A Key for Every Lock

old-lock-and-keyWhen I was a teenager, I believed in soul mates and the idea that you were meant to be with only one person — your soul mate.  As I grew older, I put that notion aside as impractical and illogical, but many romance novels are based on that concept.  Now I prefer to think of it as there’s “a key for every lock.”  In other words, there’s someone out in the universe that fits you perfectly, although there may be more than ONE someone.  In fact, there may be many someones.  I suspect, however, that most romance readers don’t agree with this idea.


A close writer friend of mine, a well-known NY Times and USA Today best-selling author, recently told me of a dust-up she had with readers over one of her releases.  She’d changed the formula that her readers had come to expect from her, adding a conflict that seemed logical to her and fit the vision she had of the story.great-expectations-pictures

Apparently, some of her readers were vocally shocked.  They’d had a certain expectation from the writer and didn’t like her deviation from the formula. The conflict involved breaking of a perfectly content couple, adding another love interest.  In the end the original couple were together, but the path to their (second?) happy-ever-after shook the very “expectation” foundations of the readers’ worlds.


I told my friend that she was in good company.  Charles Dickens had a similar reaction to his original publication of Great Expectations (ironic title in connection with the topic of this post – Fo, anyone??!!).  Great Expectations is a classically read novel in almost every freshman class throughout the states. It deserves such lofty praise. GE incorporates a mysterious prison escapee whom our young hero Pip helps out in a murky graveyard; a romantic and unattainable love interest with Estelle, beautiful, aloft and impervious to the adulation of men; a mysterious benefactor, the bat-s**t crazy Miss Haversham; and an even more mysterious “real” benefactor and the revelation of Pip’s true parentage.

Dickens’ original story ended with Pip and Estelle parting forever, fitting the unique characters in the story, but the hue and cry of the public caused the author to write an alternate ending where there’s a shadow of hope for Pip and Estelle to have a happy-ever-after.


I don’t know if my friend felt better after I talked about the Dickens’ story, but the whole situation made me think of reader expectations from a favorite author and writer needs to explore different paths, themes, stories, and yes, levels of darkness or light.  Which should prevail?  Reader expectations or writer levels of growth and change?

I certainly don’t have an answer.  Clearly, without readers a writer has no business.  You are our bread and butter, and on the one hand we should respect your expectations and desires when you read one of our books.  On the other hand, a writer often grows and develops skills and sophistication when she veers off the expected path.  At some point down the road the readers may even come to appreciate the writer more for having taken a daring new direction.


As a writer I began with romantic suspense, but I knew I wanted the suspense to weigh equally with the romance.  NY publishing houses didn’t know quite what to do with that kind of story.  Where to house it?  Which section of the bookstore?  Ebooks have changed that dilemma.  Now I find myself more interested in the concept of redemption and salvation.  How bad can your “bad boy” or villain be until he’s no longer redeemable?thetraitor600x900

In romance there are clear cut lines:  He cannot ever be a rapist, for example, and be a hero of a romance.  He can, however, be a murderer if there’s clear and conscientious reason for killing.  He cannot sleep with another woman once he becomes interested in the heroine; however, he can have a sordid and widely known reputation as a playboy.

My last three works have been novellas about Mick Logan, a hitman with a very bad past.  I wanted Logan to have committed some pretty heinous acts – murder being the most common – and with almost no justification except money.  Murder for hire.  Could I redeem him?  If so, how and by what means.  I don’t know the answers yet, as I’ve just finished Logan’s third act of the “play.”  I have an inking, though, that a benevolent god would allow forgiveness for any act, no matter what, but the law – ah, there’s the trick – the law must exact some sort of justice or penance, for redemption.  A price has to be paid.


final_hitmanshistory1400x2100So let’s dish about reader expectations.  What are your expectations for the story if it’s a romance.  If the book is non-romance what are your expectations?  Have you ever thrown a book across the room (please, not your Kindle!!) in frustration at the unexpected direction an author has taken?  Do you have favorite authors who always deliver on the kind of story you’ve learned to expect from them.  How do you feel when your “internal rules” of story telling are broken?

“The Hitman’s History,” novella three in the Hitman series, releases in a few days.  I love this cover, probably because of the map of Ireland on it.  The story is one of my favorite pieces of writing because it brings up some murky and confusing questions about morality and ethics.  One lucky commenter today will get a free download of “The Hitman’s History” when it releases later this month.



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  • Jane says:

    Congrats on the upcoming release, Jo. I’ve wanted to throw a book across the room many times. I used to only be satisfied with a HEA, but now I find that I’m okay when romances end with a HFN. I remember when I first came across a cheating hero(Kat Martin’s “The Perfect Sin) and it ruined the book and I couldn’t finish it.

    • Jane, the rooster has asked me to kindly convey to you that he does NOT want to be thrown across the room! 🙂

    • Jo Robertson says:

      Those are hard, aren’t they, Jane. We expect our hero to have qualities of honesty and fidelity, neither of which works with cheating.

      I like the concept of HFN, too, because real life is more like that, and while I want the fantasy, I also want it to be believable.

  • Jo, I remember studying Great Expectations in university (it wasn’t a particular fave of mine – Dickens tends not to be, perhaps grounds for a future blog!). And the edition we used had both endings printed. I remember that the original ending was VERY unsatisfying. The second ending with the hope of hope (there’s a phrase!) was slightly more satisfying but I didn’t much care about the characters so I wasn’t that invested in their ending. Although I think Miss Haversham is a fabulous creation!

    I’ve learned never to say never with books. What one writer will make unconvincing, another writer will nail. But I have to say I find adultery fairly unappealing and cruelty to animals. And if a character does the wrong thing, I expect them to pay for it well and truly before they get a happy ending. On the other hand, I’ve realized I have a bigger tolerance for flawed heroes and particularly flawed heroines than a lot of readers. Again, if she pays for what she’s done and she’s come through the fire better and wiser by the end, I can live with her being a bit unlovable at the start. Sometimes unlovable characters are the ones that have the really interesting arcs!

    Congratulations on your new hitman book! Love that cover!

    • Jo Robertson says:

      Thanks, Anna! And thanks for such astute remarks. I like deeply flawed characters too. Watching the finale of “The Walking Dead” this year (season 4) has made me realize even more what I always knew. Any of us are capable of heinous acts given the right circumstances. I think women instinctively know this. You do what you have to do. You are shaped by environment as well as DNA and we never know what we’ll do until the testing moment arrives.

  • Amy Conley says:

    I don’t believe In rules as far as books/stories go. To me surprises in any story is what reading is all about.

    There is one author who happened to write a very different series than she normally wrote…but as far as myself, and many other of her readers, we wanted to wring her neck. Even on Amazon, the reviews were brutal. But it wasn’t because of the direction she’d gone, everyone loved that part. It was because we felt she just gave up and stopped writing and the book had no ending, hea or any other.

    • Jo Robertson says:

      I think that’s the dread that many writers have, Amy, that they’ll continue to write when they have nothing to say. I say, QUIT!

      I see this syndrome in quite a few writers. After the 100th or whatever book, their writing seems more like a paper-mill churn out than anything fresh or interesting.

  • Helen says:


    I have never read any of Dickens novels sorry but I do love a book with a HEA or the promise of something coming in future books if in a series I have just finished the 2nd Hitman novel and am really feeling for Logan and I look forward to the next one. I have always finished the books I have started but there have been a few that I may not have finished if I wasn’t reading them to do a review but in the end I did enjoy them there has been one book this year that I cannot finishe it just made no sense to me maybe I will get back to it maybe not and I do prefer a hero who does not cheat or have affairs this does turn me off a bit 🙂

    Have Fun

    • Jo Robertson says:

      Helen, you’re such a darling! I have many books I haven’t finished, but I always save them because I may just have not been in the right mood, you know? I always want to give the writer a chance.

      Thanks for enjoying the Hitman series. Logan is tested even more (and Maggie most of all) in this third story.

      What I like so much about Dickens, is not so much his stories, as his characters. They leap to life so clearly from the page. Good and bad, he captures them all with such clarity.

  • Anna Sugden says:

    Great post, Jo, and yay on another Hitman novella! Can’t wait to read it!

    I like optimistic endings to stories with a romance arc 🙂

    I have a split personality as reader and author when it comes to authors breaking their own rules. For example, as a reader it frustrates me when a favourite character is killed off, but as an author, I can understand it.

    I think there are some lines it’s impossible to cross for a redeemable character and I believe for each reader, that depends on your own particular thoughts and issues. An abusive hero would be my hot button, as would a rapist or other sexual predator. Is it strange that killing someone is often easier to justify than any form of abuse?

    • Jo Robertson says:

      I agree, Anna S. I can’t think of any reason whatever for abuse, especially rape, but for murder — maybe because mankind’s history is so steeped in war — I can think of many justifications.

    • Jo Robertson says:

      Oh, and I meant to say that George R.R. Martin’s books have taught me never to become too attached to a character. I hadn’t read the entire series of books when I saw Season 1 and Ned Stark’s situation. But the Red Wedding later in the series, even though I’d read the books, was still shocking to me!

  • Shannon says:

    Expectation management is sometimes necessary, and it starts with a back blurb that highlights this story departs from the norm.

    I recall one typical romance of a married, starving woman and a Viking warrior who took her to Ireland. They, of course, fall in love. They don’t actually engage in adultery but it is darn close. Some reviewers hate it; others just saw it as pushing the formula.

    One of my favorite fantasy authors had a fascinating story that began with two characters on the edge of adulthood. They looked to be the primary characters, and then she changed the story to be all about a man who goes from being a soldier to an all-powerful warlord. It felt like such a tease to start with one story and end up telling another one, about a character who she introduced about a third of the way into the first book of the series. She actually defended her position of an author to tell the story as she shes fit in several interviews. I have one of her trilogies on my TBR list, but I have to admit that I haven’t started on them. And they books are well reviewed.

    • Jo Robertson says:

      Ah, that’s tricky, Shannon. Not sure I’d dare introduce the main character that far into the book either. Still I’d rather have a bad review than a mediocre one; at least I know I’ve gotten my readers’ attention.

      Your examples remind me of “Vikings,” a series on the History Channel which I’m enjoying. Ragnar has the dilemma of loving (and fathering with) two different women, one a woman-warrior and one a princess. Very interesting.

  • Becke says:

    Congratulations on your new release.

    I hope I’m flexible with my story expectations, but who knows. Two popular books made into blockbuster movies drove me crazy. Have an affair, but not in front of the kids. Don’t pull me in with a detailed story and summarize the ending.

    Ok, I have two. Nope, change that to three. I don’t like bad behavior romanticized so maybe I’m not forgiving. John Sanford created a female character that was bad to the bone, but he redeemed her by revealing why she behaved the way she did. Maybe that’s the secret-motivation. If a reader can understand the motivation and empathize, the author can do just about anything.

    People want to believe everyone has a spark of humanity.

    • Jo Robertson says:

      I like those “bad to the bone” characters, Becke. But usually they’re my villains. I think maybe I believe some people are unredeemable and without that spark of humanity. I don’t know.

    • Debbie Oxier says:

      In Marie Force’s series McCarthys of Gansett Island, the second book the heroine’ s fiance slept with another woman. She ended up with the hero and they had a happy ending. Later she wanted to write a book about the cheater and give him his own happy ending so before she did that, along the way in the other books in the series, he finally redeems himself. Her readers were perfectly fine with him getting his own story by the time it was written, myself included.

  • Maureen says:

    Congratulations on your upcoming release! I think what upsets me the most with a story is when the characters act in a way that seems inconsistent to the way they have been portrayed so far in the story. Sometimes the problem is that there are things I don’t know about the character that are revealed later if I continue to read.

    • Jo Robertson says:

      Yeah, it seems more interesting to me, Maureen, if the author peels off the onion layers of a character bit by bit. Still their actions have to be consistent with the eventual character the writer has developed. There’s nothing more irritating that having a character behave totally opposite of the way he/she’s set up.

  • Caren Crane says:

    Jo, I love this topic. As a reader, my expectation for a romance is an HEA with the couple I identify as the hero and heroine. They can break up and get back together, but if I identified with them early on, it’s hard to change the course.

    Of course, there are always exceptions. Any story told really well can work. For general fiction, I enter with NO expectations. With genre fiction, I do. In a suspense, I want the bad guy caught, or at least for the “good guys” to be on his/her trail (maybe for another book). I want my heroes, whether it’s romance, sff or mystery, to come out on top. Everything else is up for grabs!

    • Jo Robertson says:

      Good point, Caren. I have no preconceived notions about mainstream fiction, but I do have expectations in genre fiction. And I definitely want a kind of resolution, if not a complete ending, to the story — for the moment, at least.

      I finished reading “The Goldfinch” (Donna Tartt, I believe) and it was good that I had no expectations because the main character was all over the place in terms of ethics, choices, morality, and sympathy. Still not sure I liked it, but I enjoyed the journey.

  • Mozette says:

    There’s been plenty of books where I’ve wanted to throw them across the room… however, it’s not because the book took a weird turn, it’s normally because the grammar is crap.

    Yes… I’m one of the Grammar Police. I’ll correct you in a minute and I’ve actually corrected the grammar on television show too – like ‘Neighbours’… boy! Does that have dreadful grammar!

    However, for an author to take us to a place where we least expect? Well, I let them, because I’m sure they have thought of the other places already and said: ‘Nah, I’ll go here instead… my readers won’t expect this.’

    I match up the most unexpected people in my books… I put geeks with ordinary people instead of hot chicks. I put the hero with a person who is a little awkward and shy, but really, she’s everything he’s looking for on the inside. You know… opposites attract in the most wonderful ways. 😀

    • Jo Robertson says:

      I’m okay if the grammar isn’t so egregious as to pull me out of the story, Mozette.

      But I do like those unexpected mash-ups of characters. Their journeys are so interesting.

  • Susan Sey says:

    Interesting topic, Jo! I have to admit, I’m not a huge fan of breaking apart happy couples just for dramatic tension. If I’m going to spend a book with a couple in trouble, I want that trouble to be really well motivated, & I want it truly resolved. So often I see this in books and it’s as if the author just felt like maybe things were getting stale so they threw in an argument.

    That said, I enjoy that particular story line if and when it grows from a true & fundamental difference in world views, which means the stakes are really high. It’s who you are vs. who you love, & that’s compelling. Eve Dallas & Roarke come to mind as a great example of this.

    Now I’m curious about who this author is & which story outraged her readers….

  • Hellion says:

    I have fortunately managed to avoid most, if not all, Charles Dickens’ novels. I’m not a fan. (Elizabeth Gaskell, yes; Dickens, no.)

    But I have had my hopes dashed by an author. Who shall remain nameless. A romance author with a popular series and popular characters and all hints seemed to point to a certain love pairing and it didn’t happen. I didn’t finish the book. I threw it across the room, went and found every book in that particular series, and took them to the UBS to hock for store credit. And I’m a usual faithful keeper of books.

    My beef is if you truly set the expectations toward a certain thing–say there was true foreshadowing to a certain couple with no foreshadowing of danger or possibility of tragedy (literary does like to kill its characters–but usually they foreshadow it; it’s expected and you throw your book because you’re pissed you were right and the world is a sad miserable place)–if you kill them then as a couple or kill them outright, you’re going to have outraged people and rightly so. As a writer you need to lay that stage a little better.

    In our fiction–movie or books–we like a little warning, we want to prepare. For instance I’m not a fan of Jodi Piccolt’s MY SISTER’S KEEPER in which the daughter who was sueing her family dies in a car crash after winning her suit. Didn’t see that coming. But car accidents happen every day. Suddenly with no shadowing. Still, people grieve for car accidents like they would in fiction–as if they were betrayed.

    As a writer, you always take a great risk making the reader feel. That’s the point. Some people do read ONLY to escape and want nothing but light and fun–so it would probably be a betrayal if Debbie Macomber suddenly had a serial killer in her books and a child molester.

    You may lose some readers–but you may lose some anyway for other reasons–but doing something different, you’ll gain readers again. I think it all works out.

    • Jo Robertson says:

      Excellent points, Hellion, as always. Some writers are so entrenched in their styles, themes, and characters that it would be a massive betrayal to readers if they wrote anything else. Debbie Macomber is an excellent example.

      Still I admire a writer who takes risks (even though I may not like the direction she’s taken).

    • Caren Crane says:

      Hellion, great points! I found myself agreeing with you completely about expectations the author builds. And yes, we DO forgive literary fiction more readily, because we know it’s fickle and tends to kill off characters. 🙂

  • Jo,

    I’m feeling bad for whoever the author is and the reactions she got for making the story decision she did.

    I don’t read a lot of books where one character is the center of all the stories and therefore haven’t that much of a vested interest in a character’s evolving story line. I tend to gear more to stories where there’s a HEA at the end of the book. But I do glom onto secondary characters I hope will get their story.

    Having said that, I am not one of those people who expects the writer to write the story in MY head. I trust them to pull me into their world and tell me the story in THEIR head. I happily follow them down the rabbit trail and enjoy the journey.

    Throwing books against the wall? Yeah, done that…IF the writer doesn’t deliver good characters, good writing or they kill of a beloved character!

    • Jo Robertson says:

      It was really hard for her because she’s such a softie and does like to please people, but I think it’s one of the risks you take as an author.

      I like that phrase Suzanne — you don’t expect the writer to write the story in YOUR head — well stated.

  • catslady says:

    I think my only expectations when starting a book is that I hope I enjoy it. I like variety and I trust that the author is writing something she wants or needs to tell. I don’t expect them to stick to any particular themes. I’m one of those readers that sticks it out no matter what in hopes that I’m learning something from the story even if it’s not quite what I expected. I pretty much believe each relationship (person or book) is what you make from it and that possibilities are endless.

    • Jo Robertson says:

      What a good attitude, Catslady. I must confess that I often enjoy the journey as much as (or more) that the ending. George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series is an example. I didn’t want book 5 to end!

  • Debbie Oxier says:

    If it’s a non-romance I give the author more license but in a romance I pretty much expect a happy ever after. I hate it when I am totally surprised by something like you suggested and end up being disgusted with the book. I read about one author who wanted to write something out of the norm so she used a pen name so as not to confuse or upset her readers. I think that is a better idea then people who don’t care can follow her anyway.

    • Jo Robertson says:

      Definitely a pseudonym is the way to go, Debbie. I write my erotica under a pen name and don’t even advertise it. I don’t want my grandchildren to happen on one of them, even though my regular romantic thrillers are pretty hot.

      It’s interesting that J.K. Rowling did that after the Harry Potter series. Of course, it didn’t take long for the press to find out Galbraith was Rowling.

  • Kim says:

    I read a series where the author broke-up the hero & heroine for good. I dropped the series, because I felt that wasn’t the storyline I envisioned. The author claims that it was always her intention to have a break-up, but it certainly wasn’t telegraphed in the first several books.

    Have you read Death Angel by Linda Howard? The hero is an assassin and the heroine is a gangster’s mistress. It was a very good book, but several readers complained about the lack of morals by both characters. I thought the author took a risk and it worked.

    • Jo Robertson says:

      I haven’t read Death Angel, Kim, but it sounds like something I would like to try.

      I agree, that breaking up a couple after a few books is very risky and lots of groundwork has to be laid from the get-go for it to work.

  • bn100 says:

    an HEA; no cliffhanger

    no cliffhanger; some kind of resolution/ending that’s not vague or open-ended

    If I don’t like the book, don’t usually read another from that another

    • Jo Robertson says:

      I’m sort of hard on authors like that, too BN, probably because I have less time to read now than I used to. It’s a shame because I know that most writers grow in their craft as they continue to write. But life’s too short to read a book that doesn’t really hold your interest.

      I may give a writer a second chance down the road if I like the IDEA of their story writing even if the writing itself doesn’t hold up.

  • Jo Robertson says:

    Is everyone else as excited as I am about the new season of Game of Thrones starting? I taped it and am watching the review of season 3, don’t no spoilers please!

    But I’m betting those dragons are pretty huge by now!

    • Caren Crane says:

      Jo, I watched it with Deb Marlowe last night. You won’t be disappointed! I am psyched about the new season, though I still have trouble sometimes with the departures from the books. I loved the books first!

      • Jo Robertson says:

        I’m so excited, Caren! I’ve read all 5 books and feel almost that I’ve this season. I spent today watching the foreshadowing selection and the recap of Season 3 and I’m just teasing myself with episode 1 because I know once I start it will all be over LOL.

  • Intriguing post, Jo! I admit I’m fatally happy-clappy when it comes to story endings. I simply must have my happy ending. I swear, if I could sell conflict-free stories, I probably would. It sounds so boring, doesn’t it? But it’s so me. LOL

    But that doesn’t mean I don’t love reading about a bad boy with seemingly irredeemable faults. He just has to … eventually … be redeemed. 🙂

    I’m eagerly awaiting your Hitman’s History!

    • Jo Robertson says:

      Thanks, Kate. You must be the sunshine to my doom and gloom. I do like dark, dark stories because I find those big-issue questions so interesting.

      But I like a HEA in a romance for sure.

  • Jo, this required some thought. In a romance, I expect, even require, HEA or at least a committed relationship at the end. I’m pretty open about how the couple gets there. I don’t love the spouse-thought-dead-returns stories but do occasionally read them.

    If a book is not a romance, I expect engaging characters with active inner lives, a cohesive plot that challenges, perhaps even endangers, those characters, and a triumphant if not entirely happy ending.

    I’ve been loving your hitman series, and I enjoyed the balance of romance and suspense in your otherr books.

  • Cassondra says:

    Excellent questions, Jo!

    I admit to being a hardass about these things.

    I want my HEA (or the promise of same) at the end of the book.

    I love difficult heroines and (somewhat less so) difficult heroes. Because if they are not perfect when they start, if the writer does her job, the journey is much more satisfying when they find themselves.

    All that said, I expect certain things of a romance, and if those are not delivered, I will quit that author and never try her again.

    I think it is the author’s responsibility to live up to the expectations of a particular genre. And if that author wishes to go outside those expectations, she should CERTAINLY do so…BUT..she must make that very clear by changing the series. Or the covers. Or SOMETHING really obvious…so that I know I’m not getting the same thing I’ve come to expect.

    I think it’s only fair. I give the author my money, and she entertains me. If she wishes to entertain me in a different way, the advertising damn well better reflect that, BEFORE I spend my money.

    Told ya I was a hardass. :0/

    • Caren Crane says:

      Giving Cassondra yet another AMEN! and a hankie wave! 😀

    • Jo Robertson says:

      Hey, Hardass Cassondra! Yes, I agree, a writer SHOULD definitely let her readers know in some way that she’s switching up her genre. Readers pay good money NOT to be disappointed. I’m so disheartened when a highly recommended author turns out not to deliver for me.