First, a question. We’re writers, not to mention readers ourselves, so why the heck don’t we know these expectations already?
Because these are 15 tacit expectations, expectations that no one ever taught us, because they’re hardwired.
This is not a problem for readers, but the maddening thing for writers is that because we aren’t consciously aware of what our hardwired expectations are, when we write stories we tend to substitute what we’ve been taught those expectations are. And a whole lot of what we’ve been taught is flat out wrong.
So, before we dive into those 15 hardwired expectations, let’s talk about something we’re not wired to crave.
Yep, it turns out the brain is far less picky about beautiful writing than we’ve been led to believe.
This isn’t to say readers don’t like beautiful writing, of course they do. But beautiful writing is not inherently necessary, nor – and this is the point — is it what has us enthralled when we’re reading. Rather it’s the story those beautiful words are giving voice to that gives them the power to rivet us.
The problem for so many writers is that when they head into the starting gate, their primary goal is to write beautifully. Which is precisely what keeps them from getting out of the starting gate, and one reason why 97 writers out of a 100 never finish a first draft.
Why do we believe that pretty writing is what we should focus on from the first word forward? Because from kindergarten on, what we’re taught tends to focus not on the story itself, but on the words used to express it – long before you’re even sure what the story you’re writing actually is.
My advice? Forget trying get a gold star from your seventh grade English teacher for writing the world’s most “perfect” opening sentence (or maybe that was just me). Writing pretty comes last. Creating a story comes first. Otherwise, it’s like trying to frost a cake you haven’t baked yet.
With that in mind, let’s dive into what we, as readers, are hardwired to expect, and what you can do so that your story deftly fulfills those expectations:
1. The reader expects that the story will start making a very specific point, beginning with the first sentence.
We’re wired to tacitly ask of every story: What am I going to learn here that will help me make it through the night? That’s why all stories make a point about human nature, beginning in the very first sentence. Which means that as the writer, you need to know what your point is before you begin writing.
Ask yourself: What am I saying about human nature? What inside intel am I giving my reader about how to best navigate this mortal coil?
2. The reader expects the story to revolve around one, single plot problem that grows, escalates and complicates, which the protagonist has no choice but to deal with.
Here’s the surprising secret: That external, evolving plot problem is not what the story is about. The plot problem is constructed to force the protagonist to confront, struggle with, and hopefully overcome a long standing internal problem. Story is about an internal change, not an external one.
Ask yourself: Can my plot problem grow, escalate and complicate from the first page to the last? If so, can it force my protagonist to struggle internally, spurring her to make a much needed internal change in order to resolve it?
3. The reader expects a glimpse of the big picture from the very first page.
As readers we need a notion of the big picture, so we have an idea where we’re going, why, and what’s at stake for the protagonist. This not only triggers the sense of urgency that catapults us into the story, it’s also what allows us to make sense of what’s happening from beginning to end.
It’s a tall order, but why not try to follow John Irving’s admittedly glib suggestion: “Whenever possible, tell the entire story of the novel in the first sentence.”
Ask yourself: What is the scope of my story? What journey will my reader take? Have I made it clear? Don’t be afraid of “giving it all away” on the very first page. Be specific, be clear, don’t hold back. Remember, you’re giving readers what they crave: a reason to care, a reason to be curious, and enough info to understand what the stakes are.
4. The reader expects that there will be a protagonist.
As readers we’re wired to make the protagonist’s experience our own, literally. Our tacit goal is to biologically experience the events in the plot as if we are the protagonist. Yep, story really is the world’s first virtual reality. Which means, first and foremost, there has to be a protagonist.
The protagonist is the reader’s avatar in the novel, and everything that happens in the plot will get its meaning and emotional weight based on how it affects the protagonist, who’s in pursuit of a deceptively difficult goal. Without a protagonist, all you have is a plot, a.k.a. a bunch of things that happen.
Ask yourself: Who is my protagonist? In other words, whose story is it?
5. The reader expects that the protagonist will be flawed and vulnerable – never, ever “perfect.”
Story is about how the protagonist changes, internally – which means that your protagonist can’t be perfect when she steps onto the page, because then why would she need to change? Yet writers often fear that if the protagonist isn’t perfect – read: socially acceptable – she won’t be likeable.
The irony is that what makes us likeable isn’t being perfect, what makes us likeable is the fact that we’re vulnerable, that we don’t always know the “right answer” to everything. Vulnerability is endearing, and what allows us to relate to the protagonist; perfection is off putting. In fact, “perfect” people tend to raise red flags with us. We know that no one is ever that perfect, so we begin to wonder, hmmm, what’s she hiding?
Ask yourself: Where is my protagonist vulnerable? How is she reading the world wrong? What belief does she hold that the plot will force her to reconsider? What will she need to realize in order to change?
6. The reader expects the protagonist to not only have a past, but one that affects the future.
None of us sprang into being fully formed at the age of (fill in your protagonist’s age). We humans – and hence our protagonists – all have a past that has brought us to this very moment. What’s more we make sense of what happens to us in the present based on what our past experience has taught us. Thus a protagonist without a story-specific past is a generic, cardboard cutout.
Ask yourself: What happened in my protagonist’s past that landed her in the situation she’ll find herself in on page one? How will what her past has taught her affect the way she’ll react to what happens in the story?
7. The reader expects that the protagonist will enter the story with a longstanding agenda – that is, something she already wants, which is what gives true meaning to her goal.
As readers we assume that the protagonist has a story-long agenda before she steps onto page one, and that her goal – in every scene – will be to move that agenda forward. In other words: she enters already wanting something very badly, and the plot will force her to go after it.
Ask yourself: What does my protagonist step onto page one already wanting? Why does she want it? What’s her agenda – meaning: how does she plan to get it?
8. The reader expects the protagonist will have a longstanding misbelief that has kept her from easily achieving that goal.
Aha! This is what the story is actually about, to wit: How the plot forces the protagonist to recognize, reevaluate — and hopefully — overcome the longstanding misbelief that has long kept her from achieving her goal. It’s this inner change that, as readers, we’re innately tracking from the first page forward.
To be very clear, we’re talking about a misbelief about human nature, rather than something factual. It’s not: “I thought the world was flat, and guess what, it’s round!” Rather it’s: “I thought that no one could ever love the “real me,” but I’ve discovered that that’s exactly what makes me loveable!”
Ask yourself: What is your protagonist’s longstanding misbelief about human nature? How has it guided her life up to the first page?
9. The reader expects that the plot will force the protagonist to confront and overcome her misbelief, something she’s probably spent her whole life avoiding.
As readers we cue into the protagonist’s misbelief surprisingly early, and expect the plot to continually challenge it. And, because misbeliefs are deeply ingrained early in life, we know that the protagonist isn’t going to give it up without a fight. Especially since to her it isn’t a misbelief at all, but a savvy piece of inside intel she’s lucky to have learned early in life.
Ask yourself: Is my protagonist’s misbelief what drives the decisions she makes? Is my plot forcing her to grapple with her misbelief, scene by scene?
10. The reader expects to feel something, from the first sentence to the last; and what the reader feels is what the protagonist feels.
Like life, all story is emotion based. If we’re not feeling, we’re not reading. What hooks us as readers is akin to a Vulcan mind meld – we are in the protagonist’s head, and we feel what she feels, in the moment, on the page, in reaction to the hard decision the plot is forcing her to make. And by emotion we’re not talking about whether she’s happy, sad, jealous or angry. We’re talking about how she makes sense of the situation internally – revealing what it means to her — as she struggles with what to do.
In other words: emotion is revealed by how the protagonist reacts internally to what’s happening externally. It’s this internal struggle that we readers come for.
Ask yourself: Have I given the reader my protagonist’s train of thought, in the moment, as she struggles to figure out what the heck to do in each scene?
11. The reader expects a clear, present and escalating force of opposition, with a loudly ticking clock.
As readers we expect a clear, concise idea of what the escalating consequence will be should the protagonist ultimately fail, and a ticking clock counting down to that consequence. That’s what stokes the mounting urgency we feel as she struggles to solve the problem before it’s too late. If we don’t know where it’s going, and what the obstacles are, we can’t anticipate what might happen next. Read: we put the book down and, heartbreakingly, have no reason to pick it up again.
Ask yourself: Is the force of opposition clear, and can we see where it’s headed? Does it escalate? Can the reader anticipate what will happen next, why, and what we’re counting down to?
12. The reader expects that there will be something crucial at stake in every scene, continually forcing the protagonist’s hand.
As readers we expect everything that happens to in some way challenge the protagonist in the pursuit of her goal. We view every single scene – including subplots — as part of the plot problem’s cause-and-effect trajectory, and in every scene we expect something integral to the protagonist’s quest to be at stake, thus forcing her to make a hard choice, and as a result learn something new that changes how she sees things, often causing her to alter her plan.
Ask yourself: Is there something story-specific at stake in every scene? Does it force your protagonist to struggle internally? What does it cost her emotionally? What does she learn as a result? How does it change her?
13. The reader expects that as the protagonist tries to solve the plot problem, she will only make things worse, until she has no choice but to face her misbelief.
We expect that the protagonist will have two mutually exclusive goals: first, to resolve the plot problem; second, to remain true to her misbelief while doing so. The irony is that the thing she thinks is helping her – her misbelief – is actually what’s keeping her from getting what she wants. This reveals the most fundamental, and potent, source of conflict in any story: your protagonist’s internal struggle – what she wants vs. the misbelief that keeps her from getting it.
Ask yourself: Is my protagonist’s misbelief continually getting in the way of resolving the problem, even though she believes she’s giving it her all? Is she hoping to solve the problem without having to expose her vulnerability? Is the plot problem continually forcing her to reassess? Hopefully the answer to all three questions is: You bet!
14. The reader expects that everything in the story is there strictly on a need-to-know basis.
As readers we assume that everything the writer tells us is integral to the story, and without it, the story won’t make sense. After all, if we didn’t need to know it, why would the writer waste her time telling us?
The problem is that when writers tell us things we don’t need to know, we assign them a story meaning anyway, and we’re inherently going to be wrong. It’s like throwing rocks into an otherwise well-oiled machine. Once they get caught in the gears, it’s not long before everything comes to a grinding halt.
Ask yourself: Is everything in my story integral to it? Have I thrown in things that sound nice, but do not affect the story itself? Hint: this is where the lure of beautiful writing can creep in. It sounds so lovely, do I really have to delete it? Yep!
15. The reader expects that at the end of the story the protagonist will emerge changed, seeing the world through new eyes.
As readers, this is our ultimate pay off, it’s what we’ve been reading forward to experience. Not how does the plot end, but how has the plot changed the protagonist’s worldview? We want to be in her skin when she finally recognizes her misbelief for what it is: wrong.
Remember when we said that every story makes a point about human nature? This is where it happens, via the protagonist’s ultimate “aha” moment. As T.S. Eliot so sagely said, “The end of our journey is to return to where we started, and to see the place for the first time.” We’re there!
Ask yourself: When your protagonist has her ultimate “aha” moment, are we in her head, thus privy to the evolving internal logic that triggers it, so we can experience it with her? Because as she changes, so do we.
And that, my friends, is the transformative power of story!