Your Writing Is a Contract with the Reader


Most often, the books I read guide me to the type of book they are in the first paragraph, first page, or at least by the end of the first chapter. Think about how the first paragraph of a book sets the scene or the mood, not only for what's taking place at that moment but also pointing to the mood of the book beyond those early pages. 

A murder/mystery usually has a murder or a discovered body; a fantasy shows us the world; a sci-fi gives us a sense of the ambiance; more than just an immersion into the worlds the stories are set in, the opening pages also inform the reader what the story will be about. There are few feelings worse than stepping into what I think will be a cozy mystery with ghosts to find out the book took a horror turn.


A Contract with the Reader

Umberto Eco called it, "A Contract with the Reader." Over his career, Eco describes the opening pages as a promise the author makes to the reader letting the reader know they are in safe hands, that the author will guide them through the story with all the information the reader needs to understand and connect to the characters in space and time. By making our promise as writers, the reader then promises to suspend their disbelief so that they can comfortably walk into a kingdom where dragons roam the halls like guard dogs or witness sparks fly between future lovers as they both reach for the same gloves in a store a week before Christmas.

A writer establishes their credentials in the first paragraph, on the first page, or in the first chapter demonstrating their proficiency for storytelling and in so doing allows the reader to give up their apprehensions by releasing their preconceptions of disbelief. In other words, by showing the reader they're in the capable hands of a storyteller, they are far more willing to just go with whatever you write. 

The Reader Doesn't Care If the Writer Doesn't Care

It's much more difficult to give ourselves over to a story if the writer has demonstrated a disconnection with their own story, an inability to read the characters, a reluctance to explore their own world, a barrier between narrative and story voice, etc. If we can't trust the writer in the first pages of the story to demonstrate where they will take us, how can we trust them to meet and exceed our expectations?

This is not the same as saying a writer can't upend expectations. Some of the best reading experiences are when a writer is able to truly surprise their reader but this surprise must still be within the context of the story at hand. A reader who expects a romance will be livid if halfway through the novel it turns to a horror, or vice versa. 

Where is this story taking us?"

One of the most common questions I ask as a writing instructor is, "Where is this story taking us?"

In my novel Life Between Seconds, my first chapter parallels my last chapter. I open with two main characters on a journey together. I close with them finding each other and starting a new journey. The circularity helps round out the character arcs but also reflects the main point of the contract we create with our readers within the opening moments of our narratives. It doesn't matter the genre or the writing style. It isn't about creating circularity but about pointing to the reader to where the story will take us. 

Openings Should Point to the Endings

The Prologue of The Da Vinci Code promises the reader key stakes in the murder/mystery/adventure; we will go on a journey, we will meet Robert Langdon, we will uncover the answers we need to solve the puzzles. Pride and Prejudice do the same in the opening line, "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife." These books are very different but equally effective in showing how a writer creates that contract with the reader by explaining to the reader what this book is about and how it will unfold in its own particular way.

One, an action-packed murder mystery, and the other, a Regency romance. Each possesses its own particular tropes while still delighting the reader with their specific characteristics that make them unique in the wider canon.