Friday, November 21, 2008

What is the Reader's Experience?

imageMy philosophy is that, like a painting, a story is partly made up of what a reader brings to the story. Without their eyes, their life experience and their emotions, the story is unfinished.

While I write, and particularly while I'm editing, at the forefront of my process are the following questions:

What do I want the reader to feel?

This may seem a contradiction to my statement above, but don't all writers seek to move their readers? Don't comedy writers try to make their readers laugh? Erotica writers seek to turn their readers on? Romance writers hope to make their readers feel loved, or perhaps feel hope for love? Horror writers to scare, drama writers to move a reader to tears?

The natural outgrowth of that hope is to study one's writing, and constantly ask yourself:

What is the reader's impression here?

Can you step back and read your scene as if you knew nothing about the story, the characters, or what's going to happen? Can you experience your story as a first-time reader?

If so, what is their first impression? What is the reader seeing? What do they know? More importantly, what does the reader not know? Does the information unfold with the right timing?

Perhaps most importantly, how does this make a reader feel? Of course, every reader is going to feel differently, but if your goal is to make someone laugh, are you making it sound funny? If your goal is to surprise, have you paced it effectively?

image How does this sound to the reader?

The rhythm of our words and sentences create an experience for the reader. In general, long, flowing sentences are unlikely to make a reader sit on the edge of her seat. Short, choppy sentences speed things up. They create a quicker pace, a breathless feel. Short paragraphs speed things up, longer ones slow things down.

Take my rhythm above. Every word, every sentence, is a choice:

How does your experience reading "They create a quicker pace, a breathless feel." differ from your experience reading "They create a quicker pace and a breathless feel."?

(And help! How the heck should I punctuate that sentence?)

Just like background music heightens the emotional experience of a movie, the rhythm of your words create "background music" that should match and amplify the emotional experience of your story.

Like I said before, I can't know the answers to these questions. I can't possibly step into each and every reader's shoes. In the end, I probably only know myself as a reader, and hope there are enough similar readers in the world who will connect with my stories.

Still, if I seek to move readers with my stories and words, then I have to put myself in their shoes and try to experience my fiction as they do.

So I keep editing, keep practicing, until their experience is as close as possible to the experience I'm trying to create.

You? What do you think? How and when do you think of the reader? What questions do you ask yourself? How do you get into your readers' shoes?

24 bonus scribbles:

Edie 11/21/2008 09:30:00 PM  

Beautiful post, Spy! As I write, I don't think of what the reader will feel. I think of what the characters feel and if I'm getting that on the page -- and across to the reader. Of course I try to say it in a way that the reader will feel it too. That's a given. So I guess that's what you mean and I do that, not realizing I do it. (Not sure if that makes sense.)

And I obsess over phrasing. I'd use this one too: "They create a quicker pace, a breathless feel." Love the rhythm and the word "breathless."

spyscribbler 11/21/2008 10:42:00 PM  

Yeah, Edie, there's that, too. I do feel like I'm in the character's heart as I write, feeling what she feels.

Maybe I switch back and forth between being my character and being a writer who is aware of her readers.

Honestly, I don't know. Saying "what I do" is always funny to me, because it changes constantly. Plus, I never really watch myself write, you know? I should, sometime!

Robin 11/21/2008 10:53:00 PM  

Oh dear, Spy. I probably should try to put myself in the reader's shoes, but I never do. I just assume what I find amusing, others will also find funny. In fact, when I was writing "Shrink Rap", if Adam didn't laugh at a joke, I got totally hostile. I was like, "F- you! That's funny!" The poor guy!

Stewart Sternberg 11/21/2008 11:48:00 PM  

I have been fascinated with literary theory. I'm especially piqued by reader response theory, the idea that reading is a personal experience, that each reader takes whatever they may from a work and that each interpretation, no matter how far it may stray from the writer's intent, is valid. Some writers despise this concept, for it means that once they put their work out there, it no longer belongs to them. They have no control.

spyscribbler 11/22/2008 12:13:00 AM  

HAH! Robin, you NEVER fail to crack me up, ever. That's hilarious! I totally giggling over here. I can actually see that!

PS: I'm the opposite of you. My husband laughs in ALL THE WRONG PLACES. He laughs when I didn't write anything funny. I totally get on his case about it!

spyscribbler 11/22/2008 12:15:00 AM  

Stewart, you and your theories. ;-) I never, at first, pegged you for a theory type, LOL.

Is there a dual world? I 100% believe in the reader theory, that the experience is what they bring to it, not what the writer intends. At the same time, I 100% believe a writer should set out to create an experience for the reader.

But once it's done, it's done, and outta my hands. :-)

Stewart Sternberg 11/22/2008 03:25:00 AM  

Dear God, Spy, there's tons of theories and little niches of people holding onto peculiar points of view. Of course, we might call them cults.

My goal is to write some articles for publishing in academic journals at some point in the near future, so I actually dwell on this stuff and bore all the people around me.

spyscribbler 11/22/2008 11:05:00 AM  

Not bored at all, Stewart! It just cracks me up, because you have always struck me as the exact opposite of a theorist. I don't know why. I picture you being a tinkerer, the type of person who will experiment just for the hell of it, who will do something wild just to enjoy watching how people react.

I say all that without knowing you at all, LOL. Just the impression I get. And I suppose, after years of that, you should have some conclusions to draw!

Melanie Avila 11/22/2008 12:45:00 PM  

Spy, what a thought-provoking post. The last writing book I read talked about the many roles a writer must take on while writing, one of which is the reader.

I think I'm like Edie - I try my best to make sure the characters' feelings come across to the reader, and I guess I hope the readers feels their emotions as a result.

spyscribbler 11/22/2008 01:13:00 PM  

Melanie, that's a great way to put it. It's a little schizophrenic, LOL! Or multiple personality disorderish? I don't know.

What book was that? There are so many things to juggle when writing, so many different parts of the mind we use.

Melanie Avila 11/22/2008 01:44:00 PM  

Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint by Nancy Kress. It's part of the Write Great Fiction series. She says to "reduce anxiety by breaking writing into four steps:

- becoming the character
- becoming the writer
- becoming the reader
- becoming the critic

Rick 11/22/2008 01:59:00 PM  

No wait, Spy, Stewart has even more theories than you know. For instance, his theory on the reality of Godzilla as the origin of metaphysical reality is simply fascinating. I'll pay for this at the next writing convention, I know...

Actually, Stewart has done a wonderful job of getting me to take literary theory more seriously than in the past. He's a patient teacher.

Re your post, this was an exceptionally lucid explanation of a viewpoint that has been too long neglected in the writing world. I hope you do another piece on this topic now that I'm off the road long enough to sit down and read!

spyscribbler 11/22/2008 02:07:00 PM  

Wow, Melanie, that's over there in the writing section. I'm gonna take a look at that. I don't do it to reduce anxiety, (that makes me giggle, it's so cute) but I do that, definitely.

spyscribbler 11/22/2008 02:08:00 PM  

Rick, you're lucky to know him well! LOL... he cracks me up. I adore everything he says and posts. :-)

I find this is a neglected topic, and I'm always surprised it's not talked about often. Our effect on a reader seems, to me, to be one of the most important areas of information we need.

Melanie Avila 11/22/2008 02:29:00 PM  

Spy, I also have Plot & Structure from the same series, but haven't read it yet.

I wish I was at the bookstore. I'm addicted to TLC and they I'm watching 10 Years Younger. Love it.

Travis Erwin 11/22/2008 04:08:00 PM  

Great post. I think far to many writers forget about the reader and only write for themselves. I know that is how I used to write.

Robin 11/22/2008 06:21:00 PM  

Hi, Spy! This was an excellent post with really great questions that I think we do forget to ask ourselves. Thanks for the reminder! And thanks for visiting my blog! I've got a copy of Perfectly Plum and will have to go back and read your story! (Love the title of it.) My friend, Brenda Scott Royce, is in the book too! And after the comment you left me, I'm thinking Ranger's got to be in there somewhere...

Aimless Writer 11/22/2008 07:41:00 PM  

Great post! I try to remember whom my readers are and what I'm trying to convey.

LaDonna 11/22/2008 08:01:00 PM  

Love your post, Spy! I can't analyse a lot while writing, or I'll drop the ball. It's like that phrase, "Build it and they will come." Forgot what Cosner movie that one. Field of Dreams...I remember!

I seriously love your mind. We're all drawn to different genres, like readers. Hopefully by doing our best, our stories will find the perfect homes. I do know when I really connect with a story, letting it go is joyful and I'm ready to move on to the next.

spyscribbler 11/23/2008 06:39:00 PM  

10 Years Younger? What's that about? Melanie, I've never heard of it! I did love TLC: I watched Trading Places show. Gosh, I was SO addicted!

spyscribbler 11/23/2008 06:39:00 PM  

Travis, I think the first time I made a mistake and the reader caught it, it definitely changed the way I wrote.

spyscribbler 11/23/2008 06:53:00 PM  

Oh, cool, Robin! I loved Brenda's essay. I was so glad to discover your blog.

Thanks for stopping by!

spyscribbler 11/23/2008 06:53:00 PM  

Aimless, me too. I don't always succeed, but I try!

spyscribbler 11/23/2008 07:08:00 PM  

I love that movie, LaDonna! I also love that phrase. I think there's a definite truth to the fact that if you're write for yourself as a reader, there will be others like you. :-)