Thursday, 10 May 2012

Why Reread A Story You Already Know?

You read a story, you loved the story, you were amazed the things that happened. Then you read it again.

This is true of all types of stories, movies, plays, comics. We go back to the stories we enjoyed the most. Even though we know what happens. Nothing is surprising, and “What happens next?” is a redundant question.

Why? And how can we use this to improve what we write?


Clearly the need to know what happened, which often drives you to keep reading into the early hours, is not quite the simple “don’t know—want to know—now I know” formula we might think.

Some of the reasons are obvious. It’s a book that reminds you of a time in your life. It’s comforting. It’s a story that meant a lot to you at one time. Or it’s a very dense book that reveals more to you as you grow as a person.

Sometimes, of course, you really have forgotten what happened, especially if you haven’t read the book in a while. I often misremember, which can be quite disheartening when I  preferred my imagined version.

But I’ve reread many books where I know who dies, who lives, who ends up together and how they do it, and yet I still get caught up in the story.

My thoughts on this (based on zero evidence) are that firstly we enjoy stories, in whatever format, as a way of living a different life. Like a virtual reality machine for the brain and the memory.

Consciously we know we are reading about someone else, someone not even real, but subconsciously I think we aren’t really reading about Holden Caulfield, Elizabeth Bennett or Hannibal Lecter, we’re reading about ourselves, and it becomes as real as a memory. Thinking back to an event in your life is exactly the same process as thinking back to an event in a book or movie.

I think we can do this with characters who are nothing like us, different sex, evil, from ancient civilisations or alien worlds. We can slot ourselves in there.

I don’t think the character necessarily needs to be likeable, although some may have a preference for that, but something about them must interest the reader. 

It’s more about not being us in the life we already know.  It could be completely different, or it could be familiar with different choices made. Sometimes it certain scenes, sometimes a moment. A decision.

We know it isn’t real (well, most of us do) and we have control over it so we can disengage if it gets uncomfortable. But I think we like putting on the magic helmet and seeing through someone else’s eyes, even though we can’t control what they do.

Choices and consequences is what it comes down to, I think. And the way we play back key moments in our own lives and ponder alternatives — Did I do the right thing? What if I did it differently — so we use fiction to create alternative lives for ourselves.

At the same time, I think there’s something about the structure of a solidly written narrative (even if the actual language and grammar is terrible) that affects us emotionally every time. Like going on a rollercoaster you’ve been on a hundred times before. You still get the rush and weird feeling in your stomach.

The sense of something terrible (or wonderful) about to happen still works. Anticipation operates independent of outcome.

If I told you tonight when you go to bed, look under your pillow, your loved one will have left you a present, how’s that make you feel? 

Obviously it isn’t true, there’s no way for me to know and you’re aware of that. But just the idea of it is enough to trigger some of the emotion that would have been created if it was true. A bit of memory, some anticipation, a little wishful hoping, some resentment, regret, curiosity as to whether your cat would be able to gift wrap, whatever.

The point is those triggers can be operated artificially, and good writing is a great way of activating them.

Are there books or movies you return to? What is it that draws you back to them?
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36 comments:

Michael Offutt, Tebow Cult Initiate said...

I seldom reread something, but when I do, it's cause I liked the writing and adventure so much that I want to experience it again.

Ted Cross said...

For me it's about a created world that feels less as if it were created and more as if it were answering my deepest dreams. I'm a boring human of Earth; I'd rather be a noble warrior in an unrealistic world such as Middle Earth or the world of A Game of Thrones or Earthsea or Lankhmar, etc. I'd love to be the Grey Mouser or Conan, and it doesn't matter that it's unrealistic and that if I were truly born there I'd most likely be a miserable slave or serf.

This is why I think the publishers are wrong to be dismissive of derivative fantasy novels. Sure, many hate them, but far more people LOVE the worlds of Tolkien or Martin and wish only for more of the same. Heck, better than rereading the same loved books (as enjoyable as that is) is to get more and slightly different stories set within the same type of wonderful world. That's my take, and I think the take of many others. Publishers are ignoring us and apparently don't like the smell of our money.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I almost never reread a book. I've reread a couple of Terry Brooks and Preston & Child books, but that's it. With reading, I prefer something new every time.
With movies - I can watch some of those over and over...

PT Dilloway, Superhero Author said...

There are a few books that have particularly inspired me that I've read up to a half-dozen times. I remember in "The World According to Garp" (a book I've read 3 times at least) when he was working on a story Garp reread a book of Joseph Conrad's over and over and over again. I don't think I could do that but there are some I like to reacquaint myself with from time to time just to remember how good they are. Other books have suffered from rereading in large part because I read other books of that author which were much, much better.

mooderino said...

@Michael-I think a lot of people don't reread at all, although they probably still have loads of read books on their shelves.

@Ted-I think crime books still have that pulp vibe, and fantasy used to as well. Cheap fast books do seem to have gone missing from the world of mainstream publishing, apart from romance novels maybe. I think that's where indie publishers can make a killing, especially via digital.

@Alex-I wonder what the difference you feel between books and movies. The effort?

mooderino said...

@PT-I think since I decided to take up writing seriously I've reread a lot of my favourite books, analysing them, but I've noticed I enjoy them just for the moments.

Donna Shields said...

There are a few. It's the characters and their world and of course everything going on. In these books, I feel like I'm taking the ride with them and that's what makes me return over and over.

EvalinaMaria said...

Anne of Green Gables I've read many times in both languages, Polish and English. She always puts smile on my face...

Nancy Thompson said...

I LOVE rereading my favorite books. I have books I've read 5 times, I love them so much. And now that I'm a writer myself, I look at them in a completely different light.

Charmaine Clancy said...

How cool, The Great Gatsby is one of the very few books I have re-read several time, and I love Gatsby more and more in each reading. Damn those high society piranhas! Others include Dune and Grover's Theres a Monster at the End of this Book.

Ciara Ballintyne said...

I rearead all the time. I've easily read The Wheel of Time 9 or 10 times - I usually reread it everytime a new book comes out. The same for Terry Pratchett's Sword of Truth and the Discworld books. It's the most compelling and enjoyable stories that draw me back, the best characters. Even though I know the good guy wins, I wait for that Aha moment, or the perfectly delivered line before the bad guy gets what's coming. Yes, it is vicarious living.

And I find grammar and writing quality MORE imprtant on a reread. The unknown can push me past sloppy writing, but once I know the story, there's nothng to distract me from an overabundance of adjectives.

I can't watch movies over and over so much. They're too short and I remember them too well. I get bored.

Ted Cross said...

I don't even mean cheap, pulpy books, but authors doing high quality novels that fit within the Tolkienesque high fantasy arena. We had Terry Brooks with Shannara and then Dennis McKiernan with the Mithgar books, but that's all they've allowed to be published. Also, those were HIGHLY derivative (as in taking Tolkien plot points verbatim), while I prefer the idea of taking a Tolkienesque style world and doing original stories within the setting. I've seen NONE of that published.

Rachna Chhabria said...

Its ages since I have reread something because of lack of time. But when I do, its because I want to immerse myself in both the world and the characters. Great post.

mooderino said...

@Donna-I think the journey does end up being more important than the destination.

@Evalina-Perhaps a childhood book is a way to remember one's own childhood.

@nancy-It does change things when you look with writer's eyes. And not always for the better.

@Charmaine-I particularly like that cover, even though I've never seen it in real life.

@Ciara-interesting that you don't do it with movies.

@Ted-I think there were quite a few in the 80s. Feist and Jordan and Eddings all seemed to be of that ilk.

@Rachna-cheers.

Mina Burrows said...

I reread a ton of books. They're like my old faithful. If I'm obsessed about a book/series, I may read it again for the recapture the thrill or even to analyze the writing. Great post, Mood!

Damyanti said...

I go back for the characters-- some are just unforgettable!

mooderino said...

@Mina-I always find it hardest to analyse the books I enjoy the most. Get caught up in the story and forget to pay attention to technique.

LD Masterson said...

I'm very much a character driven reader. If I like a character, I enjoy spending time with them. This is especially true of characters in a series. If I've watched a character grow and develop over a number of books, going back and re-reading an early one is a bit like reminiscing with an old friend.

nutschell said...

Hmm.. I think Harry Potter might be the only book I've ever read more the once. There's just something so-- magical about it:)And even though I know the ending, it's fun to relive the scenes and be pulled into Hogwarts again.
Happy weekend!
Nutschell
www.thewritingnut.com

Rosalind Adam said...

I rarely reread a book but I have occasionally watched a film or show more than once. It doesn't spoil it to know 'what happened next' but it frees up the brain to look at some of the more subtle aspects of plot.

Ciara said...

I'll reread a book on occasion, but definitely will watch movies repeatedly. It is usually the characters that draw me to do this.

Jenny Morris said...

I not a huge re-reader. It has to be a book that either has characters I REALLY love or it's the kind of book that reveals a little more to me each time I read it.

Jenny from Falling for Fiction

CMcGowan said...

I have read To Kill a Mockingbird more times than I can count. Granted, I am an English teacher and teach this novel every year but that does not suppress my anticipation for it. There are several books I'd like to re-read if I had time, Audrey Niffenegger's Her Fearful Symmetry is a book I'd go through again, so is David Wrobeleski's The Story of Edgar Sawtelle.

Deniz Bevan said...

I love rereading books and reliving that thrill of anticipation. And I tend to forget details very quickly, so I reread often - sometimes I've forgotten the ending!

Rebecca Bloomer said...

I reread in order to learn; so I reread the books that made a real impact on me because I want to know how the author created that effect.

Medeia Sharif said...

There are several books I reread and movies I rewatch. Even though I know what's going to happen, I feel an emotional connection to the characters. Also, I find myself discovering new things every time I encounter these favorites.

mooderino said...

@LD-the problem with great characters is they can be hard to keep frsh. Stephanie Plum no.18 anyone?

@nutschell-I'm still waiting for Harry Potter Shades of Gryffindor.

@Rosalind-making sure to put int those extra elements is what I'm trying to figure out.

@Ciara-I like to rewatch certain scenes, usually on youtube.

@jenny-the books that reveal a little more every time are defintitely my favourites.

@CMcGowan-a lot of the books I read at school I didn't enjoy until I reread them voluntaily later in life. Not sure why that is.

@Deniz-as I get older and my memory gets worse I find that too.

mooderino said...

@Rebecca-it's tricky staying in study mode when you're reading a good book. I tend to get carried away by the story. I have to keep notes if I want to learn anything.

@Medeia-I have a bunch of stories I can rewatch regularly and find new stuff to like, I like th efeeling of being impressed, I find it inspiring.

Diane Carlisle said...

I'm sure you get plenty awards for sharing your posts. I couldn't decide which one, but you do have a creative way of posting your thoughts about writing, so I went with this one.


Kreativ Blogger Award

Keep sharing!

Annalisa Crawford said...

I love re-reading books and re-watching films. Occassionally I discover something new in the story, but mostly I feel comforted by the familiarity - like slipping into your favourite jeans at the end of the day.

Crack You Whip said...

I don't like to re-read a book but only do so for great writing. That isn't often.

mooderino said...

@Diane - thank you. The awards I've received are in the right hand column of the blog. I tend to accept the ones that don't require me to do anything (or at least nothing was mentioned when I got nominated).

@Annalisa-the books I remember most warmly from my childhood usually don't live up to my expectations when I reread them, so I tend to avoid them. I prefer the memory.

@Crack - I like to reread funny books. Humour often holds up well, especially the dark, unpleasant type.

louisebroadbentfiction said...

I love re-reading books because even though I already know it's a good book, there's something amazing about being blown away all over again. Also, my favourite books are those with characters that I care about, so re-reading a much-loved book is like spending time with old friends. And then there are those great books with so much to them, you can find something new with every read.

Ted Cross said...

No, none of those authors did Tolkienesque. The ones who did were Terry Brooks and Dennis McKiernan. At least by my definition of Tolkienesque.

mooderino said...

@louise-the books that reveal themselves slowly over time are the ones I treasure most. Alhtough there are some that are supposed to be like that that can feel dated, especially those obsessed with religion.

@Ted-I think your definition of Tolkeinesque is a little narrow. Feist was heavily influenced by LotR, especially the first few books (which are quite good, whereas the later books are bloody awful). Elves, dwarves, even language is all very 'similar'. Feist himself referred to it as 'homage'.

Jenni Steel said...

With reference to the Great Gatsby, I saw the film many years ago. I really enjoyed the story and the handsome Robert Redford. Recently, whilst listening to radio 4, A version of the Great Gatsby came on and it was lovely to listen to it again. I had almost forgotten that Daisy was to blame for the accident. It was good to hear the story and yes it did reflect on a period in my life.


Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier, 1940 film another film I loved but I did also read the book. A pity they cut so much out when filming it. I could still watch that film again and again.

I would like to say thank you for allowing me to comment and I would like to give you an award.

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