To Fascinate Your Readers, Think About Their Literary “Backgrounds”

2014 Artwork Literary Backgrounds Article Sketch

Although this is an article about what makes some types of fiction fascinating for different people, both in terms of writing it and reading it – I’m going to have to talk about about a book that I haven’t really read for a paragraph or two. And, yes, there’s a reason for this.

Anyway, A few weeks ago, Kate Robinson mentioned a book to me called “The Bees” by Laline Paull.

It’s a novel that is apparently mostly set within a colony of bees. I haven’t got round to getting a copy of it yet (it still seems to be pretty new and expensive at the time of writing this article), but I read the preview on Amazon and I was quite impressed. But, this isn’t a review of a book that I’ve only read six pages of – no, it’s an article about why I found the extract so instantly interesting.

Within a few seconds of reading the chapter set inside the beehive, I recognised what I like to call “the darkness”.

This is an ineffable quality which, if it’s present, draws me deeper into a story – and, if it isn’t, usually makes me less interested. It can include things like visceral and slightly creepy descriptions, a vaguely ominous and/or nihilistic atmosphere, dystopic politics, meaningless deaths and/or cynical protagonists.

Noticing this quality in the first few pages of a story about bees, of all things, made me wonder why I’m drawn to this quality in stories that I read (although I’ve noticed that it hardly ever seems to appear in the very few times that I’ve written any fiction in the past year or two – although this could be down to self-censorship more than anything else).

Then I suddenly realised that it was because, when I first really got into reading fiction that wasn’t written for “young adults” I was seduced, bewitched and entranced by horror fiction. Splatterpunk fiction, to be precise.

I read my first splatterpunk novel (“Assassin” by Shaun Hutson) when I was about thirteen and it was like nothing that I’d ever seen before. Needless to say, for the next couple of years, I scoured every charity shop and market that I visited when I was shopping for more old splatterpunk novels from the 80s and 90s.

Also, of course, I was also fascinated by dystopic sci-fi when I was a teenager too. In addition to discovering splatterpunk fiction at the age of thirteen, I also read George Orwell’s “Ninteen Eighty-Four” ( we were shown part of a film adaptation of it in an English lesson at school, and I was so fascinated by it that I decided to read the book) and it was also like nothing I’d ever read before. Alas, good dystopic sci-fi was harder to find than good horror fiction was back then….

So, anything which contains the qualities that can be found in the first two genres that I truly loved almost automatically grabs my attention. Even if it’s something that is totally unrelated on the surface – like a novel about bees, or even a series of fantasy novels (eg: G.R.R Martin’s “Song Of Ice And Fire” novels – and, yes, I still haven’t got around to finishing reading “A Dance With Dragons” yet).

So, why is any of this relevant to you?

Well, all of your readers have their own literary “background”. Maybe they grew up reading “Mills and Boon” romances? Maybe they grew up on military thriller novels? Maybe they were a fantasy geek when they were younger?

Whatever it is, one or two types of fiction will have had a critical formative influence on your readers’ tastes. It will shape how they see all types of fiction, in some subtle way or other, for the rest of their lives. It’s kind of like something from the chorus of this Bad Religion song.

What this means is that, as I alluded to earlier, if your story contains any of the qualities that are found in these kinds of stories – then it will instantly grab their attention. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing in a totally different genre to the one that they’re used to, if your story still contains the same essential elements that make their “formative” genres so interesting, then they’ll be drawn to your story for reasons that they can’t usually quite explain.

I’m not quite sure what the practical applications of this are, but it’s certainly something to think about….

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

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