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Remember Your Readers (Excerpt #5)—Launch Week Festivities*

March 16, 2016 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified March 15, 2016

An excerpt from The Magic of Fictionfront-cover-image-only-2

from Chapter 43, “Keep the Reader in Mind”

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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.

 

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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)

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13 Responses to “Remember Your Readers (Excerpt #5)—Launch Week Festivities*”

  1. Probably the most fundamental and important advice for readers. As fixated as writers can become on writing, the story is equally—if not more—important. I’ve read so-so-written books that held my interest; I’ve also read beautiful writing in books that bored me. For books, how story is executed is critical.

  2. Suspension of disbelief. What a concept. Reading this excerpt reminds me of
    James Bond on the run being shot at by multiple characters with sub-machine guns and not
    getting hit by the bullets. The reaction in me is ‘this is far-fetched’ and throws me out of the story. Can disbelief be totally suspended or is there a balance somewhere?

    • Andrew, do you know the full quote from Coleridge? Here’s a link to the Wikipedia article suspension of disbelief.

      I think you’re right to think about a sense of balance, but I admit that when I’m caught up in a movie or book, I’m not thinking that the events, characters, or places aren’t real. If I’m truly captured by the characters and story, I’m all in. I might laugh or cry or get upset—I’m sure that I’ve suspended my disbelief.

      The problem is that any little element that’s off even just a bit can pull readers and an audience out of the fictional world. This may be even more a problem in stories that are otherwise strong. So one miscue stands out.

  3. Yes, this is exactly what I’m looking for in a novel. I want to like and care about the characters. If I don’t after fifty pages or so, I close the book. It’s a bit like making a new friend. When you meet someone and you click, you want to follow up and see them again. If there’s is nothing about the other person you find intrigues or interests you, changes are you will not make an effort to contact them again.

    • Phyllis, I’ve had friends tell me that I just have to give a (particular) book 50 pages (or for a very long book, 100 pages) because after that it gets really good. But I want it good from the beginning. I want to be beguiled or lured or shocked or tickled. I want to know that there’s something in a book’s fictional world that will interest or entertain me.

      What I love about physical bookstores is that I can stand there and read the first few pages of a novel. If I like the first few pages, it’s likely that I’ll buy the book. If I’m on the fence, I read a few pages more, maybe even into chapter 2 and sometimes 3—I miss Borders!—so I’ll have more to go on. Again, if I get that far, I’ll buy the book. But if a book actually turns me off in the early pages, I won’t be buying it.

  4. ELF says:

    I have mentioned that in some of my book reviews…if an author cannot convince me that the sequence of events works within the world they have created…they have not kept me in the proper frame of mind for suspension of disbelief. There are some folks who can achieve this effortlessly and others that throw me out of the story when I think that something isn’t logical within that particular universe. I agree…I much prefer to browse through a print copy and I definitely miss Borders/Waldenbooks!

  5. Elf, I’ve said before that there’s so much that writers have to get right. Writing a book that works is work, but it can be done. We read the evidence every day.

    I love books.

  6. Kat says:

    “A writer and reader share implicit promises, a contract.”

    Yes. Yes. Yes.

    Memorable books (particularly fiction) are those that drag us into them with sharp, cat-like claws, books that make us feel, that make us chuckle or cry. When we read we want to get what we’re looking for when we pick up the book – the cover, the title, the blurb, advertising – each one hints at what the book should be about. If we don’t get this (or we get a boring, overdone, revamped cliche) then the contract is broken.

    Breaking a contract with the reader is like breaking one with an editor – you probably won’t ever get another chance!

  7. Annika says:

    Greetings from Jamaica! I used to write for myself because I loved to write. It never really occurred to me then that if I wanted to get readers I must consider how they would feel about reading my work. Now over 25 years later that I’ve taken up my pet project that was collecting dust, I find I’m looking for feedback left right and centre, because I want my readers to enjoy. I like the way you phrase it, that me as an author (albeit unpublished!) and the reader share a contract. I’ve never thought of it that way. It makes me now feel like I have a responsibility to the reader that I’ve never had before.
    Thanks for this! I’m eagerly awaiting your book I ordered!

  8. Joanne says:

    I love that comment about not just the world the readers step into, but the elements that cross over into the readers world. As a reader, that’s what I want from a novel – I want to be changed, preferably for the better! I want to view the world in a slightly different way.

    I do wonder, though, yes it is correct that you can’t please everybody, but where does it come to the point that you have to follow the story for what it wants? Is writing to the readers always the way to go? For me, following the story is paramount. I would be interested to hear your thoughts.

    • Kat says:

      I thin a balance is important. Your reader is critical and you need to take them into account first and foremost. But I think, too, that readers can tell when you’ve written *just* for the readership. As I said, a balance is important and keeping the reader in mind can often make the story better.

  9. Summer Ross says:

    In my local writing group, we talk about elements such as this. I often remind authors, you are writing for someone else. It won’t matter how much you love the book, or the scene, etc…if a reader can’t maintain suspension of disbelief, they are removed from the world, from the character and that is the opposite direction of where a reader wants to go. They read to escape.

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