Why Can Some Stories Be Re-Read So Many Times?

2016 Artwork Rereadability Article sketch

Although this is an article about writing and storytelling, I’m going to have to start by talking about some of my own interests for a few paragraphs. As usual, there’s (sort of) a good reason for this that I hope becomes obvious later.

As regular readers of this site probably know, I’m going through yet another Sherlock Holmes phase at the time of writing.

In fact, the evening before I wrote this article, I dug out an old “Sherlock Holmes” DVD (starring Jeremy Brett as Holmes, of course) that I’d bought when I was seventeen and ended up re-watching it to remind myself how great this adaptation was. After that, I also ended up re-reading the second half of “The Empty House” from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Return Of Sherlock Holmes”.

The thing is that, most of the time, I don’t re-read or re-watch things that much. Most of the time, I can never really quite recapture the amazing feeling of reading or watching something for the first time by looking at something again. When I look at something for the second time, it often just feels like it’s been diluted slightly. It usually feels more like a chore than anything interesting or exciting.

However, as I mentioned earlier, there are certainly exceptions to this rule and I thought that I’d share some of my thoughts about why some things can be re-read or re-watched endlessly, whilst many other things can’t.

In many ways, whether something is as enjoyable to look at for the fifth time as it was the first time all comes down to everything surrounding the story. In other words, the characters, the narration, the atmosphere, the settings and any good memories you associate with the first time that you read it.

A thrilling or interesting story might be fascinating to read for the first time. But, once you know how it ends, then that’s it – it can never surprise or astonish you again. So, the story alone isn’t why one book can be re-read a hundred times, whereas another one cannot.

However, if you really enjoyed spending time in the company of the story’s characters, if the setting of the story was intriguing enough to spark your imagination, if the writer’s narrative voice sounds interesting, if the story provoked a mood that you want to feel again or if the story was something that you read during a particularly important time in your life, then you’re probably going to want to revisit it again.

A good example of this rule in action is probably a novel called “Lost Souls” by Billy Martin (writing under the pen name of Poppy Z. Brite). I’ve read this book at least twice and it’s probably my absolute favourite novel. But, the interesting thing about it is that it doesn’t really have that much of an actual story. Seriously, it’s kind of hard to summarise the plot of “Lost Souls” here – because there almost isn’t one.

But, at the same time, everything else about the book is just amazing. The writing itself is lush and vivid, with an almost poetic quality to it. The atmosphere of the story is so strong that you can almost smell the cheap booze, clove smoke, nail varnish and crisp night air. The characters are so interesting that you want to hang out with them for as long as possible. The settings of the story make you look at the world around you in the hope of seeing some hint of the story’s imagined places there.

It’s a book I could re-read a hundred times. And yet it barely has a plot of any kind to speak of.

Even with much more plot-driven stories, like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Sherlock Holmes” stories – the actual mysteries themselves aren’t what make Sherlock Holmes so re-readable.

The things that make “Sherlock Holmes” so re-readable include Holmes himself – the strange, eccentric man who lives in a wonderfully cluttered flat, who lives a life of intense curiosity and whose powers of deduction are realistic enough to be believable, but magical enough to be astonishing. He’s such a fascinating character that you’ll probably want to hang out with him as much as possible.

Other reasons include things like Conan Doyle’s wonderfully dramatic and, for the time, concise writing style. Or, perhaps, the mysterious fog-shrouded streets of Victorian London.

The main thing to remember here is that merely telling an interesting story won’t make your story re-readable. It’s everything surrounding your story that decides whether people will just read it once or not.

———————–

Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

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