are plot-based queries that promise (and deliver) a high-stakes, fast-paced plot.

But.

Not every book is fast-paced or really high stakes. If your story is a quieter story, it can be a disservice to your story to exaggerate the stakes or the pace in the query–you’ll miss the agents who are looking for a slower, quieter book, and readers who dive in expecting an action story only to find a quiet, character gem might be turned off by the mismatch. (Of course, there’s always the chance that once readers start to read they’ll be sucked in regardless of what was promised, but my feeling is it’s good to start on the same page).

2. Opening Pages and Prologues

 As a reader, I try to make estimations of the story from the very first word. I’m making assumptions about the main character based on her initial actions and dialogue; I’m making assumptions about the type of story based on mood and action. If I’m in the mood for a light, fluffy rom-com and an opening chapter promises this–but then turns into a much darker family drama or horror, I’m going to come away frustrated and disappointed. This isn’t to say that I want to be able to predict everything that’s going to happen (that’s a separate blog post, but an equal turn-off)–only that the surprises in the story ought to be surprises that are consistent with general reader expectations about the kind of story we’re reading.

One of the problems I’ve seen with prologues (or first chapters that are really disguised prologues) is that they set up expectations for the story that are inconsistent with the following chapters. Often, readers add a prologue after realizing that the adventure or thrill of their story doesn’t start until several chapters in–how, then, to convince readers to keep reading until they get to the good stuff? The solution: add a prologue with all the adventure and thrill of the later story. Sometimes this works (see, for instance, the Indiana Jones movies and James Bond). But when it works, it’s because this thrilling slice of life is as much a part of the character’s normal life as the mundane teaching/drinking and seducing women stuff. Prologues don’t work when they promise high stakes and then the story forces us through extended mundane world stuff. If the story is action/adventure, we need hints of that action/adventure from the beginning of the story. The narrative needs to be able to engage readers and carry its weight without the prologue before a prologue can really work effectively.

If you’re not sure that you’re setting the right expectations, ask some beta readers who haven’t read your work to read the first couple chapters and make predictions about the kind of story, general plot conflicts, etc. that they expect to find. If they’re generally making predictions in the right direction, you’re on the right track.

3. Story

Sometimes the mismatch of expectations comes within the story itself. I’ve read a few stories where the first part of the novel seems to promise certain kinds of conflict–only for the story to veer off midway through into a seemingly different story and resolves a related (but not the originally promised) conflict. As a reader, these kinds of stories leave me emotionally unsatisfied.

Successful stories are about the arousing and fulfilling of desires–don’t raise desires and needs in the reader that you don’t plan on answering.

___________________

Rosalyn Eves is a part-time writer, part-time English professor, and full-time mother of three. She loves all things BBC, especially costume dramas and mysteries. When not wrangling children (and sometimes when she should be wrangling children), she’s often found reading. Her debut novel, BLOOD ROSE REBELLION, is forthcoming March 2017 from Knopf. She’s represented by Josh Adams of Adams Literary.

 

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