Nancy: Promises, Promises

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In our McDaniel classes, we spent one of the modules comparing the beginnings of our books to the endings. We looked for ways that our final scenes echoed the first ones with elements such as location, characters, and repeated motifs. And we looked at the differences that showed how the characters had changed over the course of the book to make sure the character arc of the protagonist was complete. I wrote about this idea of beginnings and endings and coming full circle in this post last fall.
Another thing we considered during this exercise was whether, by those final scenes, our stories had fulfilled the promises we’d made to the readers with our story openings. It was this aspect of analysis that haunted me this past week when I got back to my WIP. Only the problem of beginnings and endings and keeping promises isn’t with my McDaniel women’s fiction WIP. It’s with the urban fantasy manuscript I had completed and revised and then had to shelve (for sanity’s sake) a few months before signing up for the McD certificate program. And suddenly, like a lightning bolt, it hit me this past week – the problem with that WIP that I could never quite solve is the promise I made in the first chapter, or more precisely, the fact that I didn’t keep it.
Oddly enough, I’d started that book with the last scene firmly planted in my mind. All the way through that story, I had my sights set on that ending. But when I finally finished the story, while the ending was right, it wasn’t satisfactory. So I changed the ending. I worked back through the scenes I needed to change to make the new ending make sense. The new ending was satisfying, but on some level it was no longer right. So, story, meet shelf.
Then I had the epiphany this past week, and I know that I’ll need to go back to that story, reread the first chapter and act, and document the promises I’m making to the readers. After that, I’ll have to figure out an ending that keeps those promises about what kind of story it will be, which elements will end happily, and which won’t. And then I will need to go back to the revision drawing board, because even when we as readers don’t realize it, every book begins with the writer’s promise to us, and to have an ending that is both satisfactory and right, those promises must be kept.
Have you ever come to the conclusion that somewhere along the way, you broke the promises you set forth in one of your stories? What promises have you made to your readers in your current WIP?

6 thoughts on “Nancy: Promises, Promises

  1. Oh, yeah. I think, actually, in the first draft it might be kind of rare to make promises to the reader and keep those promises through subsequent drafts. The story changes and becomes something else during the first draft process for sure, and then each subsequent draft is a chance to review those promises.

    Oddly enough, I keep going back to my first promises for The Djini and Ms. Jones.

    But in my second NaNo, I set forth some promises that I’m glad I didn’t keep. It was always a story about how an asteroid disrupted life on a colonial planet (one that was only 100 years old, and still working on setting itself up). I promised that a kid would die! Not a cheerful way to start a book, and fortunately, I found other ways to keep my interest going without killing the little sister. When I go back to that book, I’ll definitely have to make different promises to the reader, more in keeping with what the story became. Some promises, though, in that beginning will still be there.

    • Oh, and I just remembered this: some old fashioned books will make you some promises at the beginning of every chapter. You remember the ones that had a little summary/outline of what the chapter would bring? Teasers, not necessarily spoilers. Terribly old-fashioned now, but I often think they’d be a great tool for a pre-final draft. Promises, maybe, not for the reader, but to keep me as a writer on track.

      Gosh, I can’t find any examples! But I think it’s like in Huckleberry Finn, where a chapter title may be followed by: Chapter V: Huck’s Father — The Fond Parent — Reform.

      It’s driving me nuts . . . do you know what I’m talking about?

      • I think I will forego a promise at the beginning of every chapter, since I seem to have trouble even at the macro level of the entire book :-). I think the fact that you keep going back to your first promises for TDAMJ probably means there is good stuff in there. The trick will be making sure you keep those promises, if not in the first draft, then by adding in the information in the revisions.

      • I’m not exactly sure what you have in mind, Michaeline, but the Huck Finn example is good. It reminded me of those earlier novels that had headings like “Chapter 13, in which our heroine discovers that tea is not always accompanied by crumpets” and lines like that, although I can’t really think of an example. Actually, I think that kind of header would be a pretty good way to remind ourselves when we’re writing the chapter what we want to accomplish in it. And then, particularly if we’re writing contemporary romance, we delete it later!

        • (-: Chapter headings seems to be the right answer. I wonder if Gutenberg chops them off, because Wikipedia says Tom Jones has them, but the Gutenberg version online didn’t. I do kind of like them, and if I were writing a novel with a very old-fashioned, ironic sort of flavor, I would leave them in. Otherwise, yeah. Vestigial tail — cut it off.

  2. Pingback: Nancy: Echoes and reversals, beginnings and endings – Eight Ladies Writing

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