Writing 2.3 – A Contract with the Reader

secret-window (2)

When I took a graduate class called “Writing the Novel” a few years ago, I learned two very important things.  First, if you tell a writer that her work in progress is a romance novel when she thinks she’s writing literary fiction, be prepared to see a chair fly across the room.  Second, there’s something called “The Contract with the Reader.”  Let’s forget about throwing chairs for a while and focus on the contract, which was something I had never heard of before.

Let’s pretend you’re in a bar and a guy sitting to your left says, “You want to hear a story?”  Of course you don’t, but you say, “Sure.  Thrill me.”  He knows sarcasm, so he says, “Tell you what.  If I give you a four-sentence setup, and you agree that you’re interested in hearing the rest, then you owe me a beer.  How’s that?”  So of course, you say, “Sure.  Thrill me.”  So he says:

A lonely, 13-year old boy lives with his single mom in a trailer park and has a quiet place in the woods nearby where he feels safe from everyone else.  One afternoon, when his mom is working late, he goes to his place in the woods where he falls asleep until dark.  He wakes frightened from an incredibly strange dream and starts walking home.  Usually, he snaps his fingers to break the silence because he’s afraid of the dark, but when he snaps his fingers this night, a painless but warm, candle-like flame comes from the end of his fingers.

I don’t know about you, but those four sentences would have cost me at least one beer or as many as it would take for him to tell me the rest of the story, mainly because it begs for questions.  What was the dream about?  Was it really a dream?  What is producing the flames?  How is the dream connected to the flames?  What will he do now?  Is it like a super power?  Why is he lonely?  What kind of kid is he?  How will this change him?  Questions are important.  Without wanting to know more, there’s no reason to continue reading.  That’s why I like to end my chapters with cliffhangers.

To be clear, that setup was written by another student in the same graduate class as the chair-throwing romance writer.  Would love to take credit for it, but I can’t. 

The storyteller in the bar has just created a contract, and I am the reader.  He has said to me, “If you’re willing to hang in there for about 80,000 words, I promise I will deliver a story that explains everything.”  As the reader, I have the ability to accept the agreement, which means read the story, or not accept, which means I keep browsing the shelves or wait for another guy to show up on the barstool on the right who might have a better story.

Sometimes we accept the contract that turns out to be worth every penny.  Whether it was 2000 pennies for the book or the beer doesn’t matter, as long as you get a story that delivers on its promise.  Sometimes we accept the contract, but the story doesn’t deliver.  Even if you wanted, you won’t get your money back.  Worse than that, you won’t get the time back either.  Those 75,000 words are stuck in your head, and you will probably search right away for another story to wash the memories away.  It was a bad contract and should never have been offered to you, but there’s no way you could have known without someone having warned you.  You don’t usually get that in books or movies, but it sure is needed.

secret_windowOne of my favorite examples of a bad contract is Secret Window with Johnny Depp, based on a story by Stephen King.  It’s got a four-sentence setup that’s so good you would be willing to buy the guy on your left a case of beer if the story worked out.  If you don’t know the story, the setup would go like this:

 Mort Rainey, a successful writer who recently split with his wife, retreats to a lakeside cabin to work on his next book but gets a mysterious visitor.  John Shooter, an angry man from Mississippi, insists that Mort has plagiarized his short story.  Although a typed copy of the man’s story is nearly word for word with the version Mort had published, Mort has printed proof that he wrote the story first.  Mort tries to ignore the man and hopes he’ll go away, but bad things start happening, like a house burning down, friends getting killed, and each bad thing gets closer and closer to Mort.

Sounds like a pretty good setup, right?  Begging for questions?  How did they write the same story without knowing each other?  Who really wrote it first?  Is there some way one could have accidentally gotten it from the other?  How far will this stranger go in tormenting Mort?  

You, like me, would probably have been okay with buying a few beers, maybe even a case, if the guy on the barstool would give you a good 70 or 75,000 words and bring it all together.  However, this is a contract you should not sign.  And if you haven’t seen the movie and don’t want to know the rest, you should stop after the next paragraph.

Secret Window is an excellent example of a broken contract.  The stranger, John Shooter, convinces both himself and the audience that Mort stole his story, and the consequences of Mort’s refusal are swift and strong.  Both the local sheriff and Mort’s lawyer investigate, and more lives are threatened and lost.  When Mort confronts his ex-wife’s new boyfriend about his involvement, he learns that the boyfriend stems from a town in Tennessee called Shooters Bay.  The coincidences grow, as do the close calls, some of which are deadly.  Wanna know how it ends?

xsecretwindow

Split personality.  John Shooter is really some kind of stupid alter-ego of Mort.  We’re supposed to believe that the divorce had shaken Mort so much that he developed another personality that turned around to terrorize himself.  Apparently, when we hear Shooter talk to Mort on the phone, the voice is imaginary – I guess.  Oh, they did some interesting things to plant clues, such as when Mort thinks shooter has broken into his house and, when Mort thinks he’s about to clobber him with a bat, it turns out to be a mirror.  That’s supposed to be a clever way of foreshadowing that Mort is really Shooter, but it’s kind of lame.  The only thing lamer would have been if it had all been a dream.  That’s the worst ever.  Or maybe the “Deux ex Machina” is worse, when an unseen force, usually referred to as “the hand of God,” reaches down and saves the day.  For that, you might check out Stephen King’s The Stand, in which after hundreds of pages and a final standoff between the good guys and Satan in a denim jacket, nuclear missiles are launched, only to be saved by a “mysterious” hand that rendered them harmless.

It is an unfair and misleading contract, and it is something you should consider when you are writing a story.  What exactly are you offering the reader?  Imagine you are the guy on the barstool to my left.  Thrill me.  Set up a story that makes me want to buy you a beer, and I will gladly listen to all 75,000 words.  However, you better bring it all together with a resolution that takes every loose end and ties them all into neat bows as if it’s my birthday present.  If you don’t, you might want to head for the door when my last beer bottle is just about finished because, like that woman with the chair in my graduate class, I just might tomahawk an empty one in your direction.  So watch your back.

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344 thoughts on “Writing 2.3 – A Contract with the Reader

  1. That was both a good way to keep me from wasting time on a movie I may have found interesting if the bargain was kept, and an informative rich way of sharing extended log lines. Thank you. (hit on FB)

  2. I’m less interested in endings than in how engrossed I am throughout the length of the story. MY contract is not the first four sentences but is my willingness to bow out at any point along the way.

    • I agree and disagree. I am a tad compulsive to simply stop reading the book, but I am immensely irritated or disappointed if the book fails to live up to expectations. If, however, the story holds me throughout and draws me into the world, then it was a good book, or at least a good read. The ending can be bad and I still have enjoyed the book as a whole. I have probably thought of several alternatives anyway.
      If the ending is especially bad I will probably not read it again, but that does not remove my please in reading it the first time. That being said, I have kept one book just to remind me how awful the book and author is and to never buy his books again. And I have bought books based on a single line on the back or in the front and loved them. The first I mentions was a continuation of a spectacular series by a new author. He thus had a heavy contract with an existing world, one he showed little understanding of and apparently didn’t really like. Many things can break the contract but no one thing is the end all be all definition of how to break the contract.

  3. The concept is understood. But I wouldn’t have been attracted to either of these stories. On the other hand, last night I finished reading a book that was really fascinating, and offered me much more than I had expected. It was a biography about someone who was well known in our country. And so, I wasn’t at all expecting to be surprised. But I was. And it gave me much to think about. If it were available in English, I would recommend it to you.

    • I enjoy biographies of historical figures more than anything, especially of those involved in the American Revolutionary War against the British. Thanks for your willingness to share.

  4. Thankfully, I have always been willing to walk out of a theater or put down a book.

    You have done an excellent job of describing the contract between reader and author though.

  5. Exactly. That’s almost as bad as deus ex machina. My hubby and I recently watched the Hunger Games. I know, people loved it, but it had one thing going for it: place. Dystopian future. The characters weren’t that different or strange, and the death after death were shock value. I could have watched Humungous for the same scary effect. (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0082537/)

  6. Pingback: Writing 2.4 – Who Uses Outlines? | brainsnorts inc >.<

  7. That film sounds rather like it’s using the premise of “Fight Club”, only “Fight Club” was better done. And you’re right, if a story is good, people will be happy to have read it. If it’s crap then they’ll want to hunt them down and torture them (or maybe I’ve just read too many of Aliceatwonderland’s posts about 50 Shades of Drivel).

      • The premise I’m referring to is the dual personality thing, just to drop you a whopping great hint (and thereby spoiling Fight Club for anyone on here who’s not seen it, but then that’s their own fault for having not yet seen such a great film).

      • oh, right. i didn’t realize what you meant. i was focusing on the other part of that setup. but now i see what you mean. and that wasn’t as easy to do in the book as it was in the movie.

  8. Alright … I don’t write fiction, nor have I read the King book or seen the movie …. but the hook has to be cast in those first four sentences. Because many bloggers use blogs to promote their writing and publications, more should read this … heck, maybe the FP gods will put their stamp of approval on it.

  9. I confess, I’ve thrown a book or two across the room, not AT anyone (had to clarify that), it just needed to go flying. Good stuff here, as usual, Rich. Congrats! on FP’d!

  10. Yep, contract with the reader is very important. Sadly, nowadays the contract is broken far too often. I wish there was some way to get the time back if not the money. I’m not much of a writer but I do read a lot. Great concept. Good writing.

  11. I totally agree with the contract with the reader concept..Hadn’t heard of it before in quite that way either; so thanks so much for sharing! The let down from following through on a book that had GREAT lead in sentences; is like seeing a preview of a movie & then its just AWFUL..I hate when that happens..I’m all worked UP and ready to see a good movie to get lost in for a bit..And 20 mins into the flick I’m thinking wtH is this mess? I’ll keep in mind what you’ve shared when I begin the draft(soon!) for my very first book..Congrats on sharing your infinite wisdom with the rest of us; and being rewarded by the F.P. Love it when I actually enjoy something thats been F.P.’ed. 2 thumbs UP

  12. Ok, first let me make it clear – I am not angry, cuz it could sound like it, I guess.
    I loved “The Stand”. Perhaps, I have an innate ability to play fuzzy with the endings. I hate the dream ending; that I will admit, except, of course, in “Nightmare on Elm Street”. But, I loved the way the entire King book flowed (yes, long, very long). I think those type of endings take a certain knack to pull off. I am just saying that using “The Stand” to prove your point didn’t work with me here. I had a college professor called Stephen King’s works trash. That was quite a long time ago, but I remember thinking that most of his works were, at least, on a par with “Frankenstein”, which I thought was mostly trash. Stephen King has this ability to draw many people in and scare them soundly by taking the ordinary and twisting it. I don’t know about “The Secret Window”. I will have to watch it and see. Perhaps, you should watch “Frailty” and see what you think of that one. I would be interested to hear your critique. You and I may simply enjoy very different types of stories and movies. I have gone the traditional route for my stories and have 3 in print now. Perhaps, you wouldn’t care for them at all. I don’t know. But, I am digressing…
    To the point, I simply think King is a better writer than you give him credit for.
    I really liked your book. I hope it “takes off” (pun intended) and I see your name on the best seller list.
    Scott

    • let me clarify – i love king’s writing style. his prose is the best on the shelf. but his stories, in their entirety, are like 6 fabulous courses at dinner and a crappy dessert. i will still greatly appreciate the other 6 courses, even if dessert sucks.

      please let me know where to find your books so i can read them. amazon? looking forward to them. thanks very much for stopping by and sharing your thoughts.

      • Lol-I understand and thanks.
        My stories which are free are:
        My post of a short story in four parts (Valley of a Doll)
        atomicavarice.com under fiction
        The other two are under anthologies by Kevin G Bufton on Amazon “Under the Knife” and “Dead Sea” Those cost.
        I appreciate your support.
        Again, I hope your book sells wonderfully and that you find a good agent the old fashion way.
        Scott

  13. hahahaha….am laughing because i thought it would be a case of split personality and I agree, it is quite a dampener.
    Infact there is a Hindi Bollywood movie on the same concept (called ‘Karthik calling Karthik’).
    I experienced similar feelings like you and so wished someone warned me against it.
    We are kind humans who get lured by such traps. Good luck for the future and congratulations on being freshly pressed. Found your writing, refreshing 🙂

  14. I’m glad to see that I’m not the only one who made the association with Fight Club-it was the first thing that popped in my head when I read your explanation of the ending of Secret Window, which I obviously have never seen. The ending of Fight Club ruined the entire story for me. I’m sure I would have hated the Secret Window then so thanks for the spoiler. Thanks for the lesson, as well. I agree that you definitely have a very limited window in which to draw in the reader. It is after all how I make my reading selections-by reading the first couple of pages to see whether it engages me and if I like the writer’s style. You can have the greatest story to tell, but if you can’t tell a story well then no one will want to hear it. Kind of like telling a joke. Some people just can’t pull it off. I think though, that to be fair, most readers would allow more than four sentences, unless the writing was just especially awful. I look forward to reading more of your posts.

    • i’m glad i saved you from a bad movie. please come by again or search for past posts. the door is open. thanks very much for stopping by and sharing your thoughts.

  15. Actually, I didn’t even want to read to the end of the four sentence set-up. One sentence in, and I was already bored. Everyone has dreams. I like to think of mine as the best, but frankly that’s just my grandiosity talking. Dreams are generally pretty dumb. And I already saw Fire-Starter and don’t care about unexpected flames.

    It’s probably because I’m a different type of reader than you are imagining. Something should happen in what I’m reading, but the contract for me is not about explaining everything. I don’t really care. Life is a funny place. Lots of things don’t make sense and unless it’s important to have an explanation, I’m not that interested in what happened or why. But give me a person I can enjoy being around and a way of using words that gives me pleasure for 80,000 words and I’ll stick it out regardless of what or why.

    I watch Persian films from time to time. They don’t tie up loose ends very well at all. I sometimes think afterwards, I wonder if Iranian viewers also get to the end of their films and wonder what the hell really happened. Or is it just me? Majid Majidi has an entirely different appeal than Raymond Chandler (who ties bows very nicely, in my view).

    So perhaps there are at least two types of readers: your guy on the barstool and fans of Majid Majidi. And maybe there are multiple contracts possible.

  16. I’m nota pro writer and don’t plan to be, whY? I try to enjoy my blogs without undue pressure from anyone….

  17. I can see where this is going, and for the most part, I agree. I have read some stories that have me completely engulfed and then the ending leaves me with a feeling like I’ve been ripped off.

    “Are you f***ing serious?! 600 pages, hours of my life, and THAT’S how you end the story???”

    We are agreed. Sometimes I would like to chuck a chair across the room.

    Buried really liked the ending to that book. It was unexpected. I had anticipated that Shooter did write it ( and was real for that matter) and the truth wouldn’t come out at the very last minute. But I was surprised, feeling doped that I hadn’t thought of that in the first place. I think it’s subjective. Good post though, I hadn’t heard about the Reader’s Contract until I read this.

    • the contract was broken to me because there was no explanation for how both writers could claim being the author. to pull the split personality card was unfair in my opinion. unexpected, yes, but unfair too, especially because there was a scene in which mort got a phone call from shooter. how could that happen? how could the phone ring and it be himself calling himself? thanks very much for stopping by and sharing your thoughts.

  18. i agree with the contract part. as a reporter for a weekly newspaper, i must interest my readers in one, maybe two lines. it’s a must or they won’t read the story at all. i also must tell those stories accurately, quickly but also in a way that won’t confuse or lose the readers along the way. journalists are most definitely making contracts with their readers and most definitely have to deliver. as for “secret window” i must admit to disagreeing. i suppose i didn’t take it as the divorce causing the schizophrenia (i just assumed that’s what it was). i remember thinking there were hints along the way that he’d already shown signs that he was schizo and then finally he caved, not realizing there was a problem, etc. all of that may be on me for drawing conclusions that weren’t really there but i think for me that’s a lot of why i didn’t think it so unbelievable that it could happen that way and there was no contract broken with me. i loved that movie and it scared the tar out of me lol. of course, it probably helped that i was virtually the only one in the theater (it was just released and i went during the day in the middle of the work week by myself). anyway – great writing! congrats on freshly pressed. 🙂

    • i occasionally see headlines that say things like “the mob has taken over the city?” and then after reading, the mob has not at all taken over the city, but the question mark implies as such. that’s a bad contract.

      when i was in college, i sooooo badly wanted to write for a newspaper and now that i stopped teaching, i would love to pursue it now. if you know of any openings…. thanks very much for stopping by and sharing your thoughts.

      • yeah im not a big fan of headlines with questions – i get why they do it but eh; i don’t know of specific openings but you can always try journalismjobs.com – that’s how i found this job. it’s a nationwide website and not all places want folks to transfer but it’s a least worth checking out/perhaps starting there. 🙂

  19. Stephen King’s books nearly always have mediocre to horrible endings. (11/22./63 is the exception, in my opinion.) Under The Dome has one of the worst endings of any book I ever read.

    I still read his books, though–because he writes amazing characters and will take you on a gripping journey through most of the book. I pretty much expect to hate the ending of a Stephen King story, which is one reason why 11/22/63 is my favorite of his books.

    Of course, if he DIDN’T have a talent for character and writing a suspenseful yarn, no one would forgive him for those lousy endings, and he wouldn’t be one of the most successful writers on the planet.

    • i compare reading a king story to having a fabulous 7-course meal except for dessert. just because dessert sucked doesn’t mean that the whole meal should be trashed. i read almost everything of his, even though i know i won’t like the endings. his prose is fabulous and by far my favorite of any novelist in the past 20 years. thanks very much for stopping by and sharing your thoughts.

  20. BTW, not to be a pill or anything, but your description of the end of The Stand is not quite accurate. No missiles are launched. A crazy minion of the bad guy hauls a nuclear warhead to the middle of Las Vegas. The “hand of God” causes it to detonate, killing all the bad guys (and also a couple of the good guys).

    Just as much of a crap ending–but I still love the book.

    • here’s what i’ll admit about “the stand.” i saw the movie, didn’t read the book, but then i researched comparisons between the book and movie and – from what i read online – i had seen enough to tell me that the end of the film was faithful enough to the end of the book. however, if you disagree with what i had found, then i cannot argue with you because you read the book and i didn’t. so, i don’t want anyone to say “you fool! you commented on a book you didn’t read!” that’s not accurate because, as i said, i searched out various sources that indicated the endings were the same. but again, if not, then i apologize. thanks very much for stopping by and sharing your thoughts.

  21. This was such a good post. I don’t really write fiction but I love hearing about what makes a story meaty and successful. I think a lot of what you said about “Secret Window” can be applied to “The Machinist” and why I didn’t really like it at the end. The whole split personality trick has to be performed by a master storyteller because otherwise it can be massively corny and such a cop-out.

  22. What an entertaining write-up. Really interesting–especially that boy snap his finger and then, a magic flame.

  23. I like the concept of a contract with the reader, but I disagree with the assessment of Secret Window. I loved the movie and thought the concept intriguing. We can agree to disagree, tho.

  24. Good advice and point taken on the reader/contract however I think the four sentence line you set up as intro to “Secret Window” was the throw off. “Secret Window” is an excellent movie, Depp and King! R u kidding me, nothing lacking. This is a psychological thriller because it is a mystery for most that don’t understand mental illness, like “Fight Club.” How insensitive of you to say “stupid alter-ego”, have you ever seen “K-Pax” with Kevin Spacey, would you consider his psychotic break stupid as well I wonder? Maybe you should watch some more of Johnny Depp’s movies since he is a man of integrity and sensitivity and many of his films promote issues of mental illness yet because the theme is more “under the covers” not the “main spread” many may not be aware of the understanding of mental illness and awareness that Depp is shedding light on.

    • when stephen king wrote the story on which the film is based, do you think his motivation was to bring attention to mental illness? i don’t think so, but i greatly appreciate your comments. thanks for reading.

    • there’s nothing “insensitive” about saying “stupid alter-ego.” i fell asleep in k-pax, so i can’t comment on it. as for johnny depp, i admire him as an artist, but i won’t claim to know one way or the other about his integrity or sensitivity. i suppose when he made the “pirates of the caribbean” films he was calling attention to sensitivity from criminals? and in “from hell” he was doing the same for murderers? thanks very much for stopping by and sharing your thoughts.

  25. Reblogged this on James Holmes and commented:
    Don’t listen to this blogger on his movie review of Johnny Depp’s “Secret Window”, the movie fulfills the contract! This is a great psychological mystery and thriller for those wishing to understand a form of mental illness. Also, check out or review Pitt’s “Fight Club” or “Twelve Monkeys” including Bruce Willis, or “K-PAX” with Kevin Spacey to witness the damage a mind takes on and how that mind unravels at the comprehension of the sustained trauma. K-PAX a must if you haven’t seen.

    • 12 monkeys is brilliant, as is fight club. however, those stories are far different because they don’t pose the situation of two different writers who claim to have written the same story. that’s the difference, and that’s why “secret window” is not attempting to bring attention to mental illness. otherwise, he wouldn’t have resorted to murder at the end of the story.

  26. I guess it’s time to update the header. 😀 Congrats on being FP’d! Love the post, as usual! It’s so good it makes me want to throw a chair… 🙂

  27. I read that split personalities story with a killer once, it was one of the worst stories I ever read.I usually pass books on to relative and friends or to the library, to be included into sales there, so they can buy the books they want to have. But this one was straight into the bin. So would a DVD of “secret window” – but instead of the bin I’d have the DVD recycled … To borrow Huey Lewis’ words: Sometimes bad is bad.

  28. Excellent, Rich…you tease!! Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed!! Your post brought it all back to me when I watched “Secret Window.” I did feel pretty short-changed and felt it was a cop out. It’s also a keen reminder how hard it is to be original, and what may start out as sounding like the best idea ever falls flat somewhere in the middle and then fizzles. But I did enjoy Johnny Depp. At least there was that! Great post. Good for you!

  29. I LOVED Secret Window. I am one for riddles or twisted tales so the broken contract doesn’t bother me if the story delivers a great ending that explains everything.
    Congrats on being Freshly Pressed!

  30. Great post! I have not seen the movie of which you speak and now do not need to, so thanks for that. That’s the kind of thing that would make me angry. Like when that whole season of Dallas was a dream. Or when St. Elsewhere. . .nevermind. *sigh*. I will say though, I like to have the ends not super neatly tied up, not all of them anyway. I like a little bit of ambiguity and some room for interpretation, just my preference. Congrats on FP!

  31. I still think The Stand is awesome, but other than that I really think you have a point on the contract with the reader. I’ll have to keep that in mind when I write from now on. Thanks for a great read.

  32. The Contract with the Reader can also extend to the blogosphere. Whether the price is 2000 pennies or 20 minutes, whether the length is 75000 words or 750, all writers have a duty to fulfill their obligations. This piece delivered; well done!

  33. I don’t call it a “contract with the reader” but a “hook” It’s so much easier in the genre in which I write but I must say, your article is very well done! 😉

  34. On my experience, the act of writing in a territory that somebody else considers their own, exclusively, is sufficient to lift the rules of normal ethics in that other person, and they behave in ways that are simply irrational.. I say this not reflecting on a fictional movie, but because it’s really happened to me over stuff I’ve published. Not to do with their claiming plagiarism, but because the act of my writing my own original material – any material – in territory they regarded as theirs – was, effectively, a declaration of war on them which had to be avenged. This from strangers to me, incidentally.

    It happens. Ape behaviour, as far as I’m concerned. I guess the human condition has to encompass all sorts, but I just wish I didn’t have to run into this kind.

    I must check out the movie.

    • “the act of writing in a territory that somebody else considers their own, exclusively…” i have no idea what that could be, but i would love for you to give me an example, even if it’s just someone’s perception that a certain territory is their own. you must have run into a similar (apparent) nutcase as in “secret window.”

  35. Rich,
    This was a fantastic piece of writing that delivered on the terms of the unspoken contract. You’ve got some amazing chops, buddy.
    As for being Freshly Pressed… I’m happy for you; this work deserves the honor – and then some.
    I’ll never be Pressed, but I’m glad some of the best writers I know are being honored. Good work, buddy.

    • thanks dude, but why do you say “never”? i had said that for a while and even wrote about explaining why i wouldn’t be. it had actually drifted far from my thoughts for a long time. but i appreciate your thoughts – except for the “never” towards yourself. it shouldn’t be a goal, but it shouldn’t be impossible either.

  36. I agree that a catchy set-up and a wrap-up-the-loose-ends resolution are important, but there is a lot that go wrong in between. If we don’t care much about the people and experiences in the story, and/or if the narrator’s voice seems tedious after a while, readers will yawn. That’s an advantage of history and biography: the characters are intrinsically interesting, usually, and the narrator has plenty of rich events to work with.

    • funny that you say that because that’s what i was going for – explaining the need for a good ending, regardless of what situation you set up to begin with. and thanks very much for reading and sharing your thoughts.

  37. Nice to see you on Freshly Pressed!

    There are few things more terrifying than sitting down to write a book — those unwritten 80 to 100,000+ words yet to arrive — and know that the first few words, or sentences, or pages if you are very lucky, have to grab your readers by the lapels and make them sit still for a long time. Attention is a rare and elusive treasure.

    As a journalist, like others here, I’ve been trained to do this in my daily work, which is something of an advantage. Book readers get mighty angry if they feel you’ve broken the contract with them, even if the contract they perceive is not the one you meant!

    • Thanks miss. and as i’ve said a few times, you are a large reason for these posts about writing because these are the lessons i learned when you basically told me to “shut up and write” or i will never write anything. and thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts and professional experiences.

  38. I’m guilty. I love starting a story, wrapping it all up with loads of oh-my-god-how-will-this-end stuff to just put an abrupt stop to it. Leave my poor readers hanging, clueless to the outcome.

    That was, until I got brave and decided characters often need to die for a good story. It took me a long time to accept that stories without happy endings are often times better. Life is not an ABC After-School Special.

    Contract with the readers. Interesting thought. Don’t you just hate it when writers take their readers for idiots?

    Great piece here my friend!

  39. I love this post, thanks for sharing 😀 The whole contract business is very interesting, I’ve never thought of it like that… And I haven’t read/watched the Secret Window or The Stand (though I did try)… I did go through the whole ‘broken contract’ business when I finished reading Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events books haha THANKS 😀

  40. Good post and the points are so true and valid. I thought the same of the Secret Window as you, so let down! I also will try reading any book, but if it can not keep my interest, I’m done……so many books so little time, why waste my time on one that is not entrancing me! Now you’ve scared me from writing my books….I’ll just have to make sure I meet that criteria.

  41. Great post! The “Contract with Reader” thought is new to me…loved it! 🙂 Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed!

  42. I loved reading this blog. I will subscribe and look forward to reading more of your posts. I still, however, would love to hear more of the story about the girl who chucked her chair!

    • the girl who threw the chair was not very nice. she read a chapter in class written in first person about a woman whose husband was a firefighter who died on 9/11. the chapter she read in class was about a big anniversary, getting a limo, going to new york, dinner, hotel room, lots of romantic things, etc. the teacher said it was a “well-written romance,” and the writer flipped out.

      we would submit our work a week ahead of time to be critiqued in the next week’s class. i had written a story about an angry man who was running away from his life, written in first person. in one chapter he referred to hearing the song “route 66” but not knowing who performed or had written the song. that same chair-tossing woman criticized me for being too lazy to look up who had written the song. then i had to point out to her that i knew who wrote the song, but the narrator of the first-person story did not know it. so i wasnt being lazy – i was writing about a guy who didn’t know. she was a little embarrassed by that. and i was happy.

  43. Good article and Secret Window is a good example of how writing a book/blog (..or whatever) sometimes becomes a hard work if you want to be different from others.

    • being different is a lot of work. being yourself should be easy. but if yourself is being a hard worker, well then there you go. thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts.

  44. The Wizard of Oz, possibly the most famous contract-breaker of all time, but who didn’t enjoy that ride? I completely agree with you about contract. Yet…I so enjoy the thrill of a good ride.
    I’ll be back. Love your site. In my head, I have always thought “stalkers” instead of “followers” and was laughed hard when I saw that you used it on your site. Thanks for the ride.

    • yeah, stalkers. have to admit i borrowed that from my daughter’s blog. oh well. wizard of oz. interesting. never thought about that one, but i have to agree. thanks for reading and sharing.

  45. A great ‘writing 101’ post. I’m currently reading Writing a Novel and Getting Published for Dummies, and this post more or less sums up the book! And I completely agree about Secret Window.

    • glad i could save you a bunch of time. or maybe it’s too late. sorry i didn’t get this out to you sooner. but i’m glad you still found it. thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts.

  46. Pingback: Writing 2.3 – A Contract with the Reader | CLJonesnBones

  47. Being a fan of “New Journalism,” a school (oh how I hate to use this term) that is almost brutishly obsessed with its own self-indulgence, I don’t know if I buy into the idea of the contract. For example, reading The Coming of the Purple Better One by Burroughs it’s very apparent that he thought of his own entertainment more than the readers of Esquire magazine. And yet it’s still a pretty damn good read. I go back to it every other month.

    I see it like this; write for yourself, and if you suck then it’s a reader’s job to say it. Readers should be very shrewd in how they spend their money and what they think is worth reading. Unfortunately there is no filter for quality today, and King’s popularity is a sure sign of that. Every day I’m more convinced of Bloom’s rightness. Our undergrads are being assigned crap books. Our high school students are being assigned crap books. Nobody knows how to ready anymore. If anything I’d say that the reader side of the contract is being ignored.

    But still! I enjoyed reading this and it made me think. I think it makes great comments on deus ex machina, something that we should all ignore. Congratulations on being pressed.

    • thanks very much on the pressed and the poignant thoughts. i’m constantly disappointed in high schools that recycle the same books every year, and the teachers – getting younger and younger – really don’t have a knowledge/understanding of what they are teaching. they’re just teaching what was taught to them. for example, in my daughter’s freshman English class this year she read “animal farm.” when i talked to the teacher about it, he had no clue that the story was an allegory for a historical revolution. and when i asked him why this book is being taught to freshmen when it is too advanced for their grade level, he only said, “talk to my supervisor.”

      following that, they read “a midsummer nights dream.” i wanted to ask him, “are you going to preface the students about the rape incidents in the story,” but i was afraid he might not even be aware of it. so i had to just let it go – which is not easy for me.

      thanks very much for reading and contributing.

  48. I totally, 100% agree with this post. And The Stand was terrible, as was The Secret Window. I think of a good story (instead of tying a bow on a present) as being analogous with, well… with good sex: Build-up is important, but so is payoff.

    I will say, while I think the ‘it was a dream’ or ‘I have split personality’ is usually terrible, I think people keep trying to do it because when it works, it really works. Good examples would include Inception for the dream thing, and Fight Club for the split personality thing. But mostly it’s just gimmicky and terrible, and shouldn’t be done.

    • even if you didn’t use sex as an example, i still would agree with you 100%. however, when you throw sex into anything – i’m on board! thanks for reading and sharing.

      • It’s funny you say that because I wrote this comment before I read anything else and I was a bit worried, like ‘man I hope I don’t offend anyone…’ but then I read your Writing Pet Peeves and I realized, nope, I’m probably good. 🙂

    • good summary, but i want to at least pretend that if i give it a thorough explanation, it might stick inside the readers’ and writers’ minds a little better. but – you’re not wrong. thanks for reading and sharing.

  49. I don’t know that I so much agree with this, I get the whole contract idea and I believe it to be a good tool but I liked the secret window a lot. I think it did fulfill the contract, it ties everything up, and you may not have liked it but it did have an ending. It thrilled me, and surprised me and kept me on my toes. I’d buy him another beer.

  50. This reminds me of the series Lost. Creating from the first moment a high value contract, making you wait for seasons to see what is really going on and… Nothing makes u feel it was worth the trip. Nice content I agree that the reader has to get what he s been promised

  51. This is an interesting, informative and entertaining blog. I am very happy to have had a look. I love the way you’ve expressed it. I shall spend tomorrow writing, with the idea of the contract with the reader in my mind. Thank you.

  52. I so thoroughly agree with your point here! “theincidiouselephant” noted LOST was a good example of a broken contract, which was also the first example that came to my mind. I STILL feel betrayed by LOST. Talk about hours (and hours and hours) you’ll never get back.

    What boggles my mind is how a writer can have the talent to pose an intro to a story that positively drips of subtlety and intrigue without having any plan for delivering on it. I seriously don’t understand how one could have the capacity to start so artfully and not have be accompanied by an absolute compunction to do it justice with the end.

    And sadly I know LOST wasn’t just a fluke because J.J. Abrams seduced me right in to another of his shows, Alias, which did exactly the same thing.

    Fool me once…

    • sorry it took so long for me to answer this as sometimes there are comments that get lost in a long line, and i don’t always find the ones i missed.

      i have not been a great fan of abrams except for the movie “Super 8” which wasn’t bad. not great, but not bad either.

  53. I remember going to see this movie in theatres when it came out. It was terrible, despite how excited I was to see it. And I totally agree with you. Our time is finite. I want to read what I want to read — and that means good, gripping stuff, not things that take me to the end and then make me roll my eyes and leave me dejected that I’ve spent 90 minutes (on a movie) or many more hours on a terrible book.

    • sorry it took so long for me to answer this as sometimes there are comments that get lost in a long line, and i don’t always find the ones i missed.

      thanks for reading and taking the time to comment. and i’m sorry the movie sucked.

    • sorry it took so long for me to answer this as sometimes there are comments that get lost in a long line, and i don’t always find the ones i missed.

      thanks very much for reading and sharing.

  54. Great post, smart and edgy blog Love it Going to go throw a chair at somebody now, and then going to throw a TV at someone else. Then maybe put out some “contracts” on a host of bum writers who really deserve to get whacked Thx This was a real find. As a finale I’m going to re-blog this, hope you don’t mind (but you know where to find me if you do) 🙂

    • sorry it took so long for me to answer this as sometimes there are comments that get lost in a long line, and i don’t always find the ones i missed.

      thanks for reblogging. always greatly appreciated. also, before you throw the chair, put on gloves. that fingerprint thing. ya know?

  55. Pingback: Writing 2.3 – A Contract with the Reader: My Interpretation – aksararaska

  56. A few more things you might consider (then I will run for the door myself ,at least one step ahead of your high velocity beer bottle aimed at my head, I hope): the doppelganger, double, alter ego, shadow is not a new thing in Lit and narrative. Most readers today get it when that element is involved in a story because ever since the Renaissance people have become as much interested in (and troubled by) what is inside of them as much as they are confused and disturbed by what is out there in the “world.” We all have dreams and hear odd disconcerting naysaying voices in our heads. I’m not so sure King was off base on his story premise, although his climax and conclusion may fail to satisfy many readers. Yet today many also think or subscribe to the notion that there are no really plausible neat endings, no final resolutions (or Final Solutions) to the stories all around us, on the page or not. “Loose Ends” may be a more accurate reflection of life to some, far more convincing, than a story that fully explains everything–“Finis.” The flux and mutability … rendering that in a narrative is more plausible and for some it would be a lie to avoid the ambiguity they perceive that cannot be denied. Artifice over art, for some.

    • with such well considered thoughts and opinions – you would never deserve a beer bottle unless it were cold and full. even if you fully disagreed with every word i said, you still deserve full respect for your approach and concise explanation. thanks very much for reading and contributing.

      • Curious to know if Hamlet _______[fill in the blanks with many important books in between/ since] or Joyce’s Ulysses, or Gaddis’ The Recognitions meet your stringent criteria. I am really out of here now, where’s the door? 🙂
        [TEASING!] BUT c’mon, think about it at least. What to you in recent memory is a satisfying, tidily concluded (made up like a hospital bed) important book? I bet you love O’Conner’s A Good Man Is Hard to Find (actually I think it’s one of the best short stories ever penned by an American, but not for its characters or plotline, only inasmuch it achieved the end, it followed through and delivered on its initial promise, the dare thrown down in the title and the first paragraph, that is, the bait and premise of the author. Step up to the line. Give some titles for vivisection by your fans (me included)… bye. Back to the grill before I contradict myself -You have a great voice and blog and some good ideas

      • i haven’t read that story by o’connor, but i am going to find it tonight. i enjoy short stories and have written about 9 for a total of about 34,000 words. i’d like to make my own anthology. i thought of a great idea for one that i started last night about a woman in her 80’s who is told by her doctor that she only has about a month left to live. yes – it’s a comedy.

      • great voice? i accept! i have been told by friends that i will never get away with anonymous notes because they can always tell what i have written. i like that.

  57. The movie was forgettable that’s for certain. I don’t see how the contract was broken though, you may not like what you stuck around for, but he did answer your questions. A broken contract is when you brought up a bunch of questions that you didn’t answer in your book. The show Lost comes to mind.

    The guy telling the story has no obligation to the reader other then to tell the story he wanted to tell, it’s up to the reader to keep listening of get up from the bar and leave if he feels it’s not worth staying around for.

    • the reason i say the contract was broken is because it only takes one thing, one piece of evidence to establish that john shooter was real and not mort’s other personality. when morts phone rings and he “talks” to shooter – that’s enough to say that shooter is real. if we are to accept that he isn’t real, then there needs to be an explanation for the phone call.

  58. O’Connor is considered a modern master, the story I mentioned, near perfect. She won last year or the year before the highest lifetime achievement award the National Book Award ever pulled out of its stuffed hat–for any author. She’d been dead a long time by point. But she is on one end of the spectrum and authors like Cheever, Updike, Saunders are on the other. They are all huge, great

  59. Pingback: Freshly Riffed 34: Nobody Gets A Little Bit Dead | A VERY STRANGE PLACE

  60. Very well written — gonna do more research into the contract, never heard of it before, but very intrigued now. The post was great.

  61. I do not have the time at the moment to read all of the comments here, so please forgive me if mine simply mirrors what others have already said. I was compelled to respond, however, because I found your post to be quite engaging. You presented a writing concept that escapes many writers in an entertaining and easily-understood manner. I liked the touch of humor as well. Nice!

    • it’s always better to say what someone else has already said than it is to say nothing at all. thanks very much for your kind words and support. thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts.

  62. Good story, good theory. Some of us still liked the movie (or book) because of the people involved. I liked Secret Window – I like Johnny Depp and John Turturro – I was entertained and I didn’t think it was bad. A movie I couldn’t even finish watching – Dogville with lots of stars … wanted to, liked them but just thought of “the time” you are right, you can’t get it back. I guess it depends on personal preferences and tastes sometimes you can be okay with it other times you think how did that happen? I think one must determine is it an actual investment or is it just something to do at the time. Usually when I choose a book/movie I want meaning, story, crying, feelings, emotion – other times I just want to stare at the screen with no expectations at all – no thinking, no effort, no decisions, no reason and that’s ok too. Sometimes things just are.

    • john turturro is a fabulous performer, even better than depp. haven’t seen “dogville” but will see if it’s on netflix. and yes, sometimes it’s good not to have to think. thanks.

      • Really, let me know what you think. I don’t even consider Dogville a movie; it’s more of a play on film. Curiosity will get the best of me and I’ll watch the second half but I already feel its one of those disappointments waiting to happen.

  63. You’re bang on with the Secret Window breaking the unspoken contract between reader and writer. I mean the split personality can work; certainly in Palahnuik’s Fight Club there is that “Ah ha” moment at the end, but in the Secret Window it felt like a cop out. I felt the same way about “The Forgotten” when aliens all of a sudden show up to explain why all this strange stuff is taking place. You need at least some kind of foreshadowing or a hint if you want to play the alien card half way through, in my opinion. John Gardner’s “The Art of Fiction” is a fantastic book that touches on the “contract” and other important aspects of fine story telling.
    Thanks for the read!
    Chris

    • aliens. yup. that’s another unfair device, provided there is no groundwork ahead of the reveal. as for gardner, i have a different book of his, but i might check out that one too. thanks for the suggestion. and thanks for reading.

      • I also read “On becoming a Novelist” (1983) from Gardner, which was not unlike Stephen King’s “On Writing: Memoirs of a Craft” in that it seemed to delve more into the characteristics or personality type of individuals that enjoy plugging away at a keyboards for fun; whereas the “Art of Fiction” had some nice technical points on writing. More tools in the auld bag of tricks either way. Cheers! 🙂

      • that’s the book i have of gardner’s. going to find it now. started it but never finished it because it didn’t seem to have a lot to do with the actual writing process as much as other interesting aspects. but maybe that’s because i didn’t finish it. more tools. never enough.

  64. I really liked that movie Secret Window. It’s one of those movies I could watch many times over without getting burned out on it. The movie kind of reminded me of the old GNR song, “I used to love her, but I had to kill her”. The lyrics to that song seem to match the movie some. When I first saw the movie, the ending surprised me a little.

    • here’s one of my problems with it. okay, his wife left him. it is sad, it happens, i’ve kinda been through it. but that’s not enough to warrant the split personality thing or even justify becoming a murderer. i’m not going to sympathize with him, as others have suggested.

      regardless, i’m glad you enjoyed the movie and stopped by to read here. thanks.

  65. Finally! — your brilliance is recognized by the lovely WP-ers who screen these sorts of things for FP. Very well written and such a good point re: the reader! (Like the new FP logo you posted).
    I do like movies though where not everything is bundled up perfectly. Sometimes when there are a few things that are not explicit I keep thinking about it for days after to sort out my own solutions.

    • thanks very much for your kind words. you’ve always been very encouraging, and it’s been greatly appreciated. as for the logo, i just altered what le clowne had already created for me and others in my former position. i too like movies or stories in which i get to keep thinking about it. great discussion over dinner and wine. thanks for reading and contributing and supporting.

      • Your words have clarity and coherence, which I so appreciate. Le Logo via Le Clown was due to be altered, I’m glad you did it thus.
        I so agree that a good movie or book to discuss over dinner and wine is truly time well spent. I hope to be able to do so with your own book one day!

  66. Reblogged this on word alchemy and commented:
    Reblogging this may be a show of bias because I enjoy Secret Window, but it does the job well. Reader-response was an attractive part of Lit Theory for me, and brainsnorts makes it accessible and relevant. Worth a read for would-be novelists.

  67. This perfectly sums up how I felt about that movie. I was so irritated.

    On another note, I’m now dying to read a story about a graduate student who throws chairs across the room every time someone calls her a romance writer.

  68. As a “beginning” writer, this has been my approach to most of my stories. Those first few sentences to get the reader interested in the rest. That’s usually how ideas pop into my head, with the first sentence of the story. What always gets me and causes writers block is how the story will end. I am going to make a promise to myself not to cop out on the ending as The Secret Window does. (I had never seen it before, and now I kind of want to even though I read through your spoiler. It would be a good tool in learning what not to do with story writing.)

    • That is a very good idea. Watch the movie to learn what not to do. Thank you very much for that suggestion. I hope others take it. And thanks for reading and contributing.

  69. Really well done. I felt the same way about The Stand – it’s such a cop out. I believe that nonfiction requires a contract as much as fiction – you have to respect the readers time and willingness to take your idea for a trial run. If you honor the contract through every chapter, you’ll hopefully still have readers at the end!

  70. Hello brainsnorts! I kind of just wanted to say that… I do have a question for you though. Which 4 sentences do you tend to judge by when browsing – the inside cover blurb/synopsis or the actual first 4 sentences of the book?

    • That is an excellent question, but I am going to twist it a little bit. The first twist is why not use both? I realize you might be asking which is more valuable, the first four of the book or on the book jacket. But the reality is there is no reason why you can’t use both. The second twist is that instead of the first four sentences, I try to read the first chapter. I will give almost any book at least one chapter to hook me in. I have spent up to two hours in a bookstore reading only first chapters of five or six books before deciding which one to buy. I don’t mind investing that much time in order to be sure who I will give my money to.

      • 🙂 Thank you for your input!

        I tend to read the first chapter as well. I suppose it’s a common method of weighing the decision to buy since e-readers often let people sample chapter 1 in a book.

        Still, I must admit that if I’m short on time, I go with the inside cover pitch.

      • sorry it took so long for me to answer this as sometimes there are comments that get lost in a long line, and i don’t always find the ones i missed.

        yeah, if you can’t read the whole first chapter, then you gotta do what you gotta do.

  71. Gosh, no wonder I can’t write. I hate teasers… felt like telling the story telling free loader that he owed me one after those four sentences… but crap. i learned something today. thank you

  72. I enjoyed this post, thank you. I’m wondering if you consider this sort of “contract” more pertinent to certain genres of fiction than to others, perhaps ones that are more plot-driven? A lot of literary fiction, for example, doesn’t seem particularly interested in explaining, and in fact too much explanation can kill the novel, short story, or film. I do think there have to be other sorts of payoffs to keep reading, but the mostly plausible and explanatory ending is not necessarily one of them. I’m also wondering what your criteria are for a satisfying twist ending? I remember after watching “The Sixth Sense” combing through it for “cheats” in continuity, POV, etc. but I couldn’t detect any . . . I thought that was a great twist ending. I also enjoy endings that are open to interpretation, like that of “Donnie Darko.”

    • great question. this kind of contract will not likely apply to literary fiction mainly because literary fiction is less likely to employ plot devices such as time travel, split personalities, etc. literary is more driven by the moment and not by so much of a traditional plot. the “plot” idea is more of a genre fiction kind of thing.

      thanks for asking such an important question. and thanks for reading and contributing.

  73. I personally love the idea of the setup – I would buy a couple of beers for a story that draws me in!

    I know that the reader’s (or listener’s) “willing suspension of disbelief” is a crucial factor, and I am willing to oblige. But at the same time, I never forget that stories can reflect real life: they sometimes have a great setup with a disappointing or expected ending!

    Prime example – any movie/book/story that gives a struggle to a character who simply dies at the end. …I hate to admit it, but I almost appreciate an ending like that — people sometimes just die. or fail, and thus the story ends!

    • oh! dear woman you just described what i call the “death story.” that’s a story that introduces us to a few characters, takes us through their lives to the extent that they are interesting, and then – after there is nothing else to do – one of them is killed because, without the death, there is no other way to end the story. examples would be “love story” and “beaches” and “terms of endearment.” and i hated all of them. but that’s just me…

      thanks very much for reading and sharing your thoughts.

  74. Now, that’s a good tip for my new novel. The complexity of the whole plot makes the story more interesting. Added by psychological theme makes a compelling novel, too. Good article, mate.

  75. This is a very good point,put across cleverly! I am just about to enter a short story competition and your tip definitely helps me to start with,to select and delete ideas!
    Cheers!

    • great! good luck! feel free to come back and post a link to your story. i’d be glad to read and give you some feedback. let me know. and thanks for reading.

  76. Now we have a better vocabulary to explain why something sucks. Cleverly written. I want another post entirely about the chair thrower.

    • first, thanks for the compliments. they keep me going. second, several people have asked about the chair thrower, and i really wish i had more to reveal about her, but sadly i don’t. and third, thanks very much for reading and contributing.

  77. I’ve noticed that (re the ending) in a couple of King novels. It’s a disappointment, especially after a long commitment (in the case of The Stand). I really enjoy the concept of the contract. Thanks for sharing.

    • i think “It” is also a good/bad example. all that work, all those people chasing that stupid clown all over the place, and then the clown turns into a spider. and then they kill the spider. ugh. thanks for reading and contributing.

  78. I love this. I agree with giving the reader “a tease” as you so eloquently put 😉 at the end of each chapter for example, as a little bit of food dangling in front of them to keep them running for the next chapter. Yeah the “deux ex machina” is particularly annoying. I’m currently writing a space opera called “Empress”, it’s almost finished but i intend to leave a follow-on to the next book which might be one of these untied ends you spoke of I suppose, but I’ll make it more like a tied end that leads to another adventure, if you see what I mean. Lovely blog post, enjoyed reading it.

    • Thanks very much. What you describe does not sound like so much of a loose and as much of a small thread to pull. And that is a good thing.

      Thanks very much for reading and contributing.

  79. Some of the greatest novels ever written have created a contract with the reader in the first sentence! The promise of the initial contract has to be fulfilled in the body of the story if the reader’s expectations are to be satisfied. Ultimately the curtain must be brought down with a completely fitting end statement. Not easy to deliver all the components. I find many conclusions particularly disappointing.

    I guess the old adage is true – you need a beginning, a middle, and an end.

  80. Pingback: Opening a Novel | lindaghill

  81. A really interesting way of explaining the author/reader relationship, had never thought of it that way

  82. Pingback: On Being Freshly Pressed | brainsnorts inc >.<

    • we all have a few of those passes to give out when necessary. while i am quick to criticize how king ends his stories, i also don’t usually hesitate to read them, even knowing that i likely won’t enjoy the ending. his prose is fabulously real. he says more by saying less, leaving a great deal for the reader to fill in themselves, such as physical descriptions and appearances. i especially enjoy his short stories.

      thanks very much for reading and contributing.

      • I must say I appreciate your article even more given your response to my re-blog. Surprisingly, I hardly ever hear from sites I re-blog, and your response was refreshing. I read Stephen King for many years until moving on to other authors when I reached a point of saturation (John Grisham also comes to mind). Your article was like a master class on payoff. I will treasure it in my resource file. 🙂

      • m-m-masters class? oh my, that’s a big compliment to live up to. and i know what you mean about john grisham. his formula got old pretty quickly.

        i’m sorry that people don’t normally recognize or acknowledge your efforts to spread their words. i’m trying my best to answer everyone and everything, but i’m sure i missed a couple.

        thanks again for reading.

  83. Fight Club has the same ‘another version of me did it’ twist but I rather like that book even though many people don’t. I think your contract with the reader starts with your first line. First line, first par, first page – it’s up to you to draw them in.

    • yup. it is up to us to draw them in, to leave a trail for them to follow – but there has to be something worth finding at the end of the trail. the reason i/we still like fight club is because there really was no reason to suspect a split personality, and when it happened, we were amazed at how well it was done. with “secret window” they introduced the other character, made him seem too real, and then pulled the rug out from under us unfairly. thanks for reading and contributing.

  84. Fantastic article–the concept of the reader in general I find is often lost to most “budding writers”. I find that especially to the be the case with poetry. Sure, poetry is subjective and expressive, but if there’s no discernible threads to follow, or nothing to glean from it, what is it really other than a diary? or a puzzle? or some strange hybrid of the two.

    Your post is concerned with a much more specific contract, but I share those same frustrated sentiments reading work that is purposefully dubious and nonsensical. I’ve read far too many pieces where the poems is obviously a locked door, but the writer has kept the keys to themselves. In poetry of that sort though, they’re often fixed up with a deus ex machina line that suddenly reveals the answer, cheapening the poem and the experience for the reader.

    I’m rambling — you said it all better than I ever could. Congrats on FP status!

    • completely agree. i have written a lot of poetry, although it isn’t all on my blog. i LOVE poetry and loved teaching poetry more than writing. and yes, when a poet keeps the keys, then what good does it serve? a poem, for me, is taking a personal experience and putting it into the best words possible so that a reader will come as close as possible to “feeling” that same personal experience. but if the poet is going to keep it locked up, then i say they’re wasting both my time and their own.

      thanks for reading and the kind words.

  85. As a reader, it’s always frustrating when a contract is broken. As a writer, it’s sometimes unclear what contract you have written. It’s something I’ve kept in mind while working on my current work in progress, and has helped me keep it lean and fast-paced.
    Great, very helpful post.

  86. I find it incredibly frustrating when a book is bad, I tend to try to read through it- not wanting to admit defeat but sometimes in the end you just have to call it. That’s what makes it even more embarrassing when as a writer I reneged on my side of “the contract” thanks for this eye opener, it’s good to be reminded of this. I hope to keep to the contract in the future, as to being on the readers side of the contract; I’ll just have to start being more choosy about what I read.

  87. Excellent post. We owe it to the reader to deliver our best work. To write an engaging piece, be it fiction or non-fiction, without shortchanging or deceiving the reader. An angry reader will throw down the book in disgust and tell his friends not to bother.

  88. So on the money with this one. There’s nothing worse than the broken contract. Haven’t read all the comments, and someone’s probably already said it but fight club is the only split personality trick that worked for me.
    Stephen King’s got form for this sort of thing. When I first saw ‘IT’ when I was a kid I thought it was the most scary thing I ever saw and the set up was perfect… until ‘IT’ turned out to be a giant psychic spider.

  89. I really enjoyed this post. I think sometimes as writers we forget about our own preferences as readers. How many of us writers would be willing to pick up (even for free) a book or story if the first few sentences don’t grab us? For me, it’s the difference between the original Blade Runner and Blade Runner, the Director’s Cut (to continue the use of movies as storytelling). In the original version, the ending was too hopeful, too “happy-face,” too neat. It contrasted too much with the gray, gritty dystopia of a futuristic LA. The ending in The Director’s Cut held more doubt and uncertainty, but also felt more true. Maybe this isn’t the best example, but I think it does speak to the issue of having the ending make sense. In the former, I felt let-down, like the writer just slap on the ending. In the latter, I felt like the writer respected my sensibility, my willingness to accept an ending that was not quite uplifting. Thanks again for your post.

    • please let me thank you instead for reading, commenting, and sharing your thoughts. totally agree about director’s cuts because the studios often want a more “publicly acceptable” ending.

  90. Reblogged this on 1WriteWay and commented:
    I think sometimes as writers we forget about our own preferences as readers. How many of us writers would be willing to pick up (even for free) a book or story if the first few sentences don’t grab us? Read on for more about contracts between readers and writers.

    • i wish i could say it was my original idea, but far from it. however, it’s the kind of thing that should be talked about more often. thus the post. thanks for reading and sharing.

  91. This is really insightful and sheds the necessary light on the importance of keeping the reader interested. Even already established novelists cannot skate by on just prose or description alone–the reader must desire to know more about that scenery, character, or event that he/she builds up.

    Cheers to you!
    Courtney Hosny

  92. Pingback: I Landed a Writing Contract – With Myself! | A Writer Inspired

  93. Loved the article. When I saw this movie I had to go out and get it. I’ve watched it several times and made different connections in the story each time. Talk about screwing with your head. Compare the small details that your brain is registering to dominos, you think those same details lack relivance but, before you know it there all set up and already falling. I wanted to figure out how he set it up, really.

  94. Just wanted to say that this was very well written, and you did deliver on your contract. However, I think the problem with the Secret Window formula stems from the set up and not from the pay-off. If in the contract it was implied that we were to be told a story of a man dealing with grief, shock and a loose grip on reality, then watching Depp slowly unravel until we realize what’s happened actually makes a lot of sense and is a rewarding process. This is the foundation for Fight Club after all, a movie generally considered fairly solid.

    There is a lot of support for the untrustworthy narrator and if we are told upfront in an acceptable way that we are dealing with that then it works well.

    • Thank you very much for considering that well written. That is not something anyone hears every day and it is always appreciated.

      As for the setup of secret window, I agree, however the setup is directly connected to the payoff. If I set up A but the payoff leads to Z, how do you decide if either the set up or the payoff is to blame? One way to look at it is that they are both wrong because they both do not agree with each other.

      The problem with the set up in secret window is they did too much to establish that John shooter was real and not imaginary. That one little bit too much was the phone call from shooter to Mort When more answers the phone and yelled into it that the story is his and to leave him alone.

      If you want to tell me that Mort was under stress and that shooter developed from his imagination, it is not great writing but it is acceptable. However, we heard the phone ring and we saw more to answer it. We witnessed him yell at shooter to leave him alone and it was his story. That was not mort’s imagination. And that takes away any acceptability.

      Oh well. Either way, thanks for reading and enjoying.

      • Yes, I do have to agree with that. It’s a critical flaw when you lose track of your contract and don’t build accordingly. I’d forgotten about the phone call and it is a critical piece of the puzzle of why it doesn’t work. It is possible that the phone call was imagined and we are watching it from Mort’s perspective but in that case it becomes incumbent on the writing team to resolve that detail for the audience at some point.

      • i suppose there’s a way he could have been talking to someone else and the dialogue can work for both john shooter and someone else, but i that wasn’t the case. if it were, it would have solved a big problem.

  95. Very fun post! I’m working on a long fiction project right now–actually am on retreat trying to finish–and when I get stuck I can usually go back to the first half of the project and ask, “what hasn’t been resolved?” which so far has always gotten things going again. Thanks for the time you put into this post. I really enjoyed reading it.

    • nothing to thank me for. i’m happy that you found it useful.

      on retreat? i would love to know more about that. feel free to share. and feel free to stop by with any writing questions in the future – not that i’m an expert or anything – because i’m not. thanks again.

      • You’re welcome!

        This my first retreat. I’m by myself in an isolated area, so (for my own paranoid peace of mind) I won’t broadcast where that is, but I’ll send some info when I get home next week–about this place and some similar places I’ve come across on the way here. Being on retreat has been super-helpful when I’m not distracting myself online. Have a great day~

      • you too. and i’m very jealous. would love to do that sometime. be safe. nothing to be worried about, just because you’re somewhere alone. hey, what’s that noise? hmmm…

  96. Excellent post! Your explanation of why the film broke the contract helped me understand why a story of mine didn’t win a contest I sent it to. I shall have to definitely keep this information in mind as I start my novel.

  97. Pingback: Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi | Teenage Book Critic

  98. I missed this getting Freshly Pressed! Congrats Rich, you truly deserve it. I’m sure I commented on this post about 300 comments ago. Pleased for you my friend

  99. Pingback: When what you know ain’t so (Part II) (with spoilers) | mishaburnett

  100. Pingback: Woodbury Avenue – Chapter 17 | brainsnorts inc >.<

  101. Pingback: Writing 2.3 – A Contract with the Reader « Ray Africa Consultants

  102. Nice post. Both entertaining and informative. I’m glad to see that someone has put into words something I’ve always felt. It wasn’t particular a conscious thought, but I always felt that in writing the author needs to make the reader ask questions. It doesn’t matter the genre.

  103. Pingback: Writing 2.3 – A Contract with the Reader | The Writer

  104. Pingback: Moon – film review | brainsnorts inc.

  105. It’s true that the whole “It was all just a dream/alter ego-schizophrenia character” thing is a total cheat, but interestingly so many writers fall into that trap when they’re new. Great post!

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