Sunday, August 22, 2010

Raising Expectations

Each time you put words down on paper, you're raising certain expectations in your reader, not only about what will happen next but why it will happen and how it will affect the characters involved and, ultimately, the reader.

These expectations may be raised on a conscious or subconscious level, so the reader may or may not be aware of what it is that he or she is expecting. But the expectations are there, embedded in the words on the page, and the trick is learning to see them--both as reader and as writer--so that you can understand the implications of what you write.

Think of the opening words of your story as an invitation to your reader to join you on a journey. When you receive an invitation, you evaluate it on a number of levels–the paper it’s printed on, the style and size of the typeface, the words themselves, and who is sending the invitation, among other things. If you receive an invitation written on the back of a brown paper bag, it tells you something. If it’s sent on expensive stock via FedEx, that tells you another, and you’ll expect something different if it’s printed in block letters in crayon or scribbled in pencil rather than set carefully in calligraphy. Each invitation will raise different expectations and different questions.

Let’s take a look at a few opening paragraphs–an author’s invitation, really, to readers–to see how the authors raise a reader’s expectations. How do these opening paragraphs invite you into the story? What expectations do they raise? (Hint: pay close attention to the questions that you find yourself asking as you read the paragraphs.)

The first paragraph is from Walter Dean Myers’ Somewhere in the Darkness:
Jimmy Little sat on the edge of the bed, eyes closed, listening to the rain that beat against the window. In the street below cars hissed by. From somewhere a radio blared. It had been on for most of the night. He leaned back his head and opened his eyes halfway. He looked into the mirror. The mahogany framing the oval glass was nearly the same color as his face. Jimmy smiled; he liked the way he looked in the morning.
So, are you drawn in? If yes, why? If not, why not? And how does Myers succeed (or fail) in raising your expectations?

Can you identify the questions that Meyers plants in your mind (even though there are no questions asked)?

Here are a few of the questions that I found myself asking after reading the paragraph:
  • Who is Jimmy Little and how old is he?
  • Where does he live?
  • Why is a radio blaring most of the night?
  • Why is he sitting on the edge of the bed?
  • Why are his eyes closed?
  • What is it about himself that he likes when he looks in the mirror?
  • Are there days when he doesn’t like what he sees?
Next, let’s take a look at the opening passage from Norma Fox Mazer’s Silver:
Mom says I’m not to worry about money. “It’s my business, Sarabeth,” she tells me at least once a day. I don’t worry about money, but I admit I do think about it quite a bit.

Mom has a bunch of little envelopes that say things like RENT, FOOD, GAS, CAR REPAIRS, DENTIST that she keeps in a shoe box. Every day when she comes home from work, she takes the money she earned from cleaning houses and divides it up. She tries to put something in every envelope. If there’s any money left over, she puts it in the envelope that says WE NEED.
What are the questions in this passage that Mazer has invited you to think about?

Here are the questions that she’s raised in my mind:
  • How does Sarabeth deal with her worries about money?
  • What’s the relationship like between Sarabeth and her mom?
  • How old is Sarabeth?
  • Does she help earn money?
  • How does Sarabeth feel about not having enough money?
  • What will happen to make the need for money even more pressing?
Next, look at the opening passage from Alex Flinn’s Breathing Underwater:
I’ve never been in a courthouse before. But then, I’ve never been in such deep shit before, either. The metal detector screams when I walk through, and a security woman tries to check my pockets. I pull away.
How does Flinn invite you into the story? Again, what are the questions that you are asking yourself as you read this passage?

Here are the ones that come into my mind:
  • What has the main character done?
  • Why does the metal detector go off when the character goes through?
  • Is the main character male or female?
  • How old is the main character?
  • Is he or she alone or with someone else?
  • Why would he or she pull away when a security woman tries to check pockets?
From these examples, you can begin to see how the questions–and the expectation that each raises–are like seeds that the writer plants in the reader’s mind. If the seeds fail to grow, or if the questions are forgotten or never answered, then the reader will come to the end of the story (if, indeed, he or she is willing to keep reading) feeling unsatisfied.

So you need to be aware of the questions you’re raising, and the expectations that your reader wants answered. And you need to be sensitive to the emotional weight of each question. That is, the greater the emotional weight of the question, the greater the emotional expectation raised in your reader that the answer will play a significant role in the outcome of the story.

We’ll explore emotional weight in next week’s post. For now, just focus on identifying the questions an author raises in your mind as you begin a story. Study the opening passages in your favorite stories, write down some of the questions that the author raises, and let us know what you find when you get a chance.

For more information on setting up expectations, visit:

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