What Reader Experience is Right for Your Novel?

Today, I want to talk about reader experience. Not something that gets discussed much among writers, as I generally see it crop up in literary criticism under “reader response,” but thinking about how a reader is going to likely navigate your story makes a world of difference to you, as an author.

I know, you may be thinking, “It’s my story, and I’m going to tell it my way.” And you should.

But it’s important to consider what “your way” is, and what it does to the people coming along after you. Your narrative choices, through what you write, and how you write it, will determine the readers’ roles. Do they come in as a trusted friend, where they get told what’s going on, or do they come in as an outsider?

This is more than just the age-old question of third person, first person, omniscient narrator, etc., and has to do with how you write. For example…

I read the letter, then read it again. It didn’t matter. Nothing would change. I would be myself, above all.

 

I read the letter from my mother, written a few days before she died. It had never been delivered to me until now, so I soaked up the words despite myself. She told me to be a good girl, to make her proud. It only served to heighten my purpose. I would be myself, above all.

 

The difference isn’t the narration itself, as they’re both first person. But the first one sets the reader at arms’ length, to where they aren’t welcome to know details until the narrator is ready. The second welcomes them along for the journey and lets them read the letter, though it doesn’t give the reader the actual words. Here are some further options for the readers’ role in your story:

  • A private eye or sleuth, trying to solve the literary mystery on their own, without emotional ties to the characters (the first version works well in this, as it’s every person for themselves)
  • A friend of some of the characters, but not all, to where you might know the daughter’s thoughts but not get to experience those of the mother.
  • A synapse in the narrator’s brain, where every thought they have, every word they read, gets sent by the reader, too (this is often what one finds in third person close, where the goal is to experience what the narrator experiences, in every way).
  • A friend of the omniscient narrator who gets to know everything, whether the characters know it or not.
  • The audience of the omniscient narrator, to where they’re only told what the narrator is ready to reveal.
  • An enemy of the narrator, where false information is sent to the reader or where the whole thing (or portions of it) are meant to be antagonistic (I haven’t seen this used very often, but we do get a feeling of it a bit in Screwtape Letters, where we, as humans, are snooping into the correspondence of our demon enemies).

The reason this matters is that it sets up a particular reading experience for those who ultimately buy and review our book. If they don’t enjoy being an outsider, and we put them in that spot, they might not enjoy the book. This doesn’t mean we have to change it, of course, but it does mean we should think about what sort of experience we’ve created for readers and whether that experience blends in well with our storyline and genre.

For example, a romance might not be well-served by having an “every person for themselves” narrative style. And a mystery novel would likely be ruined if readers come in as friends to an omniscient narrator who tells us everything. The experience should help the story, adding the proper perspective rather than fighting with your goal.

This is one area where beta readers, writing coaches, and editors can help, giving an author a fresh perspective of what it’s like to read the story, because we, as authors, never get to approach it as a reader. Readers read the story to meet the characters. Reading is the act of discovery, but for us, writing is the act of discovery. We learn who our characters are through flashes of inspiration or thinking about their backstory, through scenes that never make it to the book.

And over the course of writing the story, we know too much and experience too much to be like a regular reader. We can appreciate our villains and other unpleasant characters because part of them is part of us. At moments, we have to cheer them on, have to plan for them and do our best by them, as otherwise, they’ll come off as weak and insipid. We come into the world as the one with the power to change things, and we know it (even if we respect our characters’ rights to make their own choices), so it can be hard to consider how it truly feels to not be trusted by the characters, to not know where they’re coming from and what their past is like. If we don’t know that to begin with, it’s okay–we’ll discover them as they respond to the plot, but by the final edit, we know them intimately, and this can interfere with our ability to judge what sort of experience we’re giving our readers, in the end.

But we need to analyze it all the same; otherwise, we may disappoint readers without knowing why.

Copyright 2018 Andrea Lundgren

Image by markgraf, Creative Commons

3 thoughts on “What Reader Experience is Right for Your Novel?

  1. Your point about matching narrator viewpoint with the expectations of the genre is spot on.

    I would suggest that switching viewpoints within a story can also distract/confuse/disappoint the reader unless done extremely well. I recently read, “The Three Emperors” by William Dietrich which is book seven in his Ethan Gage series.

    Each of the previous books were narrated by Ethan Gage exclusively but this one alternated chapters voiced by Ethan with ones told by his wife. Although there were logistical reasons for this change (they were separated by hundreds of miles for much of the action), the result was dissatisfying for me.

    Much of the appeal of the series lies in the scalawag charms of Ethan which was lost in the chapters told by his wife.

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    1. How interesting! I can see how a change like that could upset long-term fans, especially if the one point-of-view is so very different and appealing. Did you find, as an author, that you were more forgiving of this because you could see why he did it? Or did it not make much of a difference, as a reader?

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      1. Although I was sympathetic as an author, I was very disappointed as a reader. It’s sort of like like watching the “Bewitched” TV series when they suddenly recast Darrin from Dick York to Dick Sergeant. The entire tone and feel of the show changed drastically overnight.

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