Reading, at first glance, is not something that should be natural for us. Human beings are hunter gatherers originally, social animals, explorers. We like to do things, to talk and love and play, even running for our lives or fighting gives us an adrenaline rush, something a lot of sports enthusiasts still enjoy. So what compels us, now, to sit for hours on end staring at page after page of tiny symbols on white paper?
Well, the same reason we do anything, really: emotion. Books – good ones at least – make us feel emotions, and that is absolutely the core of their appeal. The bad book is not one that is badly written, or one with an unrealistic premise, or irritating characters, though it may include one or all of these things. No, the bad book is the one which fails to make us feel.
The idea for this post came to me the other day during a conversation with a friend in which I expressed my intense annoyance for all the ‘bad writers’ out there who churn out terrible books and make millions of dollars. Why should these people, I said, who haven’t put in any real effort or time in bettering themselves or learning to write well, be successful, while hundreds of other, better authors remain unknown? But my friend only shook his head. ‘They can’t be bad writers,’ he said. ‘They’re famous.’
Which got me thinking. If they’re famous, millions of people are paying money to read book after book, and as my friend pointed out, they can’t really be bad if that’s the case. I mean, I think they’re bad because, technically speaking, they are. They have shitty cardboard characters, terrible prose, bland style, whatever. But readers don’t read for your style or your characters or plotlines. They read because they want to feel something, and whatever criticisms I have for these writers, they must be making their readers feel or they wouldn’t sell books. It’s that simple.
This was kind of a revelation for me, because until then I’d always been assured that if you were skilful enough as an author and had a decent story, you were guaranteed to become successful to a degree. Now I see the truth: it is entirely possible to write a coherent story with realistic characters and a tight, clear style, and still end up with something shit. I’ve written some, and I’ve read books like this, books I finished with a growing sense of frustration as I turned the pages, wanting to know what was going to happen next even though nothing about it interested me. This is so fucking boring, I would think to myself at the conclusion of each chapter. I can’t wait until I finish all five hundred pages of this shit so I can throw the damn thing away and forget about it.
And that, my friends, is the antithesis to the ‘famous bad writer’. It’s the ‘really good but incredibly boring writer’. He is the guy who has a top of the line tennis racket and an encyclopaedic knowledge of the game and rules, but can’t actually play for shit. The point is, the ‘bad writers’ are still achieving the writer’s most important goal. They are creating emotions in the reader, and doing it consistently enough to make people plough through their awful writing.
So of course, the next logical question is, how the hell do I do that? Obviously, I haven’t cracked this particular nut yet or I’d already be a professional writer myself, but I have a few theories.
I mentioned earlier that human’s aren’t natural readers ‘at first glance’. I say this because in actual fact, people were telling each other stories as soon as they could communicate. Long before the first written symbols appeared, there were cave drawings, and I suspect that before these you had a bunch of hairy cavepeople sitting around a campfire and telling each other about this guy they once saw got eaten by a lion, only it was a lion ten times bigger than normal with a roar like a volcano erupting.
The goal back then, as now, was to get the biggest reaction out of the audience, and I bet they achieved that just as well as modern storytellers, only without the advantage of the written word. In a way, the storyteller had an easier job back then, because he wasn’t concerned with paragraphs, grammar, style, etc. What he did concern himself with were what I think are the most important things, the things which play the biggest part in creating emotion within the reader: characters, story, and suspense.
My reasoning goes like this: You need characters, because a reader cannot feel emotion about a story which does not include other people. You need realistic, interesting characters because the reader must connect the character to a person they know in real life, perhaps even themselves. If you identify a character, you immediately care what happens to them, because you feel like you know them. And if you care what happens to them, then when the storyteller warns of impending doom you feel a bit scared on behalf of them, and when the teller allows them love and happiness, you too feel some of this.
You need story, of course – but it can’t be boring. Bad things must happen, conflict, problems, evil. Whether your characters overcome the conflict or succumb is really irrelevant – as long as the reader feels a strong emotion as a result. The key thing as that the story deeply affects the lives of the characters in some way and causes them to react. It has to be negative, too, because positivity is boring. No one ever reads a story that begins ‘happily ever after’ unless it goes downhill from there. The story must also be subject to the characters, because readers want to see that the people in books have a certain control over their destiny. If you read a book governed by the author entirely, you become bored because it seems like no matter what the characters want, they can’t change anything. Fate becomes predetermined, and the reader starts thinking poisonous thoughts like ‘oh, I bet the girl dies so the author can send the protagonist on a revenge mission,’ or ‘Obviously that unassuming and innocent guy is the murderer, he’s the one I’ve been led to believe is the least suspect!’. One of the better tricks I heard was apparently used by the writers of South Park. They said that instead of thinking of story as something that follows the principle ‘and then this, and then this, and then this,’ they instead thought along the lines of ‘But this, therefore that, but this, therefore that…’ Using the former, you could tell any story you want, and no event need connect to any other nor affect anything else. In the latter, it is impossible to write a story without a logical progression, and without each event both following from what has come before and affecting what will come after.
Finally, I argue for suspense, although that sort of qualifies as an emotion all by itself. I think there are many popular novels out there whose sole powering emotion is suspense, even at the expense of the elements character and story. Neil Gaiman once said that a writer should prize four words above all else: ‘And Then What Happened?’ But it ain’t that simple, either. Here’s a quote from Kurt Vonnegut’s rules on writing: ‘Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.’
I would agree with everything he says here except for one sentence: ‘To heck with suspense.’ Sure, it’s good for the reader to have total understanding about what’s going on, where and why, but there’s no reason any of that should get in the way of suspense. Most of us know exactly what’s going on in our lives, where and why, but that doesn’t mean shit when it comes to telling our future. Same with books. Knowing isn’t knowing. If anything it can add to the suspense, because with a greater knowledge about what’s going on there are a whole host of potential dangers and hopes for your characters, which you inevitably dwell on.
So. Characters, story, suspense. The catalysts for emotion. It’s just a hypothesis, so let me test it out with you. Here is a story:
Bill was a brave boy, but sometimes he was also very scared. Bill found a monster under his bed, and the monster said: ‘Give me your dinner every night or I’ll eat your parents.’
Bill hated the monster, but every night he went to bed with a growling belly and tears on his face.
He tried to tell his parents, but they laughed and said: ‘Don’t be silly, Bill, there is no monster under your bed.’ They sent him to sleep that night without any dinner.
But Bill was brave, and he would not let the monster eat his parents. So that night, he made a dinner of his own. It sat on a silver platter under cloth, and it was made of pins and nails and knives. He slid it under the bed and the monster ate it all in one gulp like it always did.
Bill lay on his bed and heard the monster choke and cry, and when he looked over the side of the bed as he’d always been too afraid to do, he saw blood soaking into the carpet.
Later that night, Bill’s father came to tuck him in, and said: ‘Did you learn your lesson, Bill?’
‘Yes, Daddy,’ said Bill. That night he went to bed with a growling belly, and a smile on his face.
Okay, so the story is 222 words long and written fast, but I think I did okay. Basically, it was the shortest story I could make while satisfying all the criteria I set for myself. In every single sentence I either develop character or the story, and in some sentences (4th and 5th) I do both in different clauses. The suspense comes in by the first sentence, specifically when I state that Bill is not only brave but also scared, thus raising a question – and as we all know, questions are the essence of suspense.
But how did it turn out? If it were a fatter, 3000 word story I could have added in a lot of extra stuff and it wouldn’t read like a children’s book, but that’s beside the point. The point is, did it do anything for you? If it did, I might be on to something. If not, well I was gonna go back to the drawing board anyway.
So, to answer the question in the title of this post… we read because reading makes us feel. In the end, writing is like sex. You can enjoy yourself all you want, but if you do it right the other person will get the most out of it. You have to make them feel something. Of course, if you usually try to make your readers feel terror and revulsion like me, it’s probably not the best analogy.
Anyways, I liked my story, was it good for you too?