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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