They’re elusive. Magical. Confusing.
But we all want them.
This episode, we break down the topic of reader expectations, discussing what they are, what it means for you the author, and how to make sure you are fulfilling your readers’ expectations.
Why do readers love certain books? What makes them pick one book over another? And more importantly, how do you make sure your book is the one that readers gravitate towards…?
It’s all covered in this week’s episode of the SPA Girls Podcast!
Understanding reader expectations
As readers, we all expect something when we open a book by our favourite author. And when we don’t get it, we don’t necessarily understand why, but we don’t enjoy that book.
Reader expectations is the difference between a book that is dog eared and well-loved, read again and again, passed on to friends and family, kept in pride of place on the bookshelf…and a book that’s thrown away before it’s even finished.
It’s important to know and understand the reader expectations in your genre. It’s different for every genre, including ones like literary fiction and women’s fiction.
But’s it’s a formula – don’t get it confused with following a formula. People sometimes bristle at the word formula, and don’t want to write something to a preordained script. Writing to appease reader expectations isn’t a formula.
It’s making sure your historical romance is set in a historical time, and has a happily ever after attached.
It’s making sure your mystery novel has a mystery, usually involving a murder.
It’s making sure your epic fantasy is set in a strange realm with magic.
It’s making sure your urban fantasy has a kick butt hero or heroine who is surrounded by magic but in the present day.
Some examples of reader expectations:
The POV in UF is usually first person. The main character is the same from book to book in a series. Same for Mystery novels.
The biggest and easiest way to think about this is a romance that doesn’t have a happily ever after (or at least a happily for now).
But in romance, you also have to change up the protagonists each time. So any books that are primarily about the romance, like Paranormal Romance, or Historical Romance, or Contemporary Romance will generally change protagonists each time.
Imagine an action adventure book with a hero who couldn’t get himself out of a series of crazy adventures.
Imagine a mystery with no body.
There are other expectations too.
Genre helps to define the character arc, and thereby the story that your protagonists will take.
Westerns usually include a loner who comes in to help a community, but the loner generally takes off again on his own at the end of the book.
In Romance, the characters will have a conflict, internal and external reasons why they can’t be together, that will have to blow up in their faces, and then be resolved by the end of the book.
Starts with your cover and blurb.
Could also include your writing style and the plot and characters in your book.
It could be the tone of the book – a rom-com will be light and zany, whereas some really emotional romance books are serious and angst-ridden.
Trying to break reader expectations/conventions of genre – If you as an author feel like you’re going to bring something interesting or avante guard to the romance genre, by introducing the millions of romance readers to the joy of an unhappy ending – the tears, the sadness, the upset…
You’ll be in for a shock.
If you do get any romance readers buying your book, they’ll hate it. Leave bad reviews. Complain loud and long to their friends.
Because the reason people read romance is for the happy ending. The safety of knowing that despite whatever trials and tribulations they may have during the story, the couple will always end up together in the end (or the group, if you read reverse harem…!)
If you don’t have a happy ending in your book, it’s not romance. Full stop. The end.
Doesn’t mean to say that there’s not an audience for books with unhappy endings. Look to women’s fiction or literary fiction, if that’s the way your mind works.
Just don’t try to shoe horn it into a genre that it doesn’t fit in.
Some people look at the numbers for romance books, and see dollar signs. We were at a presentation on the weekend, and they basically said that romance outsells all the other most popular genres joined together.
But don’t just try to make your book fit when it doesn’t. It won’t work. Readers aren’t stupid. As a new author, as soon as you give them something they don’t like, you’ve lost your opportunity to win them over.
What happens when you don’t understand reader expectations?
You get the wrong people reading your book, you get bad reviews, and a book that doesn’t sell. It doesn’t matter if it’s the best book in the world, with the most amazing premise. If you don’t know and understand the genre you’re in, and you don’t meet the expectations of the readers in that genre, you won’t be successful.
Often this is all subconscious. If you ask a reader, they might say, oh no, I read everything. I don’t have any preconcieved ideas about what should be in a story.
They just don’t understand their reading habits.
What can you do to change it up?
You can use reader expectations and tropes to your advantage, in that you can turn them around a little.
You can use readers expectations in a mystery novel to set someone up as the killer… and then have it be someone else. (which is actually probably expected by the readers at this point anyway)
You can use a popular trope and turn it on its head, so instead of the kick butt heroine in UF, you could have a lazy, smart-ass one instead, as in the Slouch Witch, by Helen Harper – one of my favourite books of all time, by the way.
Be aware, not bound. Understand, and bend the conventions, don’t be unaware.
Yes, be aware of the tropes BUT MORE IMPORTANTLY understand the underlying themes that make them popular and the emotions readers are getting from them. Just throwing in a “friends to lovers” theme ain’t gonna cut it – really dig into what resonates for the reader through reading that trope?