Promises, Promises

In The Fiction Editor, the Novel, and the Novelist, Thomas McCormack talks about making promises to the reader. Of course we hear this terminology all  the time, but McCormack gets into a fairly technical explanation of what’s entailed in making and keeping such promises.

I was intrigued by the idea that a reader keeps turning pages, not so much because of what she’s reading right now, but rather what she’s being promised is still to come. Like the smell of coffee or the anticipation of Christmas morning, a promise can be so much more delicious than any reality. The reader therefore reads in a state of pleasurable expectation, and so long as reality doesn’t actually disappoint, she’ll finish the book having had a delightful reading experience.

I’m wondering if there’s something too stolid about the way I usually write, which is focussed on what I’m delivering on any given page, rather than what I’m promising.

McCormack talks about “prelibation” (I do love a good neologism!) It translates as something like “foretaste” – tasting in advance. McCormack says that the reader has “salivancy” – an appetite, a craving produced by the text – and the author must know both how to elicit this craving and how to satisfy it. Prelibation is the author’s intuition about what will satisfy.

“Implied prelibation” is when the text has set up an obvious requirement. Virginia Woolf praised Jane Austen for never failing to supply the “obligatory scene” – the scene we have to have. In a whodunnit, there must be a scene in which the detective reveals who the murderer is. Usually there must also be some kind of confrontation with the murderer – don’t you feel cheated when it turns out the murderer has been killed, or has run away to reappear in the sequel, without leaving so much as a taunting note?

I’ve realised there’s an obligatory scene missing from my current novel. Two characters who’ve been in conflict for two-thirds of the book make up awkwardly over the phone because there are larger issues at stake. This just isn’t good enough: the reader will be “salivating” for a proper showdown, which I’m obliged as the writer to supply. Implied prelibation is at work.

“Unimplied prelibation” is more subtle. The reader doesn’t know what she’s expecting next, but she’s expecting something. The writer’s responsibility is both to whet these inchoate appetites, and then to satisfy them with surprising and gratifying details, scenes, dialogue, etc. That’s writing, you say. Yes, but maybe it’s a common mistake of the novice writer to slave away, trying to deliver surprising, gratifying, original, amazing and beautiful words on the page, but not paying enough attention to the creation of expectations. The set-up, the promising.

The idea of promises is related to – possibly the same as? – tension. So that this post doesn’t go on forever, I’ll just look at two examples of the kinds of promises a writer can make, or tensions he can set up.

Here’s the first one-third of the first line of Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides: “On the morning the last Lisbon daughter took her turn at suicide – it was Mary this time, and sleeping pills, like Therese – …”

What are you asking yourself as a reader? How many Lisbon daughters were there? (clearly at least three, sounds like more). How old were they? (the title and the fact they’re described as “daughters” sounds like they were very young) Why did they attempt suicide? Under what circumstances? How? (since Mary and Therese used sleeping pills) Did any survive? (the word “attempted”) Does Mary survive? Why are we being told this story? The author is promising to explore all these questions, if not necessarily to answer them. We can be pretty sure of finding out how many girls, their names, their ages, the circumstances, the methods, the outcomes. We expect to learn something about the Lisbon daughters, individually and as a family. We can be certain the “why” question will be asked, but we sense from the tone that we’re not being promised an answer, and this is a source of tension.

In the second sentence we get the information that the medics were, “as usual”, moving much too slowly “in our opinion”. The reader is promised something very unusual – a plural first person narrative point of view: in effect, a chorus. Reviewers have noted that the first paragraph of this novel also promises the setting (suburban America), the tone (“wry and voluptuous with glittering black jokes carried along like seacoal by the smooth melancholy swell”), and the idea that there is something allegorical about this story, that it takes place more in a mythic realm than a realistic one. These are all interesting promises, and we read on with a strong sense of curiosity to see where the writer will take us.

A different kind of promise is offered in Justin Cronin’s The Passage, through the structure of the book. Again there’s a mythic note struck at the very beginning, telling us “Before she became the Girl from Nowhere – the One Who Walked In, the First and Last and Only, who lived a thousand years – she was just a little girl in Iowa, named Amy”. The first chapter goes on to tell us briefly and fairly realistically about Amy’s early childhood. The second chapter consists of emails between Jonas Lear and Paul Kiernan, concerning mysterious but horrific events in a Bolivian jungle. The third chapter begins in a prison for men sentenced to death, and focuses on inmate Anthony Carter. Halfway through this chapter we jump to a federal agent, Brad Wolgast, driving along a Texan road reminiscing about his childhood. The promise is that all these people and storylines are moving into alignment, that they will come together and set in motion other trains of events.

Promises, tension, mystery, suspense. A writing exercise? Ask a trusted reader to look at the first paragraph of something you’ve written. Ask them to tell you as they go along:

1. What questions am I asking as I read this?

2. What do I expect from the rest of the story?

Leave the questions as broad as that – see how much they can tell you about the possibilities opening up in their mind, stimulated by your words on the page. Take notes – do any of their questions and speculations surprise you? Do they imagine a whole storyline worlds away from what you’ve actually written? Or do they struggle to articulate any sense of anticipation or curiosity? (in which case, you might want to reword this opening para).

If you’re very brave, you could allow them to go on reading, and describe for you as they go along which possibilities are opening out or collapsing, and whether they’re happy with the realities that take their place.

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3 Comments

Filed under Narratology, Writing Exercises

3 responses to “Promises, Promises

  1. Helena Bond

    I’m glad to see you found McCormack’s book as stimulating as I did. That’s a brave feedback technique you propose, and I think, a very, very powerful observation that writers need to focus on creating a sense of expectation, of curiosity, as well as on delivering the goods.

  2. Helena Bond

    Oh well, mining’s where the money is! Perhaps that’s a Freudian slip showing that your writing is about to become super-lucrative (second thought: while plundering your places of safety… err…) maybe not Freudian at all?!

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