4 Ways of Staying In Tune with Your Readers
One of the hardest things to do as a writer is to assume the viewpoint of the reader.
Because you're the writer, you may have been working on a particular piece for so long it's difficult to remember what it's like to come at it as a ‘beginner’, as someone who knows nothing about it. That means that you can often find it tricky to get the pacing right, or to reveal things in the right order of magnitude, or to remember that something with which you’re very familiar is as yet utterly unknown to the reader. There are some ways of improving this situation, though.
1. Remember what it felt like the first time you wrote it.
I’ve written elsewhere about Terry Pratchett’s famous quote that ‘The first draft is you telling yourself the story.’ There was a time, perhaps long ago, when you knew nothing about your story too. This applies however you put the story together, whether you meticulously planned everything or pantsed it all the way through. At some point, you started from zero and then gradually came to a fuller picture. So when you're sitting down to create your next scene, ask yourself, ‘What do the readers know now? What did I know at this point?’
2. Work from their expectations.
You know something about your reader in the sense that they probably felt that your book was going to satisfy some kind of need that they had, or they wouldn’t have picked it up in the first place. They come to your story with a certain set of expectations. But they don’t know exactly how you will satisfy those expectations, or indeed if you will even come close. They're not sure how you're going to be different to other writers they may have read of a similar kind, or how you'll impress them or change their emotions or lives, or how you’ll match up to your competition. Though readers want to be in affinity with what you’re writing, they want to be impressed, they want to have an effect created on them, they are also easily sent spinning into disappointment. The core of empathy between you and your readers is your ability to understand what they want, what will disappoint them - and how to exceed their expectations.
This means that your first steps, your opening lines and first few pages, your first chapter are always going to be about setting the tone and boosting their confidence that they are in the hands of a competent author. You have to treat that first section of your story almost as though it was a story in itself; you have to create effects on readers, you have to get some kind of results, in order to boost their certainty that they did the right thing in picking up your book.
Readers need those initial results to realise that your story is something that will do something for them other than make them feel disappointed. From your seat of empathy it helps to realise what they think might be happening in your story and then going one step better than that -- without hurting your original storyline or intention -- especially in those first few pages.
You can try to do it in your first sentence. Many great authors do. Here’s Albert Camus’ opening sentence from The Stranger:
‘Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday; I can't be sure.’
To spell that out, we have the emotional punch of a mother’s death, which would in normal circumstances be followed (as it is in miniature in the reader’s perceptions) by grief. Instead, Camus surprises us by having his narrator unable to pinpoint the time of death, something that would usually be scored into people’s hearts. Instant attention capture, instant result.
Another example is this opening line from C. S. Lewis’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader:
‘There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.’
The second part of the sentence reflects back on the first and makes the reader realise that Eustace Clarence Scrubb is indeed an unattractive name. The reader might have viewed it quite differently had the author not pointed it out - and so Lewis sets the tone of the whole story, which is to be largely about the redemption of Eustace, straight away.
Who gives readers feelings and directs their attention? You.
Whose work will they read more of for more of the same? Yours.
3. Direct their attention in small but competent ways.
We’ve seen examples of directing attention above: set up an emotional expectation and then throw in a curve; say something then point out something about what you’ve just said. Opening sentences have been examined to death for the same kind of reasons, so let’s take a close look at an opening paragraph instead. This is from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick:
Call me Ishmael. Some years ago — never mind how long precisely — having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off — then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.
Apart from the intentionally casual way Melville introduces Ishmael - is that his real name? When is this tale taking place? Those questions don’t matter, Melville is implying - it’s the way in which he then directs our attention to the mood of his protagonist which convinces the reader that he or she is in the hands of a capable author. The next sentence is full of words designed to compel us to experience at least an inkling of the melancholy which drives Ishmael to the ocean: ‘grim’, ‘damp, drizzly November in my soul’, ‘coffin warehouses’, ‘funeral’. This protagonist, readers see, is occasionally so miserable as to be suicidal, and his ‘solution’ for these inexplicable feelings is to run away to sea. We sympathise.
What’s important here for our purposes (apart from noticing that we sympathise) is to spot how the author directed our attention in small ways in that opening. A lesser author might have tried to describe Ishmael physically, or describe an event, or even a setting: there are no descriptions, no events, no settings in Melville’s paragraph, just an outline of a subjective mood, created through deft control of language. By the end of that first paragraph, we know that we are in the grip of competence.
Smalless is key. Do you want to try to outline your plot? Too big. Do you need to paint a picture of a grand setting? Too big. Do you need to describe your protagonist? Probably irrelevant. You need to show that you can direct attention competently.
Every time you finish a paragraph especially in the first few pages, ask yourself, ‘Is there more I can do to direct their attention at word and sentence level which will get them a result?’
3. Get feedback from beta readers.
Even when you get better at this, you should always look for feedback. Use beta readers, take their feedback, and go back and update your content.
4. Find out what readers like.
This takes some work, and some writers reject the need for it. They want to write the story they want to write and are not bothered with what readers think. Fair enough, that’s up to them. But the interesting thing is that what will be memorable about their work, if anything, will be those bits where they struck a chord with what readers think.
How do you find out what readers think? Run a survey? No. Readers will tend to give only short and glib answers on polls. The way to get into their hearts and minds is to spend time delving into forums, writers’ groups, book clubs, conversations. That’s where you find out that that idea you had which sounded really cool to you is something that many readers would consider ultimate cheese; that’s where you find readers voicing their deepest cravings - ‘If only someone would write a story where the dragon had a pet human!’ or something like that. When you see readers’ comments getting lots of ‘Likes’ and support, you know that you’ve probably just glimpsed the tip of a reader iceberg floating by. If someone has created a little stir with a comment on a forum, then there are probably a hundred or a thousand that feel similarly. That’s a market.
This doesn’t mean that you have to ‘write to your market’ to the exclusion of any integrity in your story. You tell the story that you feel you have to tell, by all means. But being aware of reader mentality means that you can play your story in the right key, and strike the right notes to make it stand out from the rest.
If you do these things and pay attention, you can modulate your story so that its signals reach where the receivers are ready to pick them up. And you will stand out, and you will be reached for, and you will succeed as an author.