From John Brown: You're Mine, Dear Reader
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Sep. 20th, 2009 | 09:55 am
John is one of the best analysts of what works and doesn't work in fiction that I've ever read or heard of. In a Codex discussion about memorable stories, John shared some especially useful insights that I asked if I could share with other readers here, and he kindly consented.
YOU’RE MINE, DEAR READER
Okay, maybe not. But you are wired to be mine. And you wouldn’t have it any other way.
Let’s back up. Luc wrote about writing memorable. I agree with the idea that the stories that produce a strong emotional reaction are the most memorable. In fact, I believe that triggering of emotion is THE reason why linear narrative that puts us into the trance has lasted so long in so many forms and makes so much money.
But can writers guide reader emotions? Or is it all just by accident?
At first glance, we might think it's impossible. After all, what triggers the emotion (and which emotion) for one reader often does not do the trick for the next. We all have friends who should love the books we love, but don't, and vice versa. You just can't force a reader's reaction. You certainly can't force every reader to react the same way and to the same degree to any given novel.
But if you look at a book's ability to trigger a type of emotional experience over a large number of readers, I'd say many authors do very well guiding readers into a particular type of emotional response. If we take 1,000 U.S., adult thriller readers and give them the latest Koontz or Finder, I'm going to guess that a large portion of them will have the *intended reactions along some type of bell curve. Same with 1,000 romance readers given a Nora Roberts or Janet Evanovich.
So my answer is, yes, we can write for effect. In fact we do it all the time when we decide we want a happy ending or a beginning that hooks or a plot turn that surprises or a thousand other things we want the story to do. The question is not whether it can be done, but whether we can control it consistently.
We can. In a general sort of way. There are three reasons why.
First, emotional responses are automatic. We have two emotional circuits working all the time. There's the fast one that goes straight from sensory input to physical response. There's another slower one that starts in the cortex with conscious thought. Either way, when we notice details or patterns in our environment that approximate situations or things that have significance to us, one or both circuits immediately fires, producing a physical response, which, among other things, includes emotions that help us pay attention to whatever is triggering the response and prepare us to act.
For example, I live up in the boonies of Utah. We have rattlers around here. So when I walked out of my house and stepped on something that seemed to slither through the grass, I had an immediate physical response that included emotion. That's the fast circuit. I then looked down and saw the slither was way too long and realized I'd stepped on the hose. This modified my physical response. It was automatic. I couldn't avoid either the initial response or the modification.
You may be saying, that's fine for snakes and hoses, but we're talking about books. Well, the research shows that it's just not environmental stimuli that trigger the response. Thoughts have the same effect. In fact, sometimes thoughts are more powerful than the real thing. In studies of people with fear of snakes, the thought of the snake produced a stronger physical response than the actual critter.
So emotion is automatic, whether triggered by the environment or thought. If I sense a situation and believe it's real, I'm going to have a physical response.
Second, linear narrative focuses our limited attention on salient details of character types and situations. These salient details trigger the type or situation in our minds, evoking all the data associated with that type or situation as well. There are probably many ways to evoke the types and situations, many salient details that will work. But the point is that if we focus the reader's attention on types and situations that have significance to them, and it's done in a way that's believable, then the emotional response is automatic. It's unavoidable. It's how we're wired.
BTW, the best book on how emotion works and how it works with linear narratives that I've found is Jenefer Robinson's DEEPER THAN REASON. If you haven't read the first 5 chapters, you truly must. Every writer must.
Okay, fine, you say. But everyone doesn't react the same way to the same stimuli. True, but not only do specific demographics generally share the same emotional triggers (the patterns and types of significance) but there are triggers shared by many demographics.
What this all means is that the author is guiding the reader to see certain things that usually evoke a particular reaction.
Let me demonstrate. I think I can, for a middle class US female demographic, evoke a strong average response of antipathy for a character by having him call his wife "stupid cu**" all the time and have him talk in vulgar ways about the hotties he sees in his wife's presence.
So in just a few paragraphs in one or more scenes, presenting just a few salient details, I've guided readers into a similar response (over a bell curve).
Of course, this is not to say it's a piece of cake, a few buttons to push, and readers are helpless in our evil hands. It's sometimes very hard to orchestrate the emotional build over the novel and keep the whole thing going. It can be incredibly complex. But that doesn't mean it's impossible.
To sum up, the storyteller's craft deals with probabilistic cause and effect, not deterministic push button formulas. But probabilistic effect can still be very large and predictive. And those writers, who deliver again and again and again, on average, to their audiences, seem to have figured out how to do it.
So maybe you’re not mine. But you ARE hoping you’re somebody’s. You’re hoping, every time you crack a novel, that the author will take you on a ride that will blow your mind, leave you breathless, scare the soup out of you, make you fall in love again—you fill in the emotional blanks. You want to be guided.
You’re wired for it.
* BTW, I say "intended," knowing that sometimes we create and have only a vague yearning for some effect, one we might not even be able to put words to, and that it sometimes takes a few drafts to bring it to full focus. Or maybe not at all for any given section of the book. Still, I think we know in general what we're yearning for even if we have to write the book first to figure it out.