“Your first page sells the book. Your last page sells the next book.” — Mickey Spillane
In all my classes and workshops, we talk about satisfying the reader. As authors we make a ‘promise to the reader’. We establish this promise in the first few pages and chapters. Who will this story be about? What genre? Is it romance, mystery, thriller, western or one of the others? Readers are attached to different genres, whether we authors like it or not. We have to be aware that when we promise something, we need to fulfill it.
As an example: a thing that drives me crazy is when books are promoted as mysteries, and they are really thrillers. I like murder mysteries; my favourite book is an intelligent whodunit, with diabolically clever plotting. In a thriller, the plot usually centres on a character in jeopardy. Not the same.
As authors, we want to satisfy the reader, and that is exactly what Mickey Spillane was getting at in the quote above. To do this, we need to know what the reader expects. Here’s the handout I use in class to explain the different expectations in the main genres of fiction. (Note: there are always exceptions.)
ENDING EXPECTATIONS IN THE GENRES:
ROMANCE: The man and woman will come together to have a HEA (happy ever after) after surmounting great obstacles.
MYSTERY/Suspense: In a whodunit, the ending will reveal the killer. In a thriller, the protagonist will escape the danger. All loose ends will be tied up. Justice will be seen to be done in some manner. (This does not mean that the law will be satisfied. We’re all about justice here, and the most interesting stories often have characters acting outside the law to achieve justice. In mystery/suspense books you probably have the most opportunity for gray.)
FANTASY/Sci-Fi: The battle will be won for now, but the war may continue in future books. You should give your characters a HFN (happy for now) – at least a short amount of time to enjoy their
WESTERN: The good guy will win. Simple as that.
ACTION-ADVENTURE: The Bond-clone will survive and triumph. Sometimes the bad guy will get away to allow for a future story.
HORROR: Usually, the protagonist will survive. If not, he will usually die heroically saving others. Hope is key. If readers have lost hope, they will stop reading.
LITERARY: Again, the reader must be satisfied by the end of the story. The protagonist will grow from the challenge. He/she will probably be faced with difficult choices, and by the end of the story, the choice will be made. In other stories, it may be that by the end of the story the protagonist discovers something she has been seeking: i.e. The Progress of Love by Alice Munro
ENDINGS – The argument against using real life for your plot. (Why things that really happened to you don’t make good novels.)
“I am always telling my writing students that the anecdotes that make up their own lives, no matter how heart-wrenching they may have been for their subjects, are not in themselves stories. Stories have endings. Endings are contrived. In order to come up with a great ending, you’re probably going to have to make something up, something that didn’t actually happen. Autobiographical fiction can never do these things, because our lives contain few endings or even resolutions of any kind.” Russell Smith
Remember what we do: Fiction authors write about things that never happened and people who don’t exist. Remember what fiction writers must provide: The ending must satisfy the reader.
So: Don’t tell a publisher that your book/short story is based on real life. The publisher doesn’t care. They are only looking for a good story.
Melodie Campbell is the author of the multi-award-winning Goddaughter series. Book 6, The Goddaughter Does Vegas, is now available at all the usual suspects.