Monday, June 25, 2012

Promises Made, Promises Kept

There's a concept that, when I edit (or write) a book, I share with every author I work with. It's something I learned during my (almost) semester of graduate school from my professor, Jacqueline Davies. I'm not sure if she penned this idea or just carried it with her, but it's incredible and so important for a writer. I'm sharing it with you now because it's completely applicable to every story. (And honestly, I can't believe I haven't yet!)

It's called Promises Made, Promises Kept and it's pretty simple: Promises that are made in the book must be kept by the end. I'm going to use two examples to explain: Doctor Who and a children's picture book.

Doctor Who. 

**major show spoilers ahead! I'm warning you.**In the beginning of season one, we are introduced Bad Wolf. It's a minor thing throughout the season, mysterious and random, but as the season ends, we learn that Bad Wolf was a warning sent from Rose back into time. It's a perfect example because something is introduced, and resolved in one series arc. *end spoiler*

Anything that is introduced needs to be resolved. If you make a promise, then throughout the story the promise must have a purpose and must be resolved before the ending. There should be nothing that’s left unanswered if it is introduced. (Thought it's not exact, a promise is similar to a plot thread because each plot thread is sort of a new promise that has to be resolved.) 

Making a promise and keeping it, however, doesn’t mean that the answer cannot be changed later. As a story develops and characters grow, the promises can be answered in failure, in the character changing their mind, in someone deciding that what they want isn't really what they thought, etc. 

Back to Doctor Who **another spoiler ahead** jump ahead to season four and Bad Wolf makes a return. We learn then that what we thought it meant in season one has changed a little. Before, it was sent to the past as a warning, it then becomes something bigger that it is sent across universes as a signal. This is just one example. DW has a lot of them where something appears to mean one thing, but then ends up meaning something else, like Doctor Donna and “he will knock four times”. These are examples of promises that change, but are still kept. **end spoiler** 

 Doctor Who isn't the only example of this concept. In fact, look at any children’s picture book and you will see examples of a promise made. I'm going to talk about this book, because it's a simple example of promises made, promises kept. 

Kitten's First Full Moon by Kevin Henkes

The picture book, Kitten's First Full Moon by Kevin Henkes, (which you can click here and read it on youtube) is a prime example. The promise made: Kitten wants to get the moon because it looks like milk. Throughout the book, Kitten attempts to reach the milk (the moon) and fails. The promise kept: Kitten returns home to find some milk waiting outside. Despite the trials, Kitten still gets the one thing she wanted. 

Promises Made, Promise Kept is a valid concept that's true (or should be true) in any story--be it a YA novel, a short story or a movie. The promise can't be compromised. It's much like in the theater where if a loaded gun is brought onstage it must go off before the final act. If there's a door, it must be opened. If there's someone seeking a cure, it must be found or not found by the end. If a character is seeking something, then by the end the character must find something--even if it's not what the character expected to find. 

The point of all this is to say: anything you introduce in this book must be explained and/or serve a purpose that is accomplished in the same. If you find you cannot explain a reason for something or have a use for it later, then reconsider its importance. Do not set your readers up to expect something big and then not deliver. 

It's the best writing advice I've ever received, and it's changed the way I read, edit and write a book. 

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