A promise made…

Embed from Getty ImagesInside jokes are typically shared between friends.

But inside quotes (as I like to think of them) are words of wisdom, usually imparted by parents or older relatives, that take root in childhood and stay with you throughout life.

Usually they’re sayings uttered by lesser-known writers, poets, essayists, which possess the kind of homespun philosophy that you don’t hear much nowadays.

I have several which have guided me through life. Stick around long enough and I’ll probably tell you most of them. But the one pertinent to today’s post is this:

“A promise made is a debt unpaid.”
— Robert Service

Who Robert Service is isn’t essential (if you’re curious, look him up). His advice, however, is spot-on, especially for beginning writers and those who are serious about fine-tuning their work.

When we write, our work makes an implicit promise to the reader.
Science fiction author Nancy Kress’s book on writing, “Beginnings, Middles and Ends,” covers this concept thoroughly. (I’ll wait patiently until you follow the link, read what she says, and return.)

One way to judge the success of your work is to see if you’ve followed through on what you’ve promised. If you don’t deliver, the reader feels cheated.

Have you ever read an author whose work is brilliant in many ways, but ultimately unsatisfying? I feel this way about Jonathan Carroll, who’s popular in Europe but not so much in the States. I’ve read two of his novels, and both have exploded from the page with incredible plots, rich characters, and wildly inventive themes. Somewhere along the way, however, he deviates from the implicit promise he makes at the beginning, and I’m disappointed by how things spin out.

As you begin whatever piece you’re working on, take a hard look at the beginning. See if it contains the implicit promise you intend to deliver on, and if you’re prepared to pay off the debt you’ve asked the reader to assume, which is his/her investment of time in your words. If not, you should either rework the beginning or think about what other promise you are capable of making and following through with.

It’s not just you telling a story. It’s how you keep the reader engaged and ultimately satisfied, or engaged until you break your word. In literature as in life: don’t make a promise you cannot keep.

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