Reader Expectations

on July 26, 2007

To continue the thread started by Jen on Monday (scroll down because I’m too lazy to insert the link), I’ve been thinking a lot about reader expectations.

Apparently, there is a controversy surrounding one of my favorite authors. I haven’t read the new book, but from the discussion I guess I know what happens. (Will I still read it? Yes, when I have the time.)

But I think that anyone critical of the book–even though I haven’t read it–needs to take a step back and ask the following questions:

Is the book good? Is it a page-turner? Can you not put it down?

If those are all yes, then the author has succeeded, in my opinion.

Reader expectations are serious, and I take them seriously. But at the same time, stories are what they are–a slice of imaginary life and becomes real to not only the author, but the reader. We are invested in characters. We ache when they ache, cry when they cry, laugh when they laugh. Characters are real people. So when something bad happens to one of them–either death or another tragedy–we take it personally. Because we KNOW them.

And isn’t the author simply doing her job? Giving us a story with people we care about?


In FEAR NO EVIL, Lucy Kincaid is a victim. She doesn’t die, but she is brutalized. Patrick Kincaid is caught in an explosion and left in a coma. Sometimes, I wish he’d been killed him off. Seriously. Why? Because I’ve received HUNDREDS of reader letters wanting to know if Patrick gets out of the coma.

Answer: I don’t know.

If he were dead, I wouldn’t be having to answer these questions. I might get hate mail, but dead is dead (unless I’m writing supernatural stories, but that’s another story . . . )

Bad things happen to good people. In THE PREY, my villain killed a major secondary character. Some people were ticked off. As if I had killed him. But I didn’t–the villain did, it was in his character to do so, and that’s life. Well, life in fiction.

What does that mean for future books? Hopefully that people will continue turning pages wanting to know what happens next. Because of what happened in THE PREY, I know people were fearful that the killer in THE HUNT would do the same thing to another beloved secondary character. But Nick lived to star in his own story.

The romance genre promises a happily-ever-after. To have that, the hero and heroine must live (okay, in paranormal maybe “live” isn’t the right word–they must “be together”). And in romantic suspense, the villain must get what’s coming to him.

But in other genres that is simply not the case. The real question is reader satisfaction–is the story good, is the ending emotionally satisfying even when bad stuff happens? Was the book GOOD. In suspense, was it scary? In a thriller, was it a page-turner?

I read two books judging the Thrillers that didn’t make the top five, but were among my personal top five: TRYPTYCH by Karin Slaughter and A GOOD DAY TO DIE by Simon Kernick. Neither had the requisite “happily-ever-after” that is found in romance, but they were two incredible books that I literally could not put down. Possibly at gun point. They fulfilled the story promise of a thriller–they thrilled me. I had a physical reaction while I read them, I had to keep reading, I was IN the stories. They met–and exceeded–my expectations.

Romances? No, they were not. But they weren’t packaged or marketed as romances. If I was judging them for the Ritas, I would have given them 9’s but marked “Not A Romance.” But for the Thrillers? Perfect 10’s.

And that, my friends, is what I mean by reader expectations.

If a book is marketed and packaged as a thriller but doesn’t thrill me, I’m disappointed–even if it was a good book. If a book is marketed and packaged as a romance and doesn’t have a happily-ever-after, I’m disappointed–even if it was a good book.

One author who I have always enjoyed grew predictable. In every book, I knew who would die. It was always an important secondary character, sometimes likeable sometimes not, but it ALWAYS happened. What’s the excitement in that? It would be more exciting if you DIDN’T know IF someone would die.

I write romantic thrillers. I hope that they thrill people–and I hope that the ending is emotionally satisfying. The hero and heroine will live, and they will be together at the end of the book.

But, anything else goes. Anything. And from one book to the next, I hope you won’t know who will live . . . or who will die.

Sometimes, even I don’t know until I’m done with revisions.

TRIVIA: In the original version of THE PREY, Quinn Peterson died. It wasn’t until we decided to connect three books during the copyeditting phase that I resurrected him–giving him a flesh wound instead of a mortal wound, and making him the hero of THE HUNT.