Readers are a finicky bunch. They pick up your book with certain expectations in mind. They want their expectations to be met, but they also want to be surprised. To keep them turning the page, you need to know how your readers think.
Reader expectations are partly drawn from genre and category. Genre expectations can affect plots, characters, and settings. Category expectations can affect voice, point-of-view, and taboos. Romance is the biggest market right now and I just got back from a romance writers’ convention, so let’s look at an example using Romance as the genre and Young Adult as a category. The main plot would be a romance plot where two people are attracted to one another but something keeps them apart. They overcome obstacles (usually growing ass people in the process). And they live happily ever after (depending somewhat on the category). Readers also have expectations based on category. Young Adult is typically written in a very deep point-of view. Characters deal with growing-up issues as well as the standard inner and outer conflicts. Young Adult main characters fall within a specific age range (I think it is 12-16) even though readers of Young Adult are often older than this. Readers expect school-aged characters to attend school so this expectation also affects setting. You can imagine the taboos associated with Young Adult books since they are often censored. The point is: the reader has expectations and if you don’t meet these expectations, the reader is unhappy and probably won’t read your next book (or poem). If the first few pages (some readers are more lenient) look like it isn’t the book they are expecting, they might even stop reading right there.
Reader expectations are partly drawn from what they have read in the past. This is why clichés and stereotypes are bad. Romance readers expect the plot described above — they even know when picking up the book that the two characters will live happily ever after — but they still want to be surprised, scared, and delighted. Readers of paranormal still like vampires but only if it is a vampire they haven’t met before. Maybe a mobster or a cowboy. Experienced readers think they know every trick, every twist — and like to guess what is coming next. But like even more to be surprised. The point is: read, read, and read so you can anticipate, misdirect, and surprise your readers.
Readers also have unconscious expectations for story structure. It’s true! Many a beta reader has read a book with poorly planned plot points and been disappointed. Adjust the spacing of the plot points, or the type of plot point, and the beta reader goes away happy. So many writers have told me this story! Nearly every book follows a common plot structure. Several workshop speakers told me that the most common reason for a sagging middle (or beginning or end) in a story is one or more delayed plot points. A story that feels rushed and unsatisfying for a reader probably has one or more major plot point that happens too soon. So study plot structure. If nothing else, it will help with pacing. We’ll look later at how plot points can help you be more creative even if you don’t like or use outlines.
Studying reader expectations forces you to be more creative. There are expectations to meet and expectations to avoid. You navigate a land-mine field with a particular destination in mind. To do this successfully, you have to use your head. You have to scheme. And that is where we will be for the next three days.