Feedback from my writer's group tells me that my recent stories leave promises unfulfilled and important questions unanswered. So I've become interested in how stories make promises and raise questions.

So I've identified a few factors that arouse readers' expectations.

  • Character desire. If I put a desire into a character's mind (or words, or actions), readers expect the story to resolve the desire.

  • Character speculation. If a character speculates about some future event or condition, readers expect the story to resolve the speculation. This is especially true if the character feels some emotion about the speculation. Fear. Worry. Anticipation. Hope.

  • Character motivation. Readers expect that characters have reasons for their actions. Sometimes readers can readily imagine the reasons, either from their own experience or from something earlier in the story. If readers can't readily understand the reasons, that opens a question, which they expect the story to answer.

  • Cause and effect. Readers expect that effects have causes. If readers cannot readily imagine the causes of some important effect, that raises questions that they expect the story to answer.

  • Textual weight. If I spend time on something in the text, readers expect it to matter. The more space I give it, the more readers expect it to matter to the story. This is especially true in short fiction, where the mere mention of a thing must justify its presence in the story.

  • Genre. Each genre brings its own set of expectations. In a mystery, the crime will be resolved in the end. In a romance, the lovers will get together in the end.

What have I missed? What other features arouse expectations in readers?

When you are reading, what raises questions in you?

My goal is to give myself a better chance to notice when I've made a promise or raised a question that I will need to resolve.

  • 1
    I just ran across this article, which seems helpful/relevant in light of your question. lbgale.com/2013/07/02/…
    – Anna M
    Commented Jul 13, 2013 at 16:53

4 Answers 4


(The name for "Textual Weight" is Chekhov's Gun. Briefly, every element in the story must have a purpose, or don't put it in there. There are LOTS of examples and variants on TVTropes, with the standard TVTropes caveat.)

Other than your excellent list so far, I'd add plot complications or obstacles. The obstacle doesn't necessarily have to be defeated, but it does have to be dealt with.

An example: if the heroine punches out a guard and stuffs him into a closet, there are a number of things which could happen:

  • The guard wakes up and goes after the heroine.
  • The guard wakes up but the heroine has already gotten away.
  • The guard wakes up, but the heroine locked the closet.
  • The closet is locked, but the guard makes enough noise for someone to find him and let him out.
  • The heroine tied and gagged the guard before locking him in the closet.
  • The other guards find the tied and gagged guard in the locked closet and realize the heroine is in the building doing her heroic thing.
  • The heroine hit the guard so hard she actually killed him.

Et cetera. Many potentials. But what you can't do is just have the guy in the unlocked closet with no restraints indefinitely and nothing else happens. The guard in the closet represents potential. You have to counter the potential or let the potential happen (which becomes the next obstacle for your protagonist).

A different way of dealing with expectations is (TVTropes warning again) the Brick Joke. This is when you set something up casually far in advance which pays off well after the audience may have forgotten about it.

An example: In Star Trek's "The Trouble With Tribbles," tribbles are established to squeal in distress when they encounter Klingons. At the end of the episode, Kirk is carrying around a tribble which abruptly squeals when presented to a man who appears to be human. This unmasks him as a surgically altered Klingon.

Now, if you set something up in the beginning (a Chekhov's tribble, if you will) which then doesn't pay off (there's no traitor to unmask), your audience may wonder why the hell you bothered telling us that tribbles hate Klingons in the first place. If you're going to throw a Brick Joke into the air, remember that it has to land again somewhere.

  • 2
    I like the metaphor of throwing a brick (joke) in the air. Also thinking in terms of potential. I think I can use these as questions for myself as I write: What bricks does this detail/sentence/paragraph/scene throw into the air? What potential does this create? Commented Jul 5, 2013 at 23:34
  • @DaleEmery I have seen Brick Jokes pay off two and three books later in a trilogy. You just have to know what you're doing (and have a three-book contract :) ). Commented Jul 5, 2013 at 23:53
  • Your heroine-and-guard example sounds remarkably like a sequence from The Incredibles, in which Elastigirl punches out several guards and stuffs them behind wall panels--and then, in fact, nothing else happens with those guards. (The main characters are discovered later by other guards, but for unrelated reasons.) So it seems that not every "guard in the closet" needs to be addressed. Can you talk about how to tell whether a "potential" requires follow-up? Or does that deserve its own question?
    – DLosc
    Commented Jun 8, 2018 at 5:36
  • @DLosc I think that's actually its own question, and a really good one. Go ask it! :) In re The Incredibles, I think we can assume that the guards came to after the Parrs had left. My rule of thumb is to consider the logic of the situation: The guards are unconscious but not bound. They'll get free, talk to other guards, and find out either that Syndrome has the Parrs or that the Parrs are free. Both are reasonable conclusions, and in either case, those specific guards don't need to be answered for. Commented Jun 8, 2018 at 9:48

Orson Scott Card in his Elements of Fiction Writing - Characters & Viewpoint talks about "a contract with the reader". I'll try to describe it as best as I remember.

The first contract you make with the opening of the story. If you open with a murder, readers expect a murder mystery, so you need to close it with the resolution of that murder. If you start with murder, then switch to the victim's wife and how it disrupted her life, and end with the widow setting her life in order without the murder being solved, the contact is broken and reader will be disappointed. However, if you open it with the victim's wife, and then continue with how the murder impacted her life, you can not close with the resolution of the murder without showing how the wife set her life in order. The opening conflict sets the type and the focus of the story, and you need to resolve that conflict before the story ends. Other things may happen in the meantime - for example, if you opened with the victim's wife, catching his killer will be an interesting bonus to the story, but the reader will still focus on the widow and her life. You need to tell the reader what to expect from the story from the very beginning. For example, I got very irritated once when I was reading a story that was set on a spaceship, when about a chapter into the story a vampire appeared. I was assuming, based on the beginning of the story, that I was reading a science fiction story, not a fantasy. I felt cheated, it annoyed me so much I stopped reading.

The second contract is happening throughout the rest of the story. If you spend some time on something, the reader will expect that thing to matter to the story. Since you already mentioned that, I won't go into it here.

I remembered an interesting example in "A Song For Arbonne" by Guy Gavriel Kay. The book starts with a Prologue that happens some 10-15 years before the main plot (one nobleman sleeps with another nobleman's wife), and while it's not the main plot (the main plot is a war with another country), and not even directly connected to the main character, that initial conflict shapes the events of the whole story. Even the resolving of the "main" conflict depended heavily on that first conflict. It's not until the very end that the first conflict got resolved (just after the "main" conflict), and everything that happens after that just wraps up the ending.

  • I want to highlight a really useful bit here: The conflicts, especially the opening conflicts. I usually don't have trouble noticing the main conflict, but perhaps I overlook other conflicts that make promises of resolution. Commented Jul 5, 2013 at 23:40
  • A reader might forgive you if you don't resolve a minor conflict, but not if you turn an opening conflict into a minor conflict and then don't resolve it. An opening conflict becomes, by default, the main conflict. So the point here is, be careful with what you open the story :).
    – Tannalein
    Commented Jul 5, 2013 at 23:48
  • 1
    Bait and switch! totally! I went to see the movie Event Horizon thinking it was a SF film and was shocked out of my socks to find out it was horror instead. Brrr. Commented Jul 5, 2013 at 23:52
  • 2
    @LaurenIpsum I was reading somewhere about the importance of the first sentence, and they gave an example that one student wrote: "Sex, sex, sex. Now that I've got your attention, let me tell you about global warming." While funny, it's not the right way to do it. Another story opened with "He took a rock and bashed her head in." Turned out someone was reading that in the newspaper, and the rest of the story was not just gore-free, but boring as hell. You don't open with a scene like that for shock value, and then go to something completely different.
    – Tannalein
    Commented Jul 6, 2013 at 0:30
  • 1
    The style of the book can also be part of the "contract." Literary books often close with more unresolved questions than genre books do (plus, if a story seems to be conveying the idea that life is bleak and meaningless, I am less surprised at an unresolved ending).
    – Anna M
    Commented Jul 9, 2013 at 1:37

I'd like to state at the onset, that it's not always wrong to leave promises unfulfilled and questions unanswered. I'm a big fan of the Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami (and so are millions of others around the world), and unfulfilled promises and unanswered questions are practically his stock-in-trade.

With that said, there are two main things missing from your list that I look for in terms of finding a story or a book satisfying: Emotional closure and moral cause and effect.

1) Emotional closure: People will forgive a lot of details not working out if the story makes emotional sense to them. For example, in Murakami's Wind Up Bird Chronicles, the protagonist is not actually reunited with his wife at the end. You do, however, feel in a real sense that they have been emotionally reunited, which makes the ending still feel satisfying.

On the other hand, if an ending violates emotional sense, it feels weak no matter how carefully the details have been worked out. For example, in Harry Potter the romance between the main character and his best friend's sister never feels like it has been given emotional reality, even though it's supported by the details of the text. It's less important in this case, because the romance is a minor subplot, but unfortunately it's an (emotionally) unbelievable minor subplot.

2) Moral cause and effect: Antiheroes and morally ambiguous plots may be in, but most people still like to see good deeds rewarded and bad deeds punished --at least in some fashion. Even in a story like Woody Allen's Match Point, where the entire premise is that acts of true evil can go entirely unpunished, there's still a sense in which the film has a moral lesson to teach --the final scenes suggest that (though the world has failed to punish him) the main character has in some sense lost his soul, and given up all chance of a life of real love and authentic happiness. (The themes and ending in the film version of The Talented Mr Ripley are much the same.)


There is a difference between unresolved conflict and unaddressed conflict. Unresolved conflict pushes a story, unaddressed conflict drags the story. Both use energy (both the author's and the reader's). You want the level of total conflict to be high enough to fit the story without dragging the story down. In order to warn you away from the mistake of resolving all the conflicts, here is a suggested end to the story with the guard left in the closest.

Our heroine has made it to the top floor of the office building, where the madwoman who has ruined her life sits behind an oak desk. "Hello Mother," she said bringing the rifle to bear, "either you tell me who my father is or I shoot that yappy little dog of yours."

"Oh, Hi Lauren. You mean to tell me you didn't see him on the way in? He was guarding the lobby. You should pay attention to the things around you. It is not like you can expect every thing to go your way just because you have good looks an money."

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