I truly believe that there is a sacred contract between fiction writer and reader.
I use the word sacred because it’s the only word that seems to fit. I don’t use the word in any spiritual or religious sense. The dictionary definition which applies is: secured against violation and infringement.
I therefore use the term sacred contract because it’s an unbreakable contract. It’s inviolable.
It works like this: You, as the writer can set the terms of the contract any way you like. I’m serious. Any way you like. Here are three examples which illustrate this very well:
- Terry Pratchett put it into his contract that the world is a flat disc, carried on the back of four elephants who are standing on the back of a giant turtle which is swimming through space, and that’s accepted just fine!
- In her story The Time Traveller’s Wife, Audrey Neffenegger has it in her contract that we accept the premise that, in an otherwise true-to-life world, you can have a man who has a genetic disorder called Chrono-Displacement which means that he inadvertently time travels.
- Likewise, Irish author Cecelia Ahern in her novel If You Could See Me Now, has it in her contract that (again, in an otherwise true-to-life world) it's possible to have a relationship with your nephew's imaginary friend.
All these work because the authors set out the basic premises (i.e., the terms of their contract) very early in the novels, and the reader has then a choice to make: whether to accept the terms of this contract (by reading the story), or to decline them (by deciding not to read the story).
The same applies to you. You need to set out the terms of your contract early in the story.
If the reader accepts the contract you’re offering, he’s putting himself in your hands. In an extremely intimate step, he’s allowing you access to his very head. He’s allowing you to manipulate his thoughts. He’s allowing you to bring him on a journey of your choosing, and he’s agreeing to go along for the ride.
This is amazing! I am constantly awed by the power of this, and also by the huge responsibility it puts on the author.
The reader can terminate his participation in the contract any time he wants, by stopping reading. But he cannot change the terms of the contract.
But - and this is very important - once the journey is embarked upon, neither can you change the terms of the contract.
This means above all that you cannot cheat. You cannot use a Deus Ex Machina to resolve the story. Whatever resolves the story, the clues must have been there beforehand, even if they’ve been well-hidden (see Foreshadowing for more on this).
For example, if the story was set in modern-day Dublin, you couldn’t resolve it by having Martians come down and rescue the heroine. At least, you couldn’t unless you had clearly put that possibility clearly into the terms of the contract by making very clear, early in the novel, that Martians exist (in the world of your story) and there’s a possibility of them visiting Earth.
I cannot stress this point enough, if you want to make a success of your writing career. The reader is trusting you and if you let them down on this basis, he or she will feel actively cheated.
I still get angry when I think about a book by a very well-known author, where the denouement was totally unbelievable, unreasonable, and totally unjustified. I felt cheated and let down. I felt cheated out of all that time I had spent reading that book, and cheated out of a good story. I had been lied to. The whole book was nothing less than fraudulent.
These are strong words, I know. But I feel very strongly about it. You never, ever want a reader to be saying such things about your stories. This writer got away with it, as he’s so well known and famous. (Although, over time I’m not sure he is getting away with it. I’ve heard quite a few opinions to the effect that he’s not as good as he was.)
But even if this author got away with it, to the extent of getting the novel published at least, by trading on the already-built value of his name - you won’t. As a beginner writer your stories and novels have to be the best they can be - so don’t cheat.
It’s more than that too. Maybe I do mean the word sacred in a spiritual way, to a certain extent. I certainly think that the writer has a huge responsibility to the reader. It’s a very powerful and intimate relationship (no matter that we won’t meet most of our readers, ever) and it behoves us to honour our part of it.