Reader Trust and Promises

Phyrebrat

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I remember hearing something on the Writing Excuses podcast years ago about making the reader a promise at the opening of your book. This is an implied/inferred thing as to what the reader can expect from the story. The main thrust of it was that if you make promise x at the beginning, you have to deliver on it.

Lately feedback and rumination have made me consider the issue of trust, too, which seems to go hand in hand with the promise.

When I’ve had feedback on some of my stories, it’s been clear that on some occasions the reader hasn’t trusted me. Therefore, when I’ve done things a little unorthodox, left-field, or intentionally paired words that wouldn’t normally go together (no, I don’t mean I’m incoherent), they’ve sometimes been picked up on, and questioned. Part of this — good and bad — you can put down to the reader’s preferences and expectations, and also their knowledge of you.

Trust in an author is something that a reader who doesn’t know you can’t have. Say you have a raft of books published by Tor, the issue then becomes moot, I suppose, but none of us here have that, so I’ll discount it. When someone reads the opening to your book not only do you have to hook them with that aforementioned promise, you have to make them feel safe in your hands. Reading a book is for some an onerous undertaking - Kindle estimates can be between 4-9 hours depending on the book size - and no one is going to give you that much of their life if they don’t trust you.

But the thing is, trust is a nebulous thing when it comes to getting it. I’ve lately been picking up books by self-pubbed authors, or indie/small presses, and I have to say, the democratisation of publishing has made it far harder to invest trust in a lot of them. As I’m a completist, once I start a book, I have to finish it, and sometimes — sometimes — the author who I’ve not trusted does a great job, and by the end of the novel I see the need to have read it in its entirety before deciding whether it would be any good or not. But we don’t have that luxury; not everyone who picks up our story is a completist, and if they don’t like it, they won’t finish it.

However, with some of these new authors (and ones who are established but I’ve not heard of), I’ve felt ‘safe’ in their hands within the opening paragraph. It’s something that just comes, that I can’t pinpoint, or define.

For me I can identify things that give me trust in the opening lines or paragraph etc, but I wonder what you’d add to this list?

1) A smart opening line:
Is “Call me Ishmael” really a stonkingly good opening line? No. Neither is “The man in black fled across the desert and the gunslinger followed.” Not in themselves anyway. A smart line is more like George Orwell’s one about 13 o’clock, or Douglas Adams’ one about the creation of the universe. What is it that has Moby Dick's or The Gunslinger's line lauded, then? If I pick up a book with an intriguing or smart first line, I’m pretty much sold.

If someone posted in Crits here, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” how many people would have replied, ‘You’re telling, not showing.’ Not to compare ourselves with Dickens, but what makes the line permissible? And here I’m a hypocrite because Daphne Du Maurier’s “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again” just holds so much, it's so evocative, when really it isn’t; and dreams are such a hum-drum trope, I wonder why it strikes a chord with me and gives me so much trust.

2) A lyrical or arresting image:
“Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board,” is a short, concise one from Zora Neale Hurston that you can’t help but love and infer an entire story from. I suppose the Pride and Prejudice opening is well-crafted and might fall into this category, although I suspect it’s more category No. 1.
Without a doubt, my favourite every opening to any book ever, ever, ever is Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. It’s smart and gives you total trust in her skills:

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

And on that, it’s strange to me because I find these kind of openings far more commonly in horror and weird fiction than in anything else I read. Of course horrors roots lie in literary fiction so it makes a certain degree of sense, but…

What are your thoughts?
 

BAYLOR

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A less then perfect or bad opening line doesn't generally kill a book or story for me.
 

HareBrain

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What are your thoughts?
My chief thought is that the whole of writing and reading discussion can be summed up in four letters: YMMV. It's the tetragrammaton of our age.

I agree completely that there are some openings that just make you trust the author and settle back, knowing you're in for a good (or at least a competent) ride. But like Somerset Maugham's three rules for writing a novel, no one can agree on what they are. The Gunslinger opening is a basic, bald statement of facts, but it does it for me. Your Hurston "ships at a distance" one, on the other hand, annoys me a bit, because being a contrary type, contestable statements that open books tend to make me want to argue with them. It sounds like it's trying to impress me by being clever. The opening to Pride and Prejudice risks doing the same, but is saved by its wit.

I can't add any advice, really. I think writers should be aware of how important the opening is, but I'm not sure much is gained by trying to force it to be good. It has to be natural at least.
 

Toby Frost

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Firstly, I agree that the author is effectively making a promise to finish the story in a satisfactory manner. If the detective in a mystery just gives up, or the murderer just randomly confesses, the crime story has failed, because fundamental to its premise is that the criminal is exposed through the detective’s skill. It might just – just – be possible to fail in one sense and succeed in another, like the play An Inspector Calls, where one outright murderer isn’t revealed in the conventional sense, but a large amount of food for thought is provided instead (and the victim’s death is explained), but I think you’ve got to be a good writer to pull this off. That doesn’t mean that a story can’t leave questions open or even be somewhat anticlimactic – not everything needs a showdown – but it must provide some kind of satisfactory resolution. The Wild Bunch ends with a bloodbath and a small amount of redemption, which is satisfying: Marathon Man ends satisfactorily, but that actual plot is extremely hard to follow in detail.

As to opening paragraphs, I think all the examples you’ve given had a sort of confidence, in both ideas and the way that they’re expressed. They’ve got a sense of the author taking control: “I’m going to tell you that it was 13 o’clock and you’re going to find out why”. Likewise, “It was the best of times…” works because it immediately tells the reader something impossible: that the best of times and the worst of times happened at once. How can that be? Read on to find out!

“Call me Ishmael” works for me because it’s very much a command, and begs the question of why it isn’t “I am Ishmael”. It’s both a direct order to the reader and a question as to what this guy’s been doing to merit a possibly false name (and, especially to readers back then, whether this guy is similar to the Biblical Ismael). So there’s an element of confidence in the telling: it’s not just giving facts, but ordering the reader to pay attention.
 

tinkerdan

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I can't add any advice, really. I think writers should be aware of how important the opening is, but I'm not sure much is gained by trying to force it to be good. It has to be natural at least.
I have to agree with this in that, and along with the OPs promise and trust, starting with a bang makes me want to see this course through the novel and overreaching can cause great expectations that are doomed to disappointment.

I still love this one.

"It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents--except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness." --Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, Paul Clifford (1830)

The rest of the novel is okay; I finished it(that is to say).
 

Juliana

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I think follow-through is important for trust. By that I mean, you start reading a story that has a killer opening, maybe a fantastic first few pages or first chapter, but the author has to keep up that promise in the rest of the book.

I'm not talking about pacing, that's a different thing, and stories need to breath, to have a rhythm of ups and downs, of physical action vs emotional action. I'm talking about stories that change tone or style after the first few pages, and make you feel like the first bit was maybe edited differently than the rest. (EDIT: meaning, don't do that!!! :D)
 

Droflet

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I have to agree with this in that, and along with the OPs promise and trust, starting with a bang makes me want to see this course through the novel and overreaching can cause great expectations that are doomed to disappointment.

I still love this one.

"It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents--except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness." --Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, Paul Clifford (1830)

The rest of the novel is okay; I finished it(that is to say).

Holy crap, now THAT is a hell of a sentence.
 

Wayne Mack

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For me, when making a buying decision, the first 2-3 paragraphs are critical. If the story does not grab my by then, back on the bookstore shelves it goes. Within the first paragraphs I expect to learn the genre of the story (science fiction, fantasy, military, humor, adventure) and pacing. This is what I would consider the author's promise to me. The first line is a good opening to the initial paragraphs, but I would not make a purchase decision based upon it in isolation.
 

DLCroix

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Be careful with the show versus tell issue because two of the most important aspects that differentiate one author from another are precisely the style and the narrative voice and both are in direct proportion to how subjective the narrator of the story is. For example, publish a piece of Madame Bovary in Critiques or of Moby Dick itself and they will tear it to pieces saying that you are only counting, not showing. I fear for your personal safety if you think of writing like Edgar Allan Poe. Also, there are others who say that if it has nothing to do with story, then delete it. Oh really? Well, if it is to heed that advice, there would not be a book like One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Nobel García Márquez.
On the other hand, this is thus independent of whether it is in the first or third person. In general lines, if it is in first person, the narrator expresses his own doubts because he obviously ignores what others think or plan; if he is in third, he thinks, supposes, even messes up. So if you focus too much on showing, sometimes you will have to create dialogue or describe situations that no one would say in real life because they sound fake. It also influences the length of a story, sometimes it is much easier, for example, to say: "Holmes knew that suspect A was at the port because informant B told him" to show all that in half a page of text, streamlines action. I advise reading what is written and asking yourself what part you can transfer to dialogues but as long as those dialogues are funny, that they do not seem like a summary or even less masks. :ninja:
 
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msstice

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I have had the misfortune to read some YA to my offshoot that absolutely cracks it the first chapter and then runs out of gas. Presumably because someone whispered in the author's ear that by the time the reader has read the first chapter, they have bought the book.

Ranting aside, promises and trust are well and good but I think primarily I must enjoy reading the book and feel the need to keep turning the pages. This comes from a mixture of surprise in the plot, engagement with the characters fates and curiosity about the world.
 

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I didn't realise this was an actual opening for a real life book, I just thought it was how Snoopy always started his novels. Consider me now educated (y)
View attachment 82837
Bulwer-Lytton was hugely well-known and successful in his day. Today he's considered a hack, probably in part because he invented many phrases that were considered fresh at the time but were so widely imitated that they became cliché.
 

WSDuffy

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I think that I read the "trust" and "promises" concepts a little bit differently. To me "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times" is a promise of sorts, because it clearly signposts the tone and prose style of the work to come. I would define the "promises" concept of a book is the experience that the author is telling the reader that they will have. The "trust" is what the author does in the opening that shows the reader that they are capable of delivering on the promises that they make. You can of course (and probably should ) surprise your reader and push them into places that your opening didn't necessarily suggest, but the promises you make limit the sorts of surprises that are on the table. While I haven't read your works, the issues you are describing sound less like you haven't earned the readers' trust yet and more that they are feeling that one of your inferred promises has been potentially broken (which is, admittedly something that people have much less tolerance for in authors they don't know). Unorthodox and Left-Field materials, particularly the intentional ones you are depicting, are not an issue in and of themselves; they can become an issue when they rub up against the expectations set by the prior materials in the story. I think that is the concept of writing promises is simultaneously so useful and so challenging. How do you simultaneously let a reader know the ride they are in for while still leaving yourself the spaces you need to do the sort of deviations you want? I... don't have an answer yet.
 

Phyrebrat

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Good replies all.

I think I might've clouded the issue by my use of promise and first lines, although the responses are interesting as to the distinction. What I'm interested in isn't the nuts and bolts of it; the kind of stuff you get in the How To books, but the concept of trust.

Trust as in you're not being lied to, you're not being misled that someone can write when they can't. I appreciate the question I'm asking is somewhat metaphysical inasmuch as it requires intuition (which is a phenomena I fully believe in, just to get that out the way ;) ).

On the face of it, I think it comes from what Toby has said; confidence, and I suspect that I'm combining the confidence with that intuition when I read a book's title before even deciding whether to buy it or not.

Be careful with the show versus tell issue

I'm clear on this issue and its nuance. I was referring to the times it comes up in crits here. I think that's because we're only getting a small fraction of the work and we're unable to make a relevant judgement on whether it's permissible or not, in most cases.
 

Wayne Mack

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While it is disappointing when a good opening trails off into mediocrity or worse, the first couple of paragraphs do give me a sense of trust in what will follow. I usually believe that if I find the first paragraphs of a story adequately engaging and interesting, that will carry through for the remainder of the novel. The opposite is also true. If I feel put off by the first couple of paragraphs, I will not force myself to keep reading to see if things improve. Likewise, if I enjoy a novel by an author, I will usually continue to buy both new and back catalogue books by that author. However, especially in a series, one bad book will put me off that author.

Is this what you are looking for concerning trust?
 

HareBrain

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On the face of it, I think it comes from what Toby has said; confidence, and I suspect that I'm combining the confidence with that intuition when I read a book's title before even deciding whether to buy it or not.
I think I used to have that same trust, but I've now lost it. In fact I realise now that what I said earlier:

I agree completely that there are some openings that just make you trust the author and settle back, knowing you're in for a good (or at least a competent) ride.
relates to that earlier state of mind. I've read too many books since which have started well and then disappointed. The quality of the prose might not have flagged, but the story did. I won't start a novel now without checking out a few negative reviews first. This is partly because I bought two last year that disappointed me -- Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell and Piranesi by Susanna Clarke. Both were books where the advance publicity and press reviews, my previous experience with those authors and my trying the first page led me to trust them.

Now I trust nothing. Bitter and alone, I wander the world, refusing to read anything other than the ingredients lists on discarded food packaging. At least those won't betray you.
 

msstice

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The quality of the prose might not have flagged, but the story did.
I've been bitten by a few of these recently: How To Live Safely in a Science-fictional Universe, Interlibrary Loan and The Gone Away World. The writing in each of these books was exquisite, but I just got bored. It's hard to explain. I was really split. I loved the skill of the writer, but the story just wasn't there for me.
 

Dan Jones

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I think I know what you're getting at here. IMO it's fairly simple; the opening passages of a book can do many different things. They can be descriptive, evocative, experimental, action-packed, in medias res, an exploration of the novel's major theme(s), or something else. But I'm given to trust a writer simply when they write well. Actually, to be honest, if I'm picking up a book off the shelf that's been published by a trad publisher, I expected them to be able to write exceptionally well, given the intense competition out there.

Maybe "good" or even "excellent" writing isn't quite right. It has to be those things, but also a good fit for the reader, so there's an element of "hand in glove" when you pick it up and read it. And if you feel that, then I suppose you're instantly inclined to hand over your trust. I'm reading The Grip Of It by Jac Jemc at the moment, and it's a haunted house story, which I enjoy. But the prose is extremely minimalist, and I like my prose rich and masterfully wielded, so even though I like the genre the style didn't really work for me. You've cited Shirley Jackson's classic of the genre, and we've both read House Of Leaves, which are both so rich that, for readers who like that sort of thing, they positively scream that you're going to be in good hands with those books.

So if the writing is a good fit as it should be then I'm happy to put my trust in them in go along for the ride. If you start a book and are drawn in, you have to take the exchange in good faith, the same as you would with human interactions. Sometimes it won't work out, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't be open to it again. Always adopting a "good faith" approach towards a book means that you can enjoy whatever you get from it. Otherwise you'll end up like @HareBrain, rifling through the bins behind council libraries for discarded J.M Coetzee novels to scream at, while clad in a suit made from old Coco Pops packaging. Be careful out there, folks.
 

Ogma

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I've noted a tendancy in books that, if there are elements in that going to put off readers, there's often a scene in the first chapter which clearly flags them up front. I think trust is not just about the quality of the writing but the tone of the piece. If a story starts off light and fluffy and then suddenly veers without warning into darker territory, those who prefer the former will be put off while fans of the latter may never reach it.
 

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