Thursday, 14 February 2013

Readers Have Needs

Different readers will have different things they like to read. Genres, style, subject matter – all these things will vary from person to person.

But there are some qualities in fiction that are the same for everyone. These are the things we all look for in a story, and they are also how we judge whether something is a good read.

A Need For New Information 
On a basic level we all like to learn things. Obviously, not everyone is interested in the same subjects, but generally speaking, most people gravitate towards information they weren’t aware of before. Whether it’s the news or practical advice or just a piece of trivia.

That’s not to say any random fact is going to have people rapt with attention, but knowing that we all have a genuine fascination with learning things can help when writing a story. And conversely, telling people stuff they already know can make their minds wander.

It’s going to make a difference if the thing you’re telling the reader has substance. If one character tells another an easy way to defrost a freezer without having to take out all the food, even though it may have little to do with the plot of the story, it will interest the reader (no, I don’t actually have a way of doing that).

If you can work it into the narrative, it will have a much stronger effect. If the ballistics report reveals the bullet that killed the president is untraceable because the killer soaked it in washing up liquid before loading it in the gun, which prevent striation marks from forming, readers are going to go, Oh, I didn’t know you could do that (you can’t do that, I just made it up).

The need for information goes beyond this kind of extra detail. If a character decides to go and do something or find something out, if they are in the process of discovering something new themselves, that will be of interest to the reader to. And conversely, if the character is going to do something they’ve done before (wake up, brush teeth get dressed, take the kids to school), that will allow the reader’s mind to wander. 

Need To Connect With Characters 
You probably noticed I just did a series of posts on this topic, so I won’t go into great detail about how to do this, but you should bear in mind that readers want a character they can spend time with.

Even a Mary Sue or painfully corny wish fulfilment type of character is preferable to someone who whines and complains and doesn’t like anything. As in real life, those people may have a valid reason to be like that, but they’re not much fun to be around.

Even a tortured soul who has great depth and hidden qualities is going to lose the reader’s interest if those qualities remain hidden too long.

Most readers actively want to relate to the characters in some way. They aren’t sitting there thinking, Come on then, impress me. They’ve already committed time just by turning the page and they’re hoping it’ll be worth it. 

Need For Solutions 
Dramatic storytelling consists of problems. Whether a conflict or a threat or a search, something has to be done or there’s going to be trouble. The reader wants to see the problem sorted out. They want the conflict resolved.

How it’s resolved, what solutions are employed and whether they succeed or not, is a matter of individual choice for the writer. But that’s what the reader is waiting to find out.

Every answer you come up with may lead to more questions, more problems, but that’s okay. As long as new questions are asked, new answers will be expected.

What isn’t okay is to set up the problem and then go off and deal with a bunch of other stuff. Because a problem that doesn’t have to be sorted out isn’t really a problem. 

Need For Understanding 
Readers want to know what happened. They want it to make sense, and they want to understand who did what and why.

Sometimes that isn’t completely possible, and that’s okay. But the reader didn’t spend all that time to be told, And the mystery remains to this day...

But as well as the story having a purpose to it, readers also want it to be consistent and logical. They want the world to feel like a real world (even if it isn’t) and to be able to see it and have a clear picture of where everything is.

There are writers who insist the reader needs to decipher what’s going on and where they are, which is fine, mostly people go in knowing that’s the expectation with that kind of writer. But that tends to end up feeling more like doing a puzzle than reading a story. 

Need For Closure 
You can keep a story going through various ups and downs (in fact you should do that), but eventually you need to come to some sort of end.

Readers want an ending. Even though it isn’t like real life, and it can sometimes feel a bit pat, that’s what they want.

That doesn’t mean it has to be a Hollywood, they all lived happily ever after type of ending (although those are pretty popular).  It can be quite vague and open-ended if you want, but it has to convey a definite sense of the journey being over (even if it’s going to start again with a sequel).

The thing to remember about satisfying endings is that they need to be set up. A guy investigating a murder can’t just drop dead of a heart attack before he catches the murderer. You have to introduce some kind of goal, and it’s that goal that will provide the closure (even if it’s not in the way the reader was expecting). 

Need To Be Entertained 
This is obviously a big umbrella word for lots of different things. But it should still be seen as an important aim for a writer, to entertain the reader.

People read a lot of different types of books but the reason we absorb words to create ideas and picture in our heads is because we enjoy it.

Whether it a sense of wonder, visceral emotional reactions (which can be anything from laughter to comfort to being thrilled), provoking thoughts, or a transcendent moment that changes the way you view the world, stories provide a way to live through other people, and those people need to provide enough stimulation for a reader to feel like they had a worthwhile experience.

Easier said than done, I know. But try to remember you’re putting on a show, and open strong. Not in any particular place or in any particular style, just with something you think is interesting and captures the tone of what you’re trying to do.
If you found this post useful, please give it a retweet. Cheers.


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I'm all about the entertainment.
Some sort of closure is a must. The ending needs to satisfy.
And if people read my books hoping to learn how a teleporter works, they'll be disappointed as I have no idea!

mooderino said...

@Alex - Teleportation is available now but Apple are holding it back in case it impacts iPad 3 sales.

Unknown said...

I'm currently writing a novel that centers around genetic manipulation. I've always been fascinated with genetics (majored in biology), and I hope I can bring that excitement to my readers without it being too lecture-y.

Misha Gerrick said...

Great post! You really did cover everything in it. :-D

Al Diaz said...

Probaly I will have to reveal the secret of the refrigerator. :) Valuable information you give us here!

Anonymous said...

Great list. I agree that there are certain story traits that people look for, no matter the genre.

Elise Fallson said...

The need to entertain is a big one for me. As a reader I want to escape and a good book is my ticket to Anywhereelse.

mooderino said...

@CS - no reason why you can't.

@Misha - too much free time, that's my problem.

@Al - the secret of my refrigerator is not to trust the cheese.

@Medeia - you don't necessarily have to use them, but it's good to know what they are.

mooderino said...

@Elise - me too, although some people love to wallow in a bit of misery. Horses for courses.

Carissa said...

This is a great list, and a great way to frame it ... readers with cravings that we need to satisfy.

mooderino said...

@Carissa - Yes, satisfy my cravings!

Rachna Chhabria said...

I am all about entertainment and closure and ofcourse the need for information.

Beverly Diehl said...

All excellent points. Re: new information - make it relevant to the plot, and make sure it is not one big info-dump. Last year I read Les Mis, the unabridged version (kids, don't try this at home) and while the sewers of Paris WERE relevant to the storyline, I did NOT need 30+ pages of the way sewers were built, all the way back to Roman times.

And yes, I want an ending, a REAL ending, not a War of the Worlds "and the aliens all caught cold and died."

mooderino said...

@Rachna - Entertainment first!

@Beverly - Ah, French sewers, what could be more romantic...

Elizabeth Twist said...

I've seen some great storytelling done with main characters that are absolutely reprehensible. There's a different draw to that kind of story, I guess? Schadenfreude?

I'd love to see a future post elaborating on the need for understanding. Totally agreed that logical consistency is absolutely important, but I think a story draws a reader in if everything isn't all laid out, and we all know the joy-killing effects of the info dump. There's a balance point there, I guess?

Golden Eagle said...

Comprehensive list. I like your explanation of the need for new information, especially!

mooderino said...

@Elizabeth - if the ideas are interesting enough you can lay them out or hold stuff back and it will entertain either way. It's a choice. When a writer feels the only way to keep the reader hooked is not to tell them the whole story, it usually means they don't have faith in what happens and are delaying out of insecurity.

@Golden - Cheers!

Rusty Carl said...

If I could only take out of this article what I wanted to, I'd be tempted to think of myself as the greatest writer in the history of the world, as I tend to info dump like you wouldn't believe. I have to weed that stuff out in revisions and edits... but the early versions of my stories, they can be tough to slog through.

mooderino said...

@Rusty - I find it better to go the TMI route and then cut back. Easier to see the shape emerge.

The Armchair Squid said...

Alright, I'm going to challenge you on one point. I'm not sure all problems need to be resolved for a story to succeed. Sometimes it's best to leave a few questions unanswered.

I'm a big (make that HUGE) fan of the Italian film "Cinema Paradiso." Do you know the movie? In the original theatrical release, quite a lot of loose ends are left untied by the end. It's frustrating, true, but the yearning for their resolution is essential to the viewer's connection to the protagonist. We share in his heartache.

Years later, a director's cut was released in which all of the questions are answered. While as a lover of the story, my curiosity is satisfied, I think that overall, the film is weaker as a result. While I could happily watch the original over and over again, I don't feel I ever need to watch the director's cut again. The sense of mystery is gone.

On the other hand, in support of your point, I think of the TV series "Lost" in which writers introduced all sorts of ridiculous tangents (polar bears?) that were never explored. Viewers (by which I mean people like my wife) were ready to mutiny by the end.

mooderino said...

@Squid - I don't think answering questions automatically provides satisfaction, and equally leaving stuff out won't always intrigue the reader/viewer. But it's important to recognise that the need for resolution is there in the audience. How you choose to use it will vary from writer to writer and story to story.

I'm with your wife on Lost. Started well, went nowhere.

The Armchair Squid said...

Fair enough.

Hart Johnson said...

I think on most of these fronts writing mysteries has improved my focus. There are just enough things that HAVE to makes sense and fit together. The rules require that the READER in retrospect, should be able to connect the clues and think 'ha! I should have seen that' but it shouldn't be too easy initially.

Donna said...

Yes. Great observations. I had to smile when you were talking about the whiny character because I've got a needy friend who does that a lot. I can only spend so much time with her as a result.

People may roll their eyes a lot in real life, but it gets old fast in a book.

Lydia Kang said...

Well said. I also agree with the need for new information--you can have all the drama in the world but without learning something that changes the game, it gets very tired.

mooderino said...

@Hart - I think once you're aware of these things and keep them in mind, that's enough to guide your writing. There are lots of ways to do it, once you pay attention to it.

@Donna - so many people I tolerate in real life who I so wouldn't in fiction.

@Lydia - I love reading books by people who know stuff I don't.

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