Keeping a Promise

Anticipation of what lies ahead can be as delightful as the event. Fiction depends on the promise of future rewards. Yet because it also depends on delivering better rewards as the story builds, the nature of the reader’s anticipation itself changes.

That’s why bold statements made by characters fall flat if not acted upon in a timely fashion. If your villain promises that the hero will be murdered, that threat needs to be carried out fairly soon, or the threat will come to seem empty. Why is that? Because the promise is static, and the rest of your story is dynamic. 

An extended example will show how this contrast in momentum works against you. On page 175 the villain—call him Chas—makes the promise. The next time he appears, maybe on p. 200, the reader is wondering if this is when the promise will be acted upon. But it turns out Chas is engaged in other nefarious business and may not mention the earlier promise at all. A slight let-down, but hey, he’s a busy boy. The next time he appears, page 225, maybe the promise is mentioned again, with a little more virulence in his voice as he says it. But no action is taken. And in fact no action will be taken until page 275, in the villain’s fourth appearance since the promise was made. 

What happens during those four scenes? The reader becomes suspicious that the villain really will live up to his promise, for sure. But the reader also starts to forget the original potency when the promise was made. With each successive let-down, further resentment builds up. The delight of anticipation has been turned on its head. Now the reader is sick and tired of the stupid idea, since it didn’t lead anywhere. 

You’re better off building up to the promise. That is, Chas becomes increasingly enraged by what the hero is doing—usually conducting an investigation that comes ever closer to the truth. The promise matches the level of threat posed by the hero. When the villain is very close to being unmasked, now he makes the promise—which he has to keep in order to protect himself.

Exercise: Draw up a two-column list and put the names of opposing characters at the top of each. Go through the manuscript and write down what each does in terms of the other. You’ll see the level of opposition rise from minor to major on one side. Are you matching up an equivalent response on the other?

“Oaths are but words, and words but wind.” 
—Samuel Butler

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine

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