Hand me a book and tell me that it is a mystery set in a major art museum and I’m going to expect two things.
- A mystery. I may not know on page one if this is going to be about a theft, a murder, or a forgery but you told me it was a mystery and you had better come through. That said, I know it can take some time to set up a mystery so I’m willing to be a little patient. A little. Not a lot.
- Art. Remember, this is a mystery set in an art museum, so I’m going to expect art. I’m an open-minded person. It could be sculpture or paintings. I’d be okay with photographs or ceramics. You could even give me a little bit of all of the above and a few more things besides. But I want art. Before page 50.
That’s the thing about reader expectation. Tell the reader that the book is about X and they are going to expect X. You can give them other things as well, but X had better be front and center and if it isn’t you had better have a really good reason why.
Recently, I picked up a book set in a major, big name museum. 45 pages in and we finally had something about art but not much. A few names had been dropped (oh, look at me, I’ve done my research) and the character had taken us into the museum but . . . she didn’t do anything there other than overhear a conversation.
We know which co-workers she doesn’t like and which she adores. We know the brand of her favorite chair. We know her best friend’s favorite jeweler. Even skin care products are named. Art? Don’t worry. We’ll get to it. Eventually.
I’m sorry. I’m just not that patient. If you tell me that a book is set at Churchill Downs, I expect horses. Set a book in the Grand Canyon and I better see big spaces, steep drops, rocks and a lot of blue sky. A carpenter had better interact with wood and quite likely a saw of some kind or a planer and sandpaper.
But it isn’t just the setting that creates expectations. Science fiction is techy. Fantasy has magic. A romance means that two characters are trying to get together. Historical fiction is set in the past.
Readers have expectations and if they aren’t met? You had better be spinning a top-notch tale or they may not be your readers for much longer.