Although this is an article about writing fiction, I’m going to have to start by talking about computer games. Although I don’t know if I’ll review it or not, I recently started playing a slightly low-budget role-playing game from 2009 called “Venetica” and, compared to the classic 1990s first-person shooter games that I’ve been playing recently, I noticed how one crucial difference between these two genres completely changes their emotional tone.
Although both genres of game include exploration, puzzles and combat, the role-playing genre is much more of a “feel good” genre because there are also “side-quests” where you can help other characters with problems that they are having. These “side-quests” are totally optional and yet you’ll usually want to do them for the feeling of solving a problem or helping someone out, rather than for the coins, points or items that you are given afterwards.
But, what does any of this have to do with writing fiction?
Well, it is all to do with thinking about your reader’s experience of reading your story. Like how playing two different genres of game can evoke very different emotions in the player through something as simple as adding “side-quests”, being conscious of things like the writing style, characters, story structure etc… in your novel can have a huge impact on what your readers experience emotionally.
For example, shorter chapters (especially if they have cliffhanger endings), shorter sentences, descriptions of actions and/or a more “matter of fact” writing style all push the reader to read more quickly. This is perfect if you want to write an action-packed thriller story. If you try to write a similar story with more formal narration then, even though the story might be the same, the reader’s experience of it won’t be quite as good. They will still know that the story is supposed to be a fast-paced thriller, but the experience of reading a slower-paced story than they expected won’t evoke the feeling of reading a thrilling story.
To give another example, romance novels will almost always include some kind of conflict (eg: emotional turmoil, a love triangle, another character forbidding the relationship etc…) that gets between the story’s main couple. Although this conflict might seem counter-intuitive in a genre that is meant to give the reader the enjoyable vicarious experience of falling in love, it is there for a good reason.
For starters, it makes the inevitable happy ending feel even happier in comparison to the rest of the story. It can add a frisson of “forbidden romance” to the story too. It also adds enough “realism” to highly-stylised romance stories to keep the reader gripped and to allow them to fantasise about something like this actually happening to them.
Focusing on your reader’s experience of reading your novel can also help you to add a bit more originality to your story too. For example, the novel I’m reading at the moment is one called “Gun Machine” by Warren Ellis. This is a hardboiled detective novel, yet it feels very different to other works in the genre thanks to things like an eccentric cast of characters, a surreal transgressive sense of humour and a number of slightly quirky plot details.
By focusing on the reader’s experience – the journey as well as the destination – Ellis is able to write a hardboiled mystery that feels slightly different to most novels in the genre, despite having a lot of elements in common with them (eg: a cynical world-weary detective, a large city etc…). Again, this is all because he focuses as much on the “journey” (eg: descriptions, writing style, characters, humour etc…) as he does on the “destination” (eg: the plot).
So, what is the best way to learn how your reader will experience your story?
Well, the obvious way is to show your story to a few test readers and see what they think of it. But, this is something you can really only do after you’ve already finished your story. If you want to be conscious of your reader’s experience when you’re actually writing your story, then the only real way to do this is to regularly read lots of different books by lots of different authors.
Not only will regular reading give you all sorts of practical lessons about writing, but it also gives you something even more important – direct, recent experience of being a reader. If you pay attention to how you react to every novel that you read, then you’ll get a sense of the types of novels that you enjoy reading (and why). If you think about how the authors evoked these reactions in you, then it will give you more tools for doing the same thing for your own readers.
So, read regularly and pay attention to what emotions your readers will experience when they are reading your story.
Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂