Write well. Write often. Edit wisely.
An excerpt from The Magic of Fiction
from Chapter 43, “Keep the Reader in Mind”
We have to examine story components, but we also need to evaluate novels as a united whole. Some changes to story will affect more than one component, and some fixes can only come from knowledge of the way story elements join and combine to form that unified whole.
Readers, while they may note favorite sections of a story or favorite characters, typically see stories as a unit, a book, not as thousands of pieces. Let’s consider those readers to make sure we’ve made their experience a positive one.
I’ve already mentioned that readers need to be satisfied by a story’s ending, but let’s examine a few other issues concerning readers.
Readers will be coming to your novels to read stories, not to weigh the components individually. And you need to be able to see your stories in their fullness, as a reader does.
You need to be able to see—and manipulate—what the reader sees. Because no matter how great you think your book is in terms of craft or technique, if the reader isn’t satisfied, the book has failed.
You’ll never satisfy everyone, but you’re not writing for everyone. You’re writing for the reader who’s come to your story expecting something in particular—a book in a certain genre or featuring a particular character. An adventure. An escape.
Maybe your readers come to solve the puzzle or mystery you set before them. Maybe they want a psychological thriller or want to delve into the psyche of a tortured character.
Whatever they come for, you want to leave them satisfied. Maybe in a way different from the way they anticipated they’d be satisfied, but satisfied nonetheless.
What did you promise in your promotional materials? In the blurb? On the first page? Does the novel deliver on those promises? If not, you need to change either the story or the promises. Story and promises need to match on an elemental level.
A writer and reader share implicit promises, a contract. The reader expects an entertaining read, maybe some surprises, maybe a few facts. Maybe she expects her mind to be stimulated, her senses aroused, her emotions given a workout.
She definitely expects to accept the events unfolding on the page. She expects that you’re a writer skilled enough to make her believe what’s happening to your characters. She suspends her disbelief. She has to. Because she knows what’s happening on the page isn’t really happening. Yet she allows her heart and mind to pretend otherwise.
That’s a powerful force, that suspension of disbelief. A reader who opens a novel ignores everything she knows about reality in order to pretend to believe that what happens to your characters has truly happened and thus changed their lives, those lives that don’t really exist in those bodies that don’t really breathe and that are powered by hearts that don’t actually pump blood.
Many readers can not only believe in a series of imaginary events and unreal characters, they can project themselves into the fiction. When readers imagine themselves as the protagonists of your stories, they’re inside the story world. The events happen to them. The emotions are real. They are fighting to save the world, solve the murder or find love.
They laugh and they cry. They’re angered or stirred to passion. They have very real physical, emotional, and mental responses to the words on a page.
The people, places, and events of fiction become part of the readers’ thoughts and memories. Had you considered that? Your story world and your characters become a part of their very real three-dimensional lives. Not only can readers step into the story world, but the elements of that world can cross into the reader’s world.
Good fiction stays with a reader for more than a moment. For more than the couple of hours it takes to read the book. For more than a day or two.
For some readers, the effect of a story lasts a lifetime.
Read more about writing for the reader in The Magic of Fiction.
Join us all week—March 13 through March 17—for more excerpts and other Launch Week festivities to celebrate The Magic of Fiction.
* Comments in this article are eligible for the Prize Pack Giveaway. The single prize winner will be chosen randomly from comments made on eligible Launch Week articles. (#7)