The Writer-Reader Contract







Someone once said that the writer-reader contract is more intimate than marriage: one is willing, even eager, to take into their head someone else’s thoughts. How much more intimate can you get?

Is contract another word for trust? That appears to be the case when readers will buy, unseen, the next book in a series, or by a given author, whereas they will circle around a new book by an unknown, reluctant to pay down money, even a small amount that they would think nothing of spending on a cappuccino. But of course, with the cappuccino, they know ahead of time exactly what they are getting. As is true with the series or the author.

How to define the contract, if one won’t accept the word ‘trust’?

Well, that’s tougher, partly because not only does every writer come to each project with different ideas, expectations, wants, intentions, and motivations, but readers come to books with their own experience, expectations, etc. If you walk into a waiting room and discover three sisters each sewing identical pieces of cloth, you might, if asking what they are doing, hear three answers: sewing a shirt, creating textile art, and earning a living.

Some will say that the reader contract can be defined as a story that rings true. Um, yeah. Truth. Courtrooms daily are proving that ‘truth’ can be as tough to define as ‘good taste.’ This historical novel that your neighbor raves about you are appalled to find riddled with errors. The book your kid thinks is so realistic rings totally false to you—in your experience, people don’t act like that, except maybe on stage.

Then there is the old realism debate—as if gritty detail somehow carries more gravitas.

Maybe it’s easier to talk about what breaks the contract for the reader—she can’t believe in the lie, or as my professors used to say, is unwilling to suspend disbelief for the extent of the novel. (Though I find, in later life, that that “disbelief” is not so black-and-white as we were told during my college days; there are books, places, characters, that for most purposes are more real to passionate readers than actual living peeps. But I digress.)

I’ve found over the years that the first example offered in talking about what breaks the contract are unpleasant experiences the reader was not seeking, or was not ready for. “I did NOT want to read that!” Book, meet wall.

Speaking for only me, I find that a comedic tone appears to promise a safety net, by which I mean implicit is the promise of no long scenes of torture, murder of innocents and the helpless, dreary or tragic situations or endings. What is sometimes termed black humor delivers these things, can even be about these very things. I suspect this is why some readers don’t find black humor funny. “Kafka is screamingly funny!” “Sez you–I think he’s boring and dreary.” For some readers, suffering is funny, not because they are cruel people, but they can gain a distance from the pain by laughing at it, they can even get distance from grieving. Others are not going to find the laugh mechanism triggered by certain subjects no matter what.

The contract for the experienced reader is going to be different from that of a new reader. The new reader is unfamiliar with tropes—everything is new and exciting. So a work that plays around with old tropes might read like a mess, because there is no recognition of the patterns the writer is examining.

Character death and contract-breaking sparks some of the sharpest divides in discussions,  I’ve discovered. A while back, someone posted in their blog, Dear Authors, if a character dies, let them stay dead. Thank you. That was right after someone else stated that Joss Whedon had forever lost their trust after [random pointless character death], as they came to fiction to avoid that aspect of Real Life.

If you are a writer, and your audience has expectations of you, do you deliberately set out to break them, or fulfill them? Readers might say they crave something new, but if you look at the best seller lists, how many times have you seen a familiar storyline? Some writers begin to feel an adversarial relationship with readers—especially after reading a lot of reviews that all seem to contradict.

Finally, the real contract is with the writer herself, though I think if helps the writer to become aware of the terms of that contract if she was first a reader.

Sherwood Smith’s ebooks



The Writer-Reader Contract — 24 Comments

  1. I think ‘trust’ sounds like the perfect word. Starting a new author is a lot like a blind date, and maybe you have a vouch from a friend, but that doesn’t mean they’re not going to be a creep. It doesn’t usually have much to do with don’t kill your characters or don’t be grim or sexist (though those things can be distressing or offputting). It’s more of the ‘don’t betray my trust.’ If the author kills one of the characters that has been a main-character/hero for most of the book, for no other purpose except to be shocking – that’s a betrayal. If the author writes a book about young people figuring things out and dealing with problems and becoming strong and then, at the end, has an adult swoop in deal with the final big-bad – that’s a betrayal. If the author writes a book about a girl figuring out who she is and dealing with her own problems and then thrusts in a boy with sculpted abs and makes the girl become all damsel/helpless-ish – that’s a betrayal.

    Personally, I like to surprise readers and defy expectations, but I also like to make my readers happy and satisfied. If you defy expectations, you have to make it solid, you can’t just have a sudden twist at the end, you have to set it up so the readers are ready for the surprise and so the surprise is exciting and interesting rather than shocking and upsetting. A badly written or poorly thought-out book is annoying, but it doesn’t get thrown against the wall, a wall book pulls the rug out from under you, and makes you realize that the author is not on the same page as you, or has betrayed their own story for cliche and marketability.

    • I think the trust can be so different from book to book. At least, for me, my trust in something I expect to be a comfort book varies from the trust with which I approach a non-fiction historical work. And likewise, the betrayal differs.

      I tend to think that cliche is not betrayal so much as disappointment for following long-established patterns after all, when I’d hoped for surprise; betrayal, at least for me, is when the story seems to change tone, or content, becoming the sort of thing I strenuously avoid.

      All this confirms me in my suspicion that trust and betrayal are highly idiosyncratic things–difficult to predict overall. (Though sometimes that’s not true, either. I recollect a YA fantasy published some ten or twelve years ago, by the offspring of a famous writer. It got a huge push, but almost universally readers found the ending–a postmodern “kill them all randomly” sort of end–a total betrayal. The beginning had not promised that type of book, and fantasy readers tend not to read fantasy for that type of end.)

  2. I like your use of trust instead of contract. I was reading a “contract with the reader” entry yesterday that insisted the writer must cut everything they like out of a story and leave only what their reader would want to read. That left me sad. If I can’t like the story I write, then why should I write it?

    I like to hope that my obligation to my reader is to tell a good story. Of course, that opens another can of worms because who decides what’s a good story?

    As an unknown writer, I’m in that precarious position of not having earned a reader’s trust yet. I think that leaves me with extra obligation to tell the very best story I can in order to earn that trust.

    • It’s true that the new writer has a tougher time, unless the writer has already earned trust by being famous, or extra pretty, or whatever. But I think all writers owe it to the readers to tell the best story they can . . . as soon as they start getting lazy or not caring, the readers will pick up the slacker vibe. Sometimes it can take a while, but it’s gonna happen.

      • I have seen that discussed in various circles when readers do decide that an author is slacking or has become what they consider to be lazy due to too much on the author’s plate.

        • Yeah–we actually don’t know what is really going through an author’s mind, but can imagine them being stretched too thin if the sequels seem to be the same story, or the pacing gets uneven.

  3. I think the riff and comments get to the writer’s side of the contract very well, but I come at it from the reader’s point of view. What does the reader owe having freely (I hope) entered the relationship? We all bring our own capacities to the experience, but also a reader has the obligation, in my opinion, to understand what the author is in fact offering and not project overmuch.

    • That’s a good question. Can readers help projecting, especially when we bring years of experience to a book? It can make me sad when a young reader introduces me to a book, claims it’s the best thing ever, and what I see are the same old same old, from plot to characters to prose . . . my own love of reading is working against me!

  4. It has its ironic aspects. Sometimes reading is praised as a way to learn about other people, people who differ from you. Then you see the people who, perhaps, most need to learn it stumbling on the impossibility of anyone being like the character in the story.

  5. Readers can’t help projecting, but I am thinking more of the reader who ignores or maybe can’t pick up the clues to plot or character to impose something that either isn’t there or goes counter to the author’s intentions.

    • I don’t know about a reader owing, but your comment reminded me of reactions to a book I personally loved, about a women pilot in WWII. Reader reactions on Goodreads suggest that people either love or hate the book — and a lot of those who set the book down seem to do so with a “Why are there so many airplanes in this book?”
      (Um, it’s about a PILOT? And it’s not pages and pages of airplane-infodump; if it really offends you, you could just skip half a line every now and then.)

      • If it’s the book I’m thinking of, I wonder if some readers hate that there is no happy ending. (I personally have not read the book yet, as I seldom read fiction about certain aspects of the novel, but I trust this author to do a terrific job. I am also not ready for a knife through the heart!)

        • That would make sense if these reactions were from people who finished it.
          But one of the really interesting things about Goodreads* is that people will post reactions as they read, often by-page, so someone will say something like “On page 15, and not loving this book. WHY ARE THERE SO MANY PLANES?”
          (And then a lot of them seem to stop reading, and so have no opinion on how it turns out.)

          *that I never use, because why would I set down a novel I like in the middle to talk about it on the internet? and it’s rare that I dislike a novel so much that I need to stop and rant — if I really hate it, I usually just stop, or occasionally complain in-person to a friend

          • Goodreads is fun if you like to keep track of your reading–or are interested in others’ reactions as they progress through a book. Mileage varies, of course!

  6. Categories represent a kind of contract. Romance is one, and I didn’t realize until years after reading Stranger in a Strange Land what a contract breaker the first Heaven scene must have been to many of its readers.

    • Oh, yes, good point. (And how many teenagers that book worked for, in the mid-sixties, when so many were looking to scratch that particular itch outside of organized religions. That aspect was precisely why that book worked but Heinlein’s others didn’t nearly as well, for a great many.)

  7. For me the biggest breach of the writer-reader contract is when genre, blurb, early parts of the book or previous experience with writer or a combination of all those seem to promise one book and suddenly we get something different, e.g. the mystery where the killer is never caught, the romance where one half of the couple dies at the end (though romance readers are finicky and find the reader-writer contract violated by lots of things that don’t faze me, e.g. heroes or heroines not saying “I love you” or sleeping with someone else after meeting the future love of their life), the fantasy adventure novel that is marred by endless discussions of philosophy, the series where the author has made it clear that no main character will ever die for real (including unlikely resurrections) and then offs three main characters in a very short period of time, the supposedly light and humorous fantasy which suddenly takes a left turn into a 17-page scene of graphic torture. All of those broke the writer-reader contract IMO, because they promised one book and delivery another.

    Though not all breaches of writer-reader contract are intentional. For example, there are certain plots, tropes or themes I avoid like the plague, because I hate them. Nonetheless, sometimes a book with a hated plot, trope or theme sneaks up on you. Sometimes, you manage to read on and even appreciate the work on some level in spite of the hated plot, trope or theme (“Guess what? There are good novels about X”). At other times, it’s book meet wall. Is the author or the marketing to blame? Not necessarily, especially if your triggers are not the usual ones. For example, was the author to blame for that category romance novel with a surrogate pregnancy plot, which I couldn’t finish because to me surrogate pregnancy is a disgusting and exploitative practice and about as contrary to what I expect from a category romance as anything can be? But the author was American and in the US surrogate pregnancy is legal and accepted, so no American author or blurb writer could expect my utter disgust with that particular plotline.

  8. In the past ten years I’ve done a lot of thinking about the “contract with the reader” issue. I call it the covenant. The writer is supposed to hold up their end of the process. To me that means letting the reader come along for the ride. I see a trend lately in which writers are praised for manipulating the reader into creating the story. The writer doesn’t connect the dots; they expect the reader to do so. It’s a “white canvas” approach. While I like stories in which some things are left implicit, I also want the writer to include the parts that make a story a story: Did the good guys win? What motivated the protagonist? Was the conflict resolved? Did the world make sense on its own or did it just feel like a literary construct? The writer has the obligation to supply the reader with the potential for a satisfying reading experience. (Note: the writer can’t guarantee a reader will be satisfied, but the potential should be there.)

    Am I making sense? It’s probably too dense a discussion to dip into without a full essay. But I’m glad you raised the issue, Sherwood.

    • Yeah . . . one of the problems with this kind of question is that it does seem to require a longer look. Well, I did break this one down a bit: stand by for part two next Sunday!

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