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The Reader Contract: A Writer’s Promise to Readers

As you probably know by now, Jennifer Crusie is one of my favorite adult romance authors. I am also a HUGE fan of the show Arrow. So, when I saw that Jenny Crusie had written a series of blog posts looking at the storytelling of Arrow, I was sold. The whole series of posts are incredibly interesting reads, filled with great insights for both creators and consumers of pop culture, but one thing in particular stuck with me. The idea of the contract with the reader. In one of her posts, Crusie said:

“I absolutely believe that: the introduction to a story makes a promise to the reader, says this is what this story is going to be about, here are the people to root for, here’s the genre, the mood, the setting, the tone, everything. And then people read/view that promise and decide whether to sign on for the story.”

Think about it. How do you choose what books you are going read? How do you decide if any given book (or show or movie) is worth your time, time that you could easily use to do a dozen other things? Generally, you’re going to start by looking at the packaging, the cover, the title, the description, and seeing if there are any quotes or recommendations from people you know or names you recognize. And each and every one of those things are saying something to the reader. They are saying: this is the kind of book I am.

To pick an example we are all familiar with (and if you aren’t familiar with it, you should click here and order it now!):

Let’s start with the cover. First impressions: it’s pink, and pretty, with lots of hearts and flourishes. To me this says romance. But on closer inspection you notice that it’s not just hearts, there are squirrels and books and coffee cups, and Chinese takeout, which when paired with the title, suggests that there’s something fun and quirky here. Also, looking very closely, I notice that there are silhouettes of a boy and a girl on the bottom, but they aren’t in the traditional romantic clinch. Instead, they are separated by the tree and looking away from each other. This suggests that there is something a little uncomfortable or awkward there…

Then there’s the tagline: Fourteen viewpoints, one love story. That plainly confirms that this book is a romance, and I should expect that people will be falling in love. It also lets me know, once again, that this isn’t a typical romance and promises that there will be multiple viewpoints.

So far, so good. I’ve seen the pretty cover, and it interested me enough that I picked it up. Now, let’s look at the description on the back:

Lea and Gabe are in the same creative writing class. They get the same pop culture references, order the same Chinese food, and hang out in the same places. Unfortunately, Lea is a little aloof, Gabe is shy, and it looks like they are never going to work things out.

But something is happening between them, and everyone can see it. Their creative writing teacher pushes them together. The baristas at the local Starbucks watch their relationship like a TV series. The bus driver tells his wife about them. The waitress at the diner automatically seats them together. Even the squirrel who lives on the college green believes Lea and Gabe were meant to be together.

Fall in love with falling in love in this irresistibly romantic, completely original novel!

Well, now we know where some of the elements from the cover came from. Starbucks baristas explain the coffee cups. Creative writing explains the books, and so on and so forth. We also start to get an idea about those 14 viewpoints we’ve been promised… Furthermore, I’m starting to get a feel for the tone of the book. It’s obviously a contemporary romance, set in a college: there are pop culture references, they hang out at Starbucks, they have class together and are on a college green. There’s obviously some pining, since it looks like they are never going to work things out, but any book that has a squirrel as a narrator has to have a sense of humor!

At this point, the packaging has promised me a contemporary romance, set at college, told from a series of unique perspectives, with some initial pining, but since it’s told by an author with a sense of humor, and everything is light and pink and pretty, I’m fairly confident that things will work out in the end.

Since that’s exactly the kind of story I’m looking for, it’s time to move on to the biggest test. I turn the book back over, and open it up to the first page:

Maribel (Lea’s roommate)

“I’m going to get us fake IDs,” I say to Lea as we walk to class on the first day of school.

“What? That’s illegal!” she says.

Even though we’ve only been roommates for four days, I’m not surprised by her reaction. I think there must be something about the first few days of college that really make people bond together, because I feel like I’ve known Lea my entire life.

And I can already say unequivocally that she is a great roommate. She’s neat, polite, and quiet without being boring.

“Don’t think of it as illegal,” I say. “Think of it as helping out local business owners.”

Does the tone of the book match what I’ve been promised by the packaging? I think so. The writer’s voice is light and fun. They are definitely in college, and it’s not from the main character’s viewpoint—which is definitely something a little different.

What new things do I know about the book from these first few sentences? Well, I know that this is going to be a book with lots of friendship and banter. Probably not a lot of action, but maybe a few parties and definitely some underage drinking. The main heroine is moral, polite, and despite being quiet, makes friends easily. And she’s got some slightly pushy friends that are probably going to get her in trouble or at least shove her out of her comfort zone. And, since a quick read of the next few pages has Lea and Gabe literally crashing into each other so Maribel can witness “her first collegiate meet cute” I’m assured that the romance potential is there. It also says, to me anyway, that the problems in this book are probably not going to be super dark and gritty.

So:

Contemporary? Check.

College? Check.

Romance? Check.

Multiple Viewpoints? Check.

Friendship and banter? Check.

Light, funny problems to deal with? Check.

At this point I feel like I have a pretty solid handle on what this book is, and whether or not I’m going to enjoy reading it. So, if our heroes are suddenly caught up in a string of horrible kidnappings and murders, or a hellmouth suddenly opens in the middle of the college green spitting out fire and demons for them to fight, or if the book ends with everyone dying and makes me cry, I’m going to feel horribly betrayed — possibly even throw it across the room (literally this is a thing that has happened before!) — and, since I tend to hold grudges and life is too short, there’s a very, very high probability that I’ll never read another book by that author.

So, Writers, you might want to take another look at your manuscript and at your cover, keynote and description on the site. What promises are you making to the reader? Does your manuscript fulfill those promises?

And Readers, did I forget anything? Are there any other elements that you commonly use to decide what you are going to read? What things do you look for when you are forming your contract with the writer?

Author spotlight

Holly West

Senior Editor at Swoon Reads and Feiwel & Friends. Giant geek. Dedicated fangirl. Half-Elven Rogue Cleric. Also answers to That-Girl-Who-Reads-A-Lot.

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