One common piece of advice from industry experts and authors alike is that writing to market is the way to succeed. This advice is based on the idea that readers are more likely to pick up books that are trendy and fit their current expectations of what makes an excellent novel.
While I don’t agree that writing to market is the way to success, there is a kernel of truth in the advice: reader expectations are important. Even if you’re writing the story of your heart, you need to keep reader expectations in mind because they can make or break the success of your novel.
Why do reader expectations matter?
Readers will pick up your novel, and not someone else’s, for a reason. They’ll see the cover and think, Wow, that looks so cool! Or they’ll read the blurb and think, Yes, this is exactly what I want. Your book cover and your blurb make a promise to your reader about what they will read.
If they start reading and realize that the cover doesn’t match the story at all or the blurb described a different story altogether, they’ll put the book down. You’ll lose that reader.
Say I’m looking for a sweet small-town romance, and I find a book described that way in the blurb with an idyllic pastoral cover featuring a couple fully dressed and staring lovingly at each other. This seems like a good fit for me, so I pick it up.
But there’s a sex scene in Chapter 2. An open-door sex scene. Clothes on the floor, tongues in mouths (and elsewhere), orgasms shuddering through bodies, moans that can be heard a mile away.
I would put that book down in a heartbeat, and I’d feel like the author betrayed me because the blurb and the cover set up my expectations incorrectly. They made me false promises. I wanted a sweet romance, which means very little steam and certainly no open-door sex scenes.
This is the type of experience you want to avoid giving readers.
Finding the correct audience for your stories is key to your success, and intentionally setting reader expectations is essential for that.
So, how do you set reader expectations?
There are two main things to think about here: the outside of your book and the inside.
Let’s start with the outside.
This includes your book cover and book blurb.
Your book cover and blurb need to accurately indicate your genre. Different genres have unique tropes and trends, and while it may seem counterintuitive to follow these, you want to fit in here. Standing out is great for drawing eyes to your book, but you don’t want to stand out so much that readers get the wrong idea about your story.
When you’re looking for a cover designer or an illustrator, do your research. Look up other titles in your genre and see what the covers on the bestsellers look like. What colors are common? What images are there? What fonts are used? You’ll want to keep all of this in mind so you can reach your target readers and meet their expectations.
The same idea goes for writing your blurb. What do your target readers expect to see in a book blurb? Remember that blurbs are not for summarizing your novel; they’re for selling it. The language you use and the tropes you include in your blurbs will let readers know if the book is for them.
If your blurb mentions that the story includes the found family trope, for example, there better be some found family in there! If you promise something to your readers, you need to make good on that promise.
Which brings us to the inside of your book.
For your readers to be satisfied, the book content needs to match the cover and the blurb.
Like with the outside of your book, this means doing your research.
What tropes are common in your genre? Are there character archetypes readers will expect to see? Does your genre follow certain story beats or a general story structure? What tone does your genre use?
Let’s look at romance again, specifically at sweet contemporary romance. One expectation that must be met for romance readers is the happily ever after (HEA), or at least a happy for now (HFN). If there’s no HEA or HFN, the story isn’t a romance.
There are plenty of tropes to choose from in romance, including enemies to lovers, friends to lovers, second chance romance, fake dating, love triangle, and opposites attract. One bed is also a popular trope, although that’s less likely to show up in a sweet contemporary romance.
In a sweet contemporary romance, readers will probably look for one of the above romance tropes, plus some emotional and heartfelt moments. They’ll expect the setting to be in the modern day (since the genre is contemporary), and they’ll expect moments like the meet-cute and the grand gesture.
They will not expect explicit sex scenes, violence, or vulgar language. In fact, if they come across any of these, they will probably put down the book.
Think about how you tell your story as well. If the plot or character arc hints at Lizzie ending up with Darcy but Lizzy ends up with Bingley in the end, readers will probably be disappointed and could feel betrayed because the story promised them something they didn’t get.
Tone is important too. The tone at the opening of your novel sets an expectation for what readers will find in the rest of the book. For instance, if a romantic comedy starts on a dark, foreboding note, it’s making a false promise. Readers will expect more darkness, not a love story that makes them laugh.
But Brenna, isn’t it good to surprise readers and break expectations?
Sometimes, yes. But you have to be careful about how you do it. Any surprises or breaks in expectation still need to fit genre conventions, and they need to be written in a way that readers find satisfying.
In a thriller or a murder mystery, for example, readers will expect some level of death. They will also look for red herrings and they want surprises. Likewise, in an epic fantasy, character death is typical even if readers can’t predict which character will die. But if you kill a character in a genre like romantic comedy where readers will be taken off guard, you will probably lose your audience.
The most important thing is to know what your readers expect, and make sure you satisfy those expectations.
For more on reader expectations and story promises, watch the second lecture in Brandon Sanderson’s BYU lecture series on YouTube.
If you want feedback on whether your story sets up reader expectations properly, apply for editing with me!
Happy writing, bookmartens!