Story Promises: What Readers Expect from Fiction

ID-100160563_2Like many readers, my main reason for reading fiction is to be taken out of my world and into someone else’s. Before I became a writer, I didn’t expend a lot of brain power to decide what stories to pick. I had my favorite authors, and if I wanted to try someone new, I trusted the bookstore or library shelves to provide my next adventure. Now there are too many books and not enough shelves.

And now I am a writer. Over the years I’ve come to understand what goes into making a good story and why I return to my favorite authors book after book. Here is what I expect from the fiction I read:

The Story
Told in a new or interesting way. Even if it’s the familiar hero’s journey/quest (which I enjoy), I want to see something different in setting, plot twists, quirky characters, etc.
Truth in the telling. I know storytelling relies on a sort of manipulation, and misleading a reader has its place (mystery writers do it all the time). I also know that what ends up on the page should serve the story, not merely an author’s desire to force an emotional response.
Resolution. Many authors write a series of novels that follow the lives of one or more protagonists. If it’s a good story with intriguing characters, I will read more in the series. But if I don’t get some fulfillment or payback from time spent in a particular story world – that is, if there is not some kind of conclusion to the main storyline – I might not want to continue. I will probably feel cheated and either suspect the author doesn’t know what he’s doing or that he’s stringing me along so I will spend more money to discover how things turn out.

The Characters
Protagonists are true, believable, and flawed. I want to care about the characters and identify with them at a certain level. I also want them to have or acquire a quality that I might not possess, such as courage or perseverance.
Antagonists are true and believable with reasons for being over-the-top bad guys, if that’s what they are. Not just thrown into the story as a stumbling block for the protagonist. Not your everyday antagonist who could easily be exchanged for another bad guy.
Actions/reactions make sense according to circumstances. They relate to who a character is and what his objectives are, not just a way to get from point A to point B.
Multiple characters have distinct personalities and reasons for existing, not as a convenient pawn or filler for the author.

The World
Experience the world naturally, through the eyes of the character(s) or narrator and not through an author’s data dumps.
Consistency. Physical laws and science/political/magic systems are consistent and predictable, or have a believable (not convenient or coincidental) reason for changing.
Clarity. Though a world might be full and expansive, it shouldn’t take more than one map (maybe two) and a brief glossary to understand it. The more often I stop reading to grasp what the author is trying to convey, the harder it is to return to the story world and suspend my disbelief.

Do you have something to add to the list? If you’re a writer, do you struggle with satisfying readers’ expectations?

Image “Figure Sitting And Reading Book” courtesy of Master isolated images /

Speculative Fiction Writer

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Posted in Writing Advice, Writing Fiction
2 comments on “Story Promises: What Readers Expect from Fiction
  1. patriciaawoods2013 says:

    Great list of characteristics! Right off the bat if a character doesn’t ring true to me, is unsympathetic, or way too warped, I lose interest in the story. Old fashioned idea, I know, but the best storytellers give us people who at least resemble people we know or have met. Thanks for another good piece to ponder!

    • KL Wagoner says:

      I don’t think I care so much if the bad guy doesn’t have flaws or if he’s over-the-top bad. It’s easier to cheer for the good guy then, but the protagonist still needs to feel real for me to get into the story. Thanks for commenting!

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