The Author Reader Contract

The Author Reader Contract

Welcome back, loyal listeners! Heather Luby joins us to talk about the Author-Reader contract. As always, show  notes are below. Don’t forget to hit the like button on YouTube and to subscribe to us on your podcast feeds. Reviews are always appreciated. Be sure to join us next week when we talk about Beta Readers and their role in your fiction.



Writer – Reader Contract  

(As discussed in James Frey book “How to Write a Damn Good Novel II”  

The Basis Contract

A contract is simple – it is an exchange of promises. When you write a novel or a story you are making a contract with the reader. You are promising to deliver on their expectations.  

What does a reader expect?  

First, they expect the novel or story to be good!  To be entertaining; to be worth their money and time.  

What else?  

Most likely, they also expect your work to be of a general type. Are you writing genre? Mainstream? Literary?  

Books within genre are expected to conform to the conventions of the genre. For example, a mystery needs a murder (or other crime) to be solved and justice delivered.  

The best way to learn these conventions of genre is to READ books already published and deemed successful within that genre. Conventions are NOT written in stone, and they can be bent and occasionally broken, but it is best to know what they are first!

What about mainstream writing? These are the books you find at the front of the bookstore, backed by big publishers, and talked about on morning talk shows. Subject matter varies, but they then to have more moral ambiguity than genre novels. The plot and characters might be less formulaic, but many still end with a nice sense of closure or “happily.” Often really successful “genre” writers break into the “mainstream” market – think Dean Koontz, Danielle Steele, Tom Clancy, etc.  

That leaves literary writing; a type of novel or story that doesn’t bend to conventions, unless you define the style of writing itself a convention. This type of novel or story is promising a reader high quality writing – no clunky sentences or overuse of adverbs here. Trends and time dictate some expectations. Stream-of-consciousness novels, that were once popular ala William Faulkner, are not so common now. But you can still find plenty of “suburbs are screwed up” novels, novels on ethnic experiences, etc. Big publishers do sometimes market these books, but many are published by small presses and university presses.  

What is the contract beyond the conventions?  

You promise to deliver on type and technique.  

What does that mean? Did you promise your reader, by way of book jacket copy and opening chapters, a story about love? Then you better deliver! Whatever “premise” you present, you have a contract as a writer to deliver on that premise.  

But you also make a contract with the reader on HOW the story is going to be told. If you write 60% of the book in first person, but then discover that third person would work best for the rest of the story.  What do you do? You could just switch POVs right there, but you risk breaking your contract with your reader. INSTEAD you need to look at the formal aspects of your novel or story and then structure it in a way that is consistent (by chapters, sections, Book I & Book II) so that right from the writer has shown the reader who to expect and then you stick to it!   

YOU NEED to play fair with your reader!


What about Unreliable Narrators?  

It all comes back to expectations! A writer can make a contract with a reader that states that the narrator is completely unreliable and it is up to the reader to figure out what is happening. You have to present the story in a way that allows the reader to get the true picture of things has time goes on – this will prevent your reader from feeling like you broke your contract – the key is to make sure your reader discovers your narrator is unreliable BEFORE THE END of the book or story.  

Playing Fair

If you are writing a mystery – give your readers a chance to outguess the detective. If you’re writing a romance, you will only keep your lovers apart with plausible or well-motivated obstacles. If you are setting your book on a farm, you should really do your research and present an authentic farm world.  

You will NOT cheat on suspense by using cheap devices (these are characters who insist on checking on the strange noises in the attic, even after they have found their friend murdered!)  

You don’t present scenarios that are obviously contrived – or make things too convenient – or present too many coincidences. You will NOT solve your characters’ problems too easily or too quickly!

You will NOT use clichés! This is a big one. When someone picks up your work to read it, they are expecting it to be “new.” Fresh, not recycled, no cliché language, characters or plots. Conventions of the genre is one thing, but resting lazy and using cliché is a major violation of the contract.  

You will NOT use melodrama! Drama is created with well-motivated characters and situations true to life and experience. MELODRAMA is unearned displays of emotion acted out by characters clearly at the needs of the author and not the story.  

You will NOT disappoint your readers with your ending.  You promise a climax and resolution (as dictated by your type of writing) and you MUST deliver on this one. It is the end of your contract. Whether explicit or not, readers expect a feeling of closure at the end of your book. This DOESN’T mean a happy ending, or things always tied up in a neat little bow. It DOES mean that your reader will feel a sense of ending at the end – of things coming to a natural conclusion that doesn’t feel contrived, too unresolved or ambiguous.  

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