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Reader Perception is Important

January 24, 2012 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified January 24, 2012

I wanted to call this Reader Perception is a Key for Crafting Entertaining Fiction, but that seemed a bit long.

Yet reader perception is truly important. It means the difference between a book that’s enjoyed to the end and one that’s put down—maybe thrown down—before the reader has finished it.

Reader perception is what readers bring to your story. They may have an idea what the book is about through the recommendation of a friend or critic. Or maybe they read the back cover blurb, and that was enough to have them buying or borrowing the book, anticipating the adventure you’ve prepared for them.

If the perception of your book is one that appeals, the reader will read. And he’ll develop more perceptions right from page one.

He’ll feel the tone—is the opening scene light, maybe humorous? Readers should pick up on that. And if they do, they’ll expect the rest of the story to adhere to the tone of the first pages. Not that they expect only humor or humor on every page, but they will expect some. Those first pages have primed the reader’s expectations and they’ll want you to deliver what they think you’ve promised.

Now, you can say you never promised humor, but perception is reality, until the reader learns otherwise. If a reader feels you’ve made a promise, he’ll be looking for fulfillment of that promise.

Readers can read a lot into the first pages—that’s one reason they’re so important to get right.

If the language on those early pages is poetic, readers will expect the poetic throughout the story, at least when dealing with a particular character.

If the words are crude, rough with cussing and locker-room language, that’s what they’ll expect later. So, if you start with the four-letter words, know that the reader will expect them to continue. Maybe not to the same degree. But they certainly won’t expect rainbows and kittens to replace them.

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These perceptions can cover any subject matter and any writing element.

I’ve spoken to two writers recently about the presence of a child in the opening pages. Neither of the stories was about children and in one, the child was simply used in the opening scene, he was not a featured character and would never be seen again.

The presence of children early in a book can signal readers that the book is for or about kids. Or, that may not be true at all and a child may just be a device for introducing the lead character or the plot. But if a reader doesn’t want to read about kids or a story he thinks is written for kids, he may put the book down.

Or the reader may read on because a book with children appeals and then discover children aren’t featured at all. And that’s when that reader throws the book across the room.

It seems such a little thing, doesn’t it? But perception is strong, and it can take readers a place you’d never intended.

On the other hand, when you’ve set up the perceptions, you can lead the reader exactly where you want him to go.

If you want the reader agitated, feeling suspense in the early pages, set him on edge. Write a scene that knocks the reader off balance and keep him off balance for a while. Use what readers already know about story and about a genre and use the expectations he brings to your story to pull him deep right from the start.

Look at book covers. No, most writers don’t have much say about their covers, but covers do a lot for reader perception. A pink cover with fluffy white clouds sets up one perception. The same cover with one addition—a dagger dripping crimson blood—creates a different perception.

The same thing this visual does for the reader, you can do with words. Get the reader on your side by creating a perception that matches what your story will deliver.

So, what does this mean in terms of writing the book?

It means that you might have to change your story opening to match the climax and resolution you actually end up with.

If means that the first pages need to match the tone, the style, the word choices, the character personalities, the dialogue patterns, and the action you want the rest of the story to offer.

It means you need to be aware of your audience as you write, and more importantly, as you edit. You need to remember that readers open that first page knowing nothing about your main character, your antagonist, and the challenges ahead for both of them. So, you need to read as a reader would.

What is there in the early pages for a reader to discover, to latch on to, to use to orient himself in your make-believe world? What expectations have you established? What perceptions will a reader bring to the first page and then, once he’s read those first pages, carry to the rest of the story?

I don’t mean to imply that readers only have perceptions at the opening of a book. But when perceptions are not met there, you can lose the reader before he’s gotten involved. If he’s already involved in your plot and with your characters and then you seemingly mislead him—because that’s what a perception that’s messed with will feel like—you might be able to keep him reading. If he’s just got to know what happens next, the miscue can be forgiven.

I’m also not saying that characters can’t grow and change. But that change will be an outgrowth of the story, not a decision by you to make the character more (or less) appealing halfway through the story. If the reader’s perception is that the protagonist is a decent man, even though he’s made some mistakes, he may not take well to the revelation that the protagonist actually killed his neighbor’s dog, on purpose, by running over him with his car.

Yes, of course you could write such a revelation. But you’ve got to know the strength of reader perception and the consequences when you manipulate it too far. Surprise the reader, yes. But don’t write a setup for one story and deliver a different one. If you’ve revealed a character’s personality through dialogue and action and thought, and then admit it was all a lie, you can expect readers to react. And more than likely, react unfavorably.

Be aware of reader perceptions. Put them to work for you rather than allowing them to work against you. If you know what the reader will think when you write Before heading out to the cliff, Amy taped a note to the bathroom mirror that said she’d always loved the theme song from M*A*S*H, but you don’t actually mean to imply the depressed woman’s going to kill herself, then change what you’ve written. If she liked the song because it reminded her of nights around the TV with her parents and siblings, help the reader discover that.

Give serious thought to the effects of your words on your readers. Acknowledge perceptions.

But please, don’t write wearing a straitjacket. Be aware, but not bound. Know what expectations and perceptions you’re creating and then use them. If you find one that’s not appropriate for the rest of the story or for tone or character or genre, change it. Anticipate reader reaction but don’t overanalyze.

Put any and everything to work for your stories.

Write with awareness.

Put perceptions to work.

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4 Responses to “Reader Perception is Important”

  1. sy says:

    Beth, this is a great article, and I think it applies to non fictions also. I cant believe it has taken me so long to get to look at your blog, but now I expect to be a regular.

  2. Sy, I’m glad you stopped by and let me know you were here. I’ll be looking for you.

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