How to Break Promises without Breaking Promises

Promises are made to be broken. Hmm. Nope. Scratch that. Promises are made to be broken well or not at all. Either you have to keep the promises you make to your readers, or you have to break them in a way that doesn’t really break them.

Let’s just say that breaking them is the exception, not the rule.

But if you want to break one of your main promises (like that the rules of the world will be followed), then there should be a reasonable (*cough* foreshadowed *cough*) explanation for why the rule wasn’t really broken. The four main options are 1. character ignorance, 2. a change in the situation/experience, 3. an exception that requires extreme effort (which usually also involves the first option), and 4. the unreliable narrator.

 1. Character Ignorance

The character in question is the main character or any character whose point-of-view you write from. The gist of character ignorance is that the rule was always broken because the original understanding was wrong (a mistaken assumption, missing information, a lie, a secret, etc.) – that character simply didn’t know that until now.

For instance, if the broken rule is that Tracy doesn’t like chocolate, and here she is eating chocolate, then maybe the main character misunderstood, and Tracy just doesn’t like milk chocolate (but loves dark chocolate). Or maybe Tracy lied earlier when she said she didn’t like chocolate because she didn’t want to accept the melty chocolate from your weird coworker’s pocket. Or because of embarrassment, Tracy was simply trying to hide her chocolate addiction (Shh! It’s a secret! …well, it was.).

In other words, there’s a specific reason that the main character’s impression of that rule was faulty, and the reader learns that at the same time as that character.

 2. A Change in Situation/Experience

As Badger said in Firefly, “Crime and politics, little girl. Situation is always… fluid.” Characters react differently in different situations. If a character is faced with the same choice in a different situation, the character’s answer can change without making the reader feel cheated. A standard trope of this is the scientist who refuses to create the doomsday whatever. Then, the villain kidnaps the spouse/child, and the answer reverses. Different situation + different answer = no broken rule.

The other part that can change is the character. Characters have learning curves, too. When they experience something new, they learn from it. Or they might react to it emotionally. The resulting changes can change their reactions. For example, if a naive character agreed to something that ended poorly at the beginning of the book and is offered another “wonderful opportunity” later on, a different reaction is very believable. The big rule of this particular technique, however, is that the reader needs to see that change. Then, rule isn’t broken because the rule changed, and the reader knows that.

 3. The Exception That Requires Extreme Effort

I say that the exception requires extreme effort because if it’s easy, it’s not an exception. It’s a variation on the rule. It’s a little like the U.S. Congress’ ability to overturn a Presidential Veto. The rule’s been in place for forever, so it’s not like someone’s making it up just to make a plot point work. On the other hand, a 2/3 majority of the House and Senate isn’t all that easy. It’s possible, but it’s not going to be your go-to answer for everything.

Granted, in many stories (fantasy, especially), the exception is a closely held secret by the elders/higher ups/secret society/lost lore, so the characters have to first learn about it and then go through the hoops to get it. But watch out for making it too forced, especially when the rules were well-established through several books or films already (“Oh, yes, if a pig comes by Castle Dracula on a Tuesday, playing a banjo… kind of crowbarred plot move…” — Eddie Izzard).

This is also a gimmick you should really only use once per book, possibly once per series.

 4. The Unreliable Narrator

The final excuse is, “The narrator lied.” Well, maybe, the narrator believed it at the time. Maybe, the narrator is a chronic liar, and the whole narrative was a lie. Both are possible; however, the breadcrumbs that validate the narrator’s unreliable nature have to be there when the reader looks back, or this is cheating (and it’s gonna make ’em mad). It’s hard work to do this well. So unless you really want to write an unreliable narrator, it’s easier to keep the promises you make rather than hide a bunch of false promises in the story.

Actually, if you’ve been paying attention, you’ve probably noticed that all these exceptions require at least the same amount of work as keeping your promises. If not more. That means that they’re not easy cheats to get out of hard work. Nope. What they are is useful techniques if you want to set up a false promise and mislead the reader. It won’t save you any effort, but it can let you break your promises without breaking your promises.

What Promises Are You Making to Your Readers?

What promises are you making to your readers? What does that even mean? It’s not like you signed a written contract. You didn’t pinky swear to tell the reader what happened to that character who disappeared mysteriously in the first chapter. You’re under no obligation to include that, right?

Actually,… I guess it was an implied pinky swear ’cause you kind of are.

Readers rely on the foreshadowing and puzzle pieces that build the plot. The details of the everyday activities and worldbuilding, character traits and behavior, plot arcs – almost any information you put into the book from the first page counts as a sort of promise to the reader. A lot of yours should be specific to your world and story, but some are universal.

Promises You Make Your Readers

 1. If you start a story arc, you’re going to finish it.

If you introduce a mystery, even a subplot, (what happened to Sir Henry’s boot?), then the reader expects it to be solved by the end of the book (or the series at the very least). With the way books like to tie things together, readers might even expect the little mystery’s resolution to link to the main plot, too. So if you leave them hanging about something, expect to hear about it later.

2. Characters won’t change without a reason.

What a character is like, what a character likes – it can’t change on a whim between the first chapter and the last one. If you make a character sneaky and unreliable, the reader expects that character to stay sneaky and unreliable until/unless some actions show otherwise.

 3. The World operates under specific rules.

How does magic work? What level of technology is available? These are the sorts of questions you have to answer in your worldbuilding, but once they’re established, you’re stuck with them. You can’t say that there’s gravity in this location in one scene and then contradict yourself in another.

Well, technically, you can, but you shouldn’t. Not if you want to keep readers (and make a good story).

That’s the crux of the promise issue. Think of it like a person. Jane. If Jane breaks one promise, we might give her another chance if it wasn’t too big a promise. We might even be generous and let her break a couple little ones. If she breaks a lot of promises (small, medium, and large) or a few really big ones, the only way we’re sticking around her is if she’s related – and maybe not even then.

So you might be able to leave a tiny mystery unsolved without losing readers. You might be able to change the color of a character’s eyes between the first chapter and last – if it’s a non-plot-central continuity error like that, then you might even be able to change a rule of the world. If you do all 3? You’re pushing your luck. Especially if any of it directly involves the main character(s).

After all, breaking those rules or defying what you’ve said before is like telling the reader to ignore what they read before: “That’s not important. Forget that.” And as a reader, my response would be, “Then why did I read it?” in an disgruntled grumble. And I’m not the only one.

Readers don’t like broken promises. That’s all there is to it. And you can’t get around it by not telling promises – without promises, there’s no story. So if you want to keep people happy and make your own life easier, try to keep the promises you make your readers. Better yet: succeed.

A Tony Morrison Quote: “Don’t Tell Us What to Believe, What to Fear”

“Make up a story... For our sake and yours forget your name in the street; tell us what the world has been to you in the dark places and in the light. Don't tell us what to believe, what to fear. Show us belief's wide skirt and the stitch that unravels fear's caul.” -- Toni Morrison, The Nobel Lecture In Literature, 1993

Why is it that much of the most interesting writing advice is purposely ambiguous and cloaked in metaphor?

This quote is so full of different writing advice that I had to break it up a little. From motivation to ego to personal truth to a warning against proselytizing to a metaphor telling us to show -not tell: that’s a lot for one quote!

Do Writers Have a Moral Obligation to Society?

This is a serious question (and a series of questions), and I’m really curious what other writers think about moral obligation and writing.

It’s pretty clear that many people believe that books can change the world, including the types of books that many of us are interested in writing – novels intended to be read for pleasure. My question is if regular books can change the world, what kind of moral obligation does that put on writers?

Take for example a societal norm that you object to. Do you show a character not only exhibiting that behavior but also getting away with it (or perhaps being rewarded for it) because that’s more common? Or do you show a negative result or commentary on the behavior? (Some sort of societal or legal punishment? Karma? People standing up against the behavior? An inner monologue by the main character showing disgust, anger, or horror?)

Let’s take bullying from a professor on a college level. Say that your story is set in a college that is known for that behavior. You, however, feel very strongly that such behavior is wrong. Does the bullying professor get away with the behavior and receive support from the heads of the college? Or do you arrange for some sort of karmic punishment?

The first method is almost certainly more realistic. If the action is common in that society, it’s going to be accepted or rewarded when it occurs. So putting it in your novel could make the story a believable reflection of society (whether you like that aspect of society or not). At the same time, could reading about that negative act being rewarded reinforce that behavior in real life? By writing about the action realistically and without showing any punishment, could you be encouraging that behavior? A behavior you despise? (A terrifying thought!)

On the other hand, could writing about it in a way that shows it to be wrong do the opposite? By showing negative results or a character’s disapproval in the story, could you influence the morals of your readers? Could that encourage a change in society? And if it could, as writers, do we have a moral obligation to put that potential for change into our books?

Wow. I mean… yikes. These are big scary questions to consider. There are a lot of ifs involved, and there’s no real way to know one way or the other if some of these things are truly possible. And if they are… that sounds like a really heavy burden. There are so many societal problems – could you possibly address them all that way? How do you pick them? Do you put the same one in every story? Or do you focus on ones that come up naturally with each plot/setting? And even if you only focus on one or two, how does accepting that kind of responsibility affect your ability to write a story?

Can you try to change society and still write a good story?

I think you can – as long as the social changes are integrated into the story rather than coming off like proselytizing. There’s only so much preaching that can go into a story before you lose the audience’s interest. So if writers want to tackle some social change within a fiction story, it still needs to stay woven within the story.

So if it’s possible, should we? Does every story have to have some sort of moral message?

Does it need to? I don’t know. Will it? Well, yeah. No matter what a writer decides, there will be some moral messages in the story – intentional or not. Since the story is told from one or more specific characters’ perspectives, it is also framed by their moral values and judgments. So some sort of moral perspective has to show through, right? Especially if the story is complex enough to improve empathy.

Does that mean we don’t have to purposely try to insert seeds for social change? Will our morals naturally shape our writing enough to be clear to the readers? I’m not sure. If you’re trying to write realistically about a character very unlike yourself, it’s very possible that the morals expressed in the book won’t match your own. What if your choice of characters, plot, and worldbuilding somehow supports a societal norm that you’re not even consciously aware of?

I know. That’s a lot of questions, quite a bit of rambling, and not a lot of answers. That’s why I’m curious what other writers think. Do writers need to consciously shape their stories to reshape society? Is it something to watch for in edits? (To make sure that you’re not accidentally supporting something you don’t want to?) Or do we write the best story we can and hope everything works out?

What do you think? Do writers have some kind of moral obligation to society?

Can Building 3D Characters Improve Your Readers’ Empathy?

You’re probably getting tired of everyone harping at you to make sure your characters are 3D, that they have depth and aren’t flat. I can’t really blame you – hearing the same nagging from every writing resource you look at can get old quickly. And, of course, the most important topics end up repeated everywhere. But this article isn’t about how to make 2D characters more realistic. It’s about why to make them more realistic, and I’m not just talking about improving the depth and complexity of your book.

You’re also changing how your readers see the world.

Arrogant? A bit. Hyperbole? Maybe or maybe not. In the article, “Are You Reading the Wrong Books? What Science Is Saying about Fiction Readers,” Will S. talks about several studies that show that people who read fiction develop stronger empathy than people who do not. Furthermore (to sound scientific), people who read more complex stories with more 3-dimensional characters develop more empathy than people who read more basic stories where characters are flat and less realistic.

Now, have I researched the studies listed? No. Do I know for sure that this is verified by science? No. Do I want to believe it because it matches my own experiences and expectations? Yep, totally guilty.

None of that makes it a less interesting idea.

You can talk all day about how reading increases vocabulary and teaches writing skills like sentences structure – and those are both really great, important things for people to learn – but (IMHO), one of the greatest gifts of a book is its ability to let you see through someone else’s eyes, to gain insight into situations you’ve never experienced.

Learning to think about other people’s perspectives and experiences is invaluable, and the harder (or more complicated) the situation and characters are, the more applicable those insights are to the real world.

Can those insights improve empathy? I think it’s a definite possibility. What about you?

Expert Wordplay: Victor Borge’s Phonetic Punctuation & Inflationary Language

If you like wordplay (especially with onomatopoeia and homophones), then start out your Sunday with a good laugh with Victor Borge’s “Phonetic Punctuation” and “Inflationary Language.”

“Phonetic Punctuation” by Victor Borge

Victor Borge combines onomatopoeia, nonverbal gestures, and punctuation into this hysterically funny bit. There are any number of cuts for these videos, but I think the explanation beforehand is very valuable for the buildup.

“Inflationary Language” with Victor Borge (the first half of the video clip)

Watching Victor Borge’s “Inflationary Language” will make you think, but it is well worth the brainpower. If you enjoy worldplay and twisting words and meanings around for humor, then Victor Borge should be right up your alley.

These excerpts are a great example of the art of the unexpected because his unique ideas put a wonderfully unusual twist on the English usage and meaning. On top of that, the examples are expertly crafted for humor. In fact, check out the whole show (The Best of Victor Borge), and you’ll see that he uses both pronunciation (through accent/inflection) and the different meanings of language regularly. You could learn a lot from studying how it’s put together – let alone his timing and delivery.

Or you could just watch them repeatedly and laugh yourself silly like I do.

Half Pint Libraries: Another Excuse to Go to Half-Price Books

If you want to improve the world, encourage kids to read books.

It’s late notice, but I just found out that Half-Price Books is doing a book drive for children through April 30th. The books will go to nonprofits, libraries, and teachers to make what Half-Price has appropriately named Half Pint Libraries. And the best part? (Besides giving kids access to books) For each book you donate, Half-Price will match it. I don’t know about you, but I think that’s pretty cool.

Better hurry and donate! Time’s running out.

Writing Prompt: Explore the Outrageous with Similes & Metaphors

When your writing feels stagnant, you’re struggling to come up with a new or unique idea, or the art of the unexpected is completely evading you, it can help to spend some time exploring the ridiculous and outrageous with a simile/metaphor writing prompt.

It’s like how Robin Williams explained part of the acting process in his interview with Inside the Actor’s Studio (one of his best IMHO): he was talking about exploring a character and scene through multiple takes and multiple interpretations. He said:

You always want to lay down a kind of a subtle base… it’s like a base track for a musical. And you could lay that down. And what happens – it’ll peak. You’ll start to go up, and it’ll get outrageous, it’ll get outrageous, and then you’ll kind of hit it. And then you go beyond, and you know when you have. And then what happens is you’ll do something really outrageous. And then you’ll come back. And you’ll say, “ok, that was great,” and you’ll take the energy from the outrageous one and then cycle it into something very kind of… focused.

That’s the purpose of this writing prompt. Use it to build energy, to generate ideas, and to fire creativity. Get outrageous. Then, go back and apply that energy to what you were working on before. You may not actually use what you write in the prompt. That’s not the point. The point is the energy.

So, the prompt. All you have to do is take a metaphor or simile (or make up your own), and take it literally. Let’s say, “She was a miniature tornado that swept in and left disaster in her wake.” Taken literally, your main character is female and a miniature tornado. Start exploring a story where that makes sense. What kind of worldbuilding does that require? Was she born that way? Is that her constant state?

The minute you start thinking about what it takes to make a metaphor or simile believably real, the questions start. The questions inspire ideas. And the ideas kindle energy and creativity. The very natures of similes and metaphors provide the outrageous because they were simply not meant to be taken literally. Spend a little time exploring that story. Just enough time to get that buzz, that spark.

Then, the writing prompt has done its work. Put the metaphor or simile away (unless you’ve fallen in love with it), and go back to the story that stumped you. You’ll be amazed at how the energy transfers over.

If you do try this, please share in the comments. I’d love to see what you come up with or hear how well (or not) it worked for you!

A Story Is Like a Horse

“Sometimes, a story is like a horse. With the right skills and hard work, you can train it to obey the reins. But if it really wants to go somewhere else, nothing you do to the reins will stop it.” -- Em T. Wytte

Just don’t get bucked off.

Even if you get it to stop, it might not end well. If the story needs to go a specific direction that badly, forcing it in another serves little but your own pride and stubbornness. One of the best habits for a writer to learn is to be sensitive to where the story you’ve started is headed. If you want a specific ending that badly, you’re going to have to go back and reshape the story until it stops leading you somewhere else.