Keeping Your Promises


They will be my instruments of vengeance. All shall love them and despair. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Writers, there is no single right way to do things. You can read all the articles and books and blog posts you like on the process and the mechanics of storytelling, and they still won’t tell you everything. There are too many different ways and methods, some of which work and some of which don’t. You don’t have to do them all.

But there is one thing you must do, if you don’t want hordes of ex-fans to break down your door and toss you screaming into a pit of eels: You must keep your promises.

A story is a promise. You, the writer, are telling your audience the following:

Here is a story. There are characters in it that I am going to make you love and make you hate, and things that happen that will make you sad or happy or angry. And, if you read to the end, I will make it worth your while. You may not get everything you want, but the ending will be part of the story. It will work. You will leave here satisfied.

That is the implicit promise in every story proffered to a reader. Or watcher, for that matter; this applies to other media as well. Anything in which a story is told. The creator makes a promise to the audience that, if they stick with it, there will be a pay off. The ending does not have to answer every question—often it’s better if it doesn’t—but it has to wrap up the important parts of the story. The love triangle should be figured out. The big conflicts should be resolved. There shouldn’t be dangling bits left over that just never got addressed, even though they were set up as important. Things don’t have to end happy, but they should end. And that ending should have been set up in such a way that it seems like the only possible way that story could end. It should feel right.

And when that promise is broken…well, you’d better have an escape route handy.* Because, one of these days, I’ll be coming for you.

I’ll argue that this is the worst sin a writer can commit. It’s a betrayal. And it makes the writer appear, not only incompetent, but uncaring. If the writer doesn’t care about their story, then why should we?

I’ve read books and watched movies** where this has happened. And every time, it fills me with rage. These are the times that, if I had latent mutant powers, they surely would have come to the surface just to allow me to raze that piece of shit story to the ground. I would destroy it unto the tenth generation and salt the earth so that nothing would ever grow there again.***

And, yeah, you can argue that the creator owes me nothing. That they should be free to create whatever they want, and everyone else be damned. And that’s true.

But I’m also free to stop reading, or watching. Because, if they break that promise to me, that’s what I do.

And then I badmouth them on the Internet.

* Fun Fact: my notes before writing this blog post consisted of a single, all-caps sentence: FUCK YOU, JJ ABRAMS.

**And TV shows. Seriously, Lost made me believe in TV again. For a while. And then…you know what? I don’t want to talk about it anymore. I’ll just be over here, listening to Massive Attack until I feel calm again.

***I think we can all agree that if I had a superpower, no matter what it was, I would sooner or later become a super-villain. Even if I had something like the ability to turn kittens into slightly cuter kittens. I’d turn to evil sooner or later.


6 thoughts on “Keeping Your Promises

  1. Yeah I once read this book which didn’t end, it just STOPPED. Literally the protagonists were about to face down an evil ancient Egyptian ghosty thing, and it just stopped. Then there was a page long letter from the author trying to justify why it just stopped. She’s like “oh, I prefer to leave my characters facing pivotal moments in their lives” and I was like: “So in bullsh** to English translation that reads ‘I can’t write endings, so don’t bother reading any more of my books.'”

  2. I just finished “The Fault in Our Stars” and the main character keeps talking about a book that ends mid-sentence (because that book’s main character died or was too sick to continue) and how she’s always wondered what happened to the other characters in that story.

    About half-way through the book I had a horrible feeling that this author was going to end his book mid-sentence, and not only would I not know what happened to the characters in the book, but I’d also always be wondering what happened to the other book’s characters.

    He didn’t, thank the gods.

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