Thursday, March 19, 2009

Readers' Expectations

reader's first expectations, the-- reasons provided the reader by the writer of a story as well as the characters, incidents, and settings depicted within the story that will cause the reader to suspend disbelief; the primary state of the reader's mind when approaching a work of fiction.

Readers know in advance that a story is invented. On some basic level of awareness, the reader enters the transaction with the writer and the text with a conflict of interest in which he wants the text to become a rendition of reality while openly seeking any possible detail that prevents the story from appearing real. 

The invention must seem real in every detail; the characters must be plausible, their goals and plans to achieve these goals must resonate the sanity of conventional logic. Thus the reader notices anomalies, the green-eyed protagonist on page six who suddenly blinks her gray eyes on page nineteen; the subway stop in midtown Manhattan where in fact there is no such subway stop, a rifle or pistol of a particular caliber being afforded a range well beyond its real capacity, the winner of the baseball World Series of a particular year being rendered incorrectly. 

The reader does not object to the green-eyed protagonist on page six installing a pair of shaded contact lenses prior to blinking her now gray eyes on page nineteen, nor does the reader object to a wrongly placed subway stop in an alternate universe novel, possibly even thinking a subway stop at that particular location would be a good idea. Anomalies must be rendered to have a home in plausibility.

Thus the reader's first expectation is to be given sufficient dramatic, emotional, and physical information necessary to overcome the gap between actuality and projected potential. This story could be happening, this story is happening, these characters are real. The more skilled writers in our midst begin by nurturing a firm belief in their vision; if they do not have a vision, they add details in support of one, adding here, removing there until the vision clarifies. 

 They do not try to argue the characters, situations, and locales into being. Least of all do they rely on the sad old tropes: "But it really happened that way," and "But this character is based on a real person." The reader expects the writer to be right enough to dispel any doubt.

It is instructive to consider our individual lie detector, which usually becomes activated when we see attributes piled on a description of an event or quality, or when materials presented as facts cannot be attributed to reliable sources. Readers have lie detectors, but readers are fighting to believe. Their first expectation is to be able to do so.

The more convinced the writer is of the characters and circumstances in his story, the less likely he is to pile on attributes and stage directions and in fact the more likely he is to be taken at face value, right from the start.

A good place to begin engaging this reader expectation is with individuals who are in the midst of doing something that will lead to confrontation or, having already met the confrontation, started to cope with it. For convenient reference, think of Tom Sawyer's "solution" to having to white wash the fence, then set your own characters to work.

1 comment:

Matt said...

"Anomalies must be rendered to have a home in plausibility." - this applies to much more than just writing!

Nice post, Shelly. I've written a very complex book and am in the process of trying to make its very complex universe consistent (if not complete) in my current revision.

Sometimes I will insert something (see: incorrect subway stop, incorrectly gauged caliber of gun, etc..) while I'm writing which is a kludge - something to connect A to B in the meantime to allow me to keep writing as opposed to analyzing (which often kills the writing impulse), knowing that I will need to revisit said kludge in the future. I think kludges are important, but their toll does weigh on me when the first draft is done and the necessity for reality dawns on all the lovely kludges I've laid (those that I can remember, that is).

Kludges, when there are too many, unfortunately end up like landmines...if you don't make a map of where you buried them you're likely to lose a foot in the process of tracing your steps.

Can you tell I think a lot about kludges?