The 5 Laws of the Fiction Reader

James Scott Bell

Without readers a writer has no career.
There are other reasons people write, of course. For therapy. For fun. For their family. Out of boredom. In prison.
But most writers write to share their stories with the hope of some financial return.
When asked what kind of writing made the most money, Elmore Leonard replied, “Ransom notes.”
Outside of that particular genre, professional writers swim in the free enterprise system, which usually involves two parties: seller and buyer.
The writer is the seller, the reader is the buyer. The product is a book. Or a story.
And in order for this exchange to work, the buyer must like the product.
In order for this exchange to become a lucrative career, the buyer must love the product.
Which brings me to the 5 Laws of the Fiction Reader:
1. The reader wants to be transported into a dream
Fiction writers often hear from agents and editors that a reader wants an “emotional experience” from a novel. Or to be “entertained.”
True, but I don’t think those go far enough. What a reader really and truly longs for is to be entranced. I mean that quite literally. The best reading and movie-going experiences you’ve ever had have been those where you forgot you were reading or watching, and were just so caught up in the story it was like you were in a dream.
It’s like one of my favorite shows as a kid, Gumby. Remember Gumby and Pokey? (If you want to keep your age a secret, don’t raise your hand).
My favorite part of any episode was when Gumby and his horse jumped into a book, got sucked inside, and became part of the story world. I wanted to do that with the Hardy Boys. Jump in and help Frank and Joe solve the mystery.
The point is, when you read, you want to feel like Gumby, like you’re inside the story, experiencing it directly.
Hard to do, writer friend, but who said great writing was easy? Maybe a vanity press or two, but that’s it.
When I teach workshops I often use the metaphor of speed bumps. You drive along on a beautiful stretch of road, looking at the lovely scenery, and you “forget” that you’re driving. But if you hit a speed bump, you’re taken out of that experience for a moment. Too many of those moments and your drive becomes unpleasant.
One reason we study the craft is to learn to eliminate speed bumps, so the readers can forget they’re driving and just enjoy the ride.
2. The reader is always looking for the best entertainment bang for the buck
In this, readers are like any other consumer. If they are going to lay out discretionary funds on something, they want a good return on that investment. Their judgment is based on expectations and experience. If they have experienced a writer giving them wonderful reading over and over, they will pay a higher price for their next book.
If, on the other hand, a writer is new and untested, the reader wants a sampling at a low price, or free. Even then, however, they desire to be just as entertained as if they shelled out ten or twenty bucks for a Harlan Coben or a Debbie Macomber.
That’s a challenge all right, and should be. But here’s the good news. If a reader gets something on the cheap and it enraptures them, you are on your way to a career, because of #3, below.
3. If you surpass reader expectations, they will reward you by becoming fans
Fans are the best thing to have. Fans generate word of mouth. Fans stay with you.
So your goal needs to be not just to meet reader expectations, but surpass them.
By doing everything you can to get better, write better. To do what Red Smith (and NOT Ernest Hemingway) said. You just sit down at the keyboard, open a vein, and bleed.
That’s not just romanticized jargon. It’s what the best writers do, over and over again.
So what if you don’t reach that high standard with your book? No matter. You book will be better for the trying, and you’ll be a better writer, and you next book will be better yet.
Jump on that train, and stay on it.
4. Readers want to feel a connection with authors they love
Which in the “old days” meant maybe sending a fan letter and getting a note in return; or going to a book signing and getting a hardcover signed and saying a few words to the author.
Now we have tweets, and Facebooking, and blogs, and email. Different ways for readers to feel connected to their favorite writers.
Which is really what social media is about. It’s social, not marketing, media. Do it well and you build up a community and when you have something to offer, you will have earned the right to do so.
5. Readers need stories, so supply their needs
In fact, we all need stories. Stories are what keep a culture alive, as opposed to being on life support. Stories shape us, the best ones for the good, like To Kill a Mockingbird and The Long Goodbye. The former is literary, the latter is genre, but it’s elevated genre, it has something to say that’s deep, and in this era of 50 shades of dreck and dross, there’s a crying need for books that elevate the soul, which can be done in any genre, even horror (just ask Koontz or King).
Obey the law! And readers will thank you with a fair exchange of funds.

26 thoughts on “The 5 Laws of the Fiction Reader

  1. Jim, if an author, aspiring or published, had to pick just one of your columns to print and give place of honor on their wall, this would be the one that should be so honored. Thank you for all that you do.

  2. Great advice, Jim. And you do it so well.

    I start every Sunday by reading your post. Your weekly educational moment has certainly contributed greatly (I just had to use an adverb) to my writer’s education. And I feel like it’s a link.

    I’m sitting in a hotel room, after attending a writer’s conference yesterday and having the opportunity to hear and meet Jodie Renner. Great teacher, great editor. A lot of what we heard yesterday was about removing speed bumps.

    As I read your post, I glanced at the coffee station on the desk. A packet of coffee grounds stared me in the face. It’s bold letters: “We’re RESPONSIBLE for your enjoyment.” Now that’s reinforcement for your post. We’re responsible for the reader’s entertainment.

    Thanks, Jim, for entertaining and teaching us.

    • I love that message from the coffee, Steve. You know you’re a writer when consumer products start sending you messages about the craft.

      Ford used to say “Quality is Job #1.” Now they say, “Go further.” Both of those apply to the writer, wouldn’t you say?

    • ‘Ford used to say “Quality is Job #1.” Now they say, “Go further.” Both of those apply to the writer, wouldn’t you say?’

      And I would always say about Ford, Fix Or Repair Daily. Yet another Ford related slogan which applies to a writer. Interesting. Maybe I’ll shop around for a Pinto

  3. Another great post, Jim. I’ve been a bit caught up in the mass producton mentality recently, and posts like this (and an awesome workshop with Donald Maass last night) make me step back and want to make my work better before simply releasing it and moving on to the next “product.” I’d say I have that sucked-inside-the-book experience in one out of ten books I read. The rest are good, usually, but I’ll forget them in a few weeks. I fear too many authors are settling for the good story in order to get it out there faster, and readers are lowering their standards to accomodate them. Both will be satisfied, the way you’re satisfied after a good burger and fries. I’d like to deliver the steak. Thanks again for all you do.

    • Watch out for that Maass fellow, Ron. He’ll set you on fire.

      Another old saying comes to mind, Let your reach exceed your grasp. Each time we do that, our grasp extends, too. And it shows in our writing.

  4. “There is crying need for books that elevate the soul.” That’s what I search for in every book I read. It good to know someone else thinks that’s important. Thank you for saying so.

    • Thanks, Eve. I always hearken back to something John Gardner said about “bad art” which is just “staring, because it is fashionable, into the abyss.” Abyss-staring-into is easy. What we need is art telling us what to do about it.

  5. I love that quote that goes something like this: “Entertain. If you want to send a message, use Western Union.”

    I definitely have things I wish to say through my work, but I never forget that bit of advice: Entertain first!

    Thanks again for another wonderful post, Jim. (And thank you for writing Plot & Structure, without which I wouldn’t be selling books today.)

    • That Western Union quote has been attributed to Frank Capra and Sam Goldwyn. It sounds more like Goldwyn to me. It sounds most of all like Capra’s boss at Columbia, Harry Cohn. But I haven’t confirmed he said it yet.

      Thanks for the kind word about P & S, Nat.

  6. Great post. Such important advice, and in theory so simple. The devil, of course, is in the details. Story first. Readers second. The writer? Keep yourself a lot farther down the list. It doesn’t matter how “artistic” your writing is, whatever that means. If the question is, “How do I engage the reader?” then by definition reader is not wrong.

  7. One thing I notice a lot in my editing business is writers usurping the reader by including lots of what I think of as “thinking it all over after the action” scenes — moments in which a character tries to figure out what to do next: What really just happened? Does this mean what I think it means, or does it mean something else? What’s my next move? Should I do Thing A, Thing B or maybe even Crazy Thing C? A little of this makes for a nice breather for the reader after a scene of extreme intensity. Too much, though ….

    As a reader, I see my role as trying to answer such questions. When a writer has a character do it, it pushes me out of that level of engagement and puts me at a distance. It’s as if the writer is saying, “Your job is to let the story roll over you, not to engage with it. I’ll do the thinking for you.” And eventually I get bored and wander off, and all the clever craft tricks or incredible plot twists in the world can’t bring me back.

    Writing craft can be taught, mostly. But at some point good writing is the product of good choices borne of good instinct, and I think this is one of those things that separates truly talented, good-enough writers from pretenders. You have to have the internal radar to know when you you should stop trying to set the table for the reader and start getting on with the story.

  8. Jim,

    Jim, a big thank you for this post! This is crucial, and really illustrates the centrality of the reader and his/her experience to we writers. It’s taken me a few years to get to the point where I can as a writer look at my own fiction as a reader. It took a lot of feedback and several very talented author teachers commenting on my fiction to help me look at my fiction as a reader would–and this post lays out so well what readers look for in fiction. My goal is to fulfill this for whoever might read one of my stories or novels.

    As I commented last week, I want to meet, subvert and exceed readers expectations–this helps me further on my way. Thanks again!

  9. All of these things connect me to a story. One thing I’d like to see more of in a story, especially when the story takes place in a foreign land with foreign customs, though exotic things fascinate me, in order to ground me in the story there has to be some element of familiarity. Sometimes an author gets so bogged down in wanting to appear authentic, they tend to forget to ground the reader with something familiar. Even if it’s a large, hairy mole sticking out from an Arabic fashion ensemble, I will remember the mole, but I will appreciate the exotic description.

    Maybe I’m just a little wired wrong, but that seems to be what fascinates me most and keeps me remembering the story when I put down the book.

  10. James, you’re so right. As a reader, I expect to be transported and transfixed. Now that I’m also a writer, when I catch something unusual–like something out of character, or weak verbs–it takes me out of the story. But not for long! I jump back in.

    I’m currently reading “Sharp Objects” by Gillian Flynn–author of “Gone Girl.” After reading Gone Girl I became a huge fan and will likely read everything she writes. Her stories are dark and freaky, but amazing.

  11. “You just sit down at the keyboard, open a vein, and bleed.” – Red Smith

    I’ve probably heard this quote hundreds of times over the years since I started writing. But I didn’t truly understand it until I heard J.A. Jance speak at our Sisters in Crime meeting Saturday. Several times she teared up and had to stop as she was talking about her books and the people and events that inspired stories or scenes. She’d not only taken things from her life and incorporated them in her stories, she dared to tell us about the real life experiences and how they affected her.

    There are times I’ve felt as if I’m sharing too much of myself in my stories, too many personal details disguised as fiction. After hearing Judy Jance speak, I think I might not be sharing enough.

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