Promise Words

From Writer Unboxed:

Are you a people watcher? Silly question. This is a blog site for fiction writers. As people pass by, you undoubtedly imagine who they are. What they’re up to. The story that will follow. That’s how your mind works. Am I wrong? Probably not.

Now, everyone forms impressions of passersby. For most people that’s where it stops. Teen shoplifter. Mom in a hurry. Off duty cop. Lost deliveryman. Are those first impressions accurate? Perhaps, perhaps not.  What’s important is that an impression is formed quickly. Science shows that first impressions are made within seven seconds, sometimes in as little as one tenth of a second. It doesn’t take long at all for us to decide what we might expect from a stranger.

The same is true for the opening lines of a novel. Very quickly, readers form an impression of the tale ahead. They rapidly know what to expect. They have a solid expectation of the experience that they are about to undergo. So, lacking an actual person walking past, what is the basis of for the reader’s first impression? What triggers its formulation? There’s only one thing that can do that: the words on the page.

There is of course the jacket or cover. Plus, the flap copy or back cover copy. Not to mention the novel’s category, shelving, blurbs, and so on. Packaging has gotten the consumer as far as opening the volume, but then the consumer begins to read and that’s where the rubber—as it were—hits the road.

Have you ever read a few lines of a novel and put it straight back onto the bookstore shelf? It’s not your thing. But wait…how do you know? You could be wrong. Nevertheless, there are certain words on that opening page that send signals that light you up, turn you off or, if nothing else, cause you to judge a tale’s nature and relative appeal. Certain words tell you what to expect.

Those words are what I call a novel’s promise words.

Promise Words and Their Signals

What are the promise words in your WIP’s opening?  To understand what they are and how they work, let’s take a look at some key words from the opening lines of some published fiction.

Here’s a list of promise words from one opening:

Grief…solitary…islands…graves…alone…avoid…waving from a distance…hurrying away…ghosts exist…the ghost of myself…

What kind of novel do you think that is going to be? A rom-com? Hardly. A ghost story? A sad story? A memory piece? What kind of protagonist will we meet? The life of the party? Um, no. The words suggest it will be a main character who is grieving, solitary, alone.

Do you agree? The impression that you’ve already formed sets your expectations for the novel. You know what kind of experience you’re in for. It’s either an experience that you want for your weekend reading or one that you’re going to return to the bookstore shelf. All on the basis of a few words.

Here’s a second set of promise words:

Shaker Heights…summer…children…burned the house down…gossip…sensational…fire engines…lunatic…something off…hopeless cause…

Well, now. What kind of tale is this going to be? A quest fantasy? Probably not. A suburban story? A tragedy? Involving madness, fire and fate? If that’s your guess then you could be right—but are you? Actually, you don’t know. You’re judging on the basis of just a few words. You have only an impression, and that’s my point.

Here’s a third set of promise words:

Carriage…Bookseller’s Row…spell…mystic signs…elegant buildings…clean streets…anywhere but here…bargaining season…no hope…a grimoire!

Pretty obvious. A fantasy but not Medieval. More likely a Gaslamp Fantasy. About what kind of protagonist? A witch or magician? Sure. But a protagonist you’re going to like?  Well, if you like tales with carriages, booksellers and spells in it then probably so. Also, notice the promise words elegant and clean. They don’t suggest either a dark tale or a dark protagonist, do they? No, I didn’t think so.

Let’s try one more:

Doorbell…writing…important scene…shelter from the rain…standing face to face…electric charge…make a wish…longing…happily ever after…

Let’s see, a horror novel? Undoubtedly not. You probably don’t need to guess hard to know in which section of the bookstore you are standing.  Is the tone and feel of the tale in your hands romantic? Light? Fun? You could be right; you could be wrong. However, really, you already know don’t you?

What matters in each case is that the writer has set down promise words and from those you have not only conjured an impression but rendered a judgment, and possibly agreed (or not) to a contract with the author. Buy this book and this is what you’re going to get.  Stick with me and this is the experience that I will deliver to you. Are you in?

All on the basis of a few promise words.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

2 thoughts on “Promise Words”

  1. I’ve put many novels back on the shelf after reading a few sentences. In every case, it wasn’t the words. It was that the writer wasn’t skilled enough in their use to draw me into the story.

  2. I’d suggest the arrangement of the words into sentences and paragraphs is more important than specific words. Any of the cited words can be used to evoke yawns or interest.

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