How to keep your narrative promises

There are MAJOR SPOILERS for Season 5 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer after the “read more” break.

I wrote before about writers breaking the promises they make to their readers/viewers, but how can you keep them?

Buffy the Good Example

Does anyone remember how amazing Season 5 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer was? I’ve loved almost every episode they ever released, but Season 5 was a freaking monument to good writing. Every episode, from start to finish, foreshadowed the Big Bad of the season and flung a billion threads up in the air ready for the finale to tie them up in to one great big exciting knot.

Let’s take a look at a few, shall we?

  • An encounter with Dracula in the very first episode of Season 5 teaches Buffy that she needs to be stronger. This isn’t just a warning to Buffy but also to the audience that things are about to get sticky — and sure enough, the Big Bad of the season turns out to be a god.
  • We’re introduced to Buffy’s previously non-existent sister, Dawn, at the end of the Season 4 finale in a “what the fuck?!” moment that carried us over the break. It later turns out she’s not human but is instead the MacGuffin that Glory, the Big Bad of Season 5, is searching for.
  • Buffy’s mom is very sick. As a result of this, Buffy is at the hospital a few times — long enough to meet Ben, who turns out to be attached to the Big Bad in the worst way, and who later gives Buffy a tidbit of knowledge and help she desperately needs to win the day.
  • Spike forces Warren (who becomes one of the Big Bads in Season 6) to create a robot that looks and acts like Buffy. This Buffybot is later used to trick Glory and turn the tide of battle in Buffy’s favour. Why he wanted the Buffybot in the first place becomes Spike’s main arc in Seasons 6 and 7.
  • Blood is a recurring theme in Buffy right from the start (duh, vampires) but is especially important in Season 5. In “Blood Ties,” Buffy comforts Dawn by saying Dawn is her sister no matter how she came into existence; Dawn is made from Summers blood. Spike and Xander unwittingly remind Buffy of this in “The Gift” with the following exchange, which forces Buffy to realise that she can sacrifice herself to stop Glory, rather than killing Dawn who she loves as a sister, because they share the same blood:

GILES: (reads from book) "The blood flows, the gates will open. The gates will close when it flows no more." (removes his glasses) When Dawn is dead.
XANDER: Why blood? Why Dawn's blood?
SPIKE: 'Cause it's always got to be blood.
XANDER: We're not actually discussing dinner right now.
SPIKE: Blood is life, lackbrain. Why do you think [vampires] eat it? It's what keeps you going. Makes you warm. Makes you other than dead. (quietly) 'Course it's her blood.

~ transcribed by Buffy World (a now defunct website)

There are a lot more threads woven throughout Season 5. It’s not the only season of Buffy that displays good foreshadowing, but it is the best of them because it kept every single promise it made. There was nothing left dangling (that I can see, at any rate); no plot holes, no threats made and then forgotten, no decisions that didn’t have consequences. The story was tightly woven from start to finish, and I came out of the finale with stars (and buckets of tears) in my eyes.

I keep my promises

I have a fairly literal version of Chekhov’s Gun in The Dragon Lord, where the protagonist is mugged and takes the mugger’s gun. That could have been the end of it; the gun could just have been a weapon used in the spur of the moment and forgotten. (That’s actually what the original draft does.) Kai was pretty fixated on the mugger’s gun, though, so if I had let him handle it and then never mentioned it again, I would have been making a promise that the gun was important and then breaking that promise.

I ran with it instead: in later drafts, Kai recognises the gunsmith’s crest from weapons his father has on display at home, which helps him locate the mugger later when he wants information. Kai then uses the gun to bribe said information out of the mugger, and gives the gun back so the mugger can use it later in Kai’s defense.

I made a promise that the gun was important, and then I kept that promise by making the gun important. I could just as easily have tossed the gun and erased the promise, but it would have meant either removing the gun from the story entirely or significantly reducing the amount of time I spent on it.

Following up

Another example begins in the same book: in his search for the mugger, Kai encounters an old woman who points him in the right direction. He gives her some money as thanks and thinks nothing more of it — until he’s on the train to enemy territory and meets her again. It turns out her grandson was taken by the demons he’s trying to fight, and the money he gave her was enough to pay for her ticket so she could go look for him.

Kai manages to convince the woman to go home by promising he’ll find her grandson for her. Unfortunately, events dictate that he never does.

I could have left it there. In fact, I actually forgot all about it when it came to writing the sequels. However, during revision of The Spy Master, I realised I could use the character’s broken promise to keep my own: the grandson is rescued in the second book instead of the first, but he is rescued nonetheless. (Now all I have to do is squeeze in a reunion with his grandma, somehow, or it will still feel like a broken promise.)

How do you keep yours?

It’s not really something you need to worry about if you’re on your first draft (as evidenced by my anecdotes above). That’s a phase of writing where you need to worry less about keeping promises and more about making them.

Then go back through your drafts and look for all the threads you’ve left dangling: a shady organisation here, a mysterious gemstone there, or even a watchful bird perched on the gate of a house that your character passes without a second look.

You’ll be pleasantly surprised to realise that quite a few of these threads are already tied in to the climax and resolution of your story. Many of us are so familiar with storytelling — through books or TV — that we do these things automatically. Give yourself a pat on the back for a job well done, then tease those threads out a bit more and weave them into parts of the story you’ve missed.

You’ll also be frustrated to realise that you’ve introduced a lot of concepts or characters that never show up again nor fulfil their potential. Compare these wayward threads against your resolution. Do you really need them? Do they offer anything more than local colour? Can you remove them without risking the bones or internal organs of your story? Can they be combined with other elements? Can you use them to replace the deus ex machina you’ve accidentally used to save the day?

Side note: There’s nothing wrong with “local colour” so long as it doesn’t interfere with your plot. If you spend paragraphs describing that watchful bird perched on the gate when it doesn’t do anything, you’re wasting time better spent on something that does — and you’re unwittingly making a promise that the bird is important when it’s not. Focus on something that actually matters and leave the bird to a brief mention.


Think about it in reverse, too: what elements have you used to resolve the conflict and end the story? Are they introduced early on, or did you dump them in at the last minute? Can you weave the threads of these elements through the beginning of the story or do you need to delete them and use something that’s already there?

As you go through your rough drafts, draw a map of your subplots and all of these threads until you have an understanding of what thread belongs to what storyline. You’ll quickly find ways to weave them tighter together and reintroduce and reiterate them throughout the story.

Don’t let your readers forget that the mysterious gemstone exists, or they’ll still feel like it’s come completely out of the blue when it saves the day! Keep finding ways to remind them that it’s there, or that the shady organisation is working behind the scenes to cause trouble, or that that watchful bird is important.

Have some integrity

I’ve said this before, but it’s worth remembering just to recap:

  • If you’re going to tell your reader something, make sure it means something.
  • If you set up an antagonist, make sure your protagonist gets to deal with them. (There are sort-of exceptions to this. Giles is the one to kill Glory because Buffy can’t do it. However, Buffy is still the one to actually defeat Glory in battle, and that’s really the important part in most cases.)
  • Don’t make a promise you can’t or won’t keep.
  • Remember how it feels to have the rug swept out from under you by a broken promise, then remember how good it feels to have a promise fulfilled. Be the writer you want to read!
How to keep your narrative promises
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