What Do Readers Really Want?

“A great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted at the end. You live several lives while reading.” ― William Styron

By PJ Parrish

A writer friend of mine, Tim Hallinan, had an interesting post on Facebook the other day. Well, all his posts are interesting, but I thought this one you all at TKZ might really enjoy. Plus, I read it at a special point while my writing my new book. Here’s the post. Then I’ll be back and we’ll talk.

Bruce Springsteen in the NY Times today, talking about his goals for his one-man Broadway show:

“I think an audience always wants two things. They want to feel at home and they want to be surprised.”

If I had a single writing space, I’d put those words on the wall.

I think book readers want the same things, except that by “at home” they mean knowing instinctively that they can trust the writer not to violate the covenant between them, the sort of handshake made in the first few pages, that says the writer will do his/her best throughout the considerable amount of time the reader is generously volunteering to the experience. The reader needs to “feel at home” in their expectation of the kind of story and the level of quality and commitment the writer is attempting to bring to the experience. (It’s actually more like an airbnb, in that readers might expect different kinds of experiences from different spaces or books.)

But in addition to that level of comfort, they also want to be surprised — the book needs to take them places they weren’t expecting to go. And I think that covers everything from major story developments to tiny moments of grace among individual characters, maybe just a new way to say something.

I can’t think of anything, from a mild chuckle to a moment of illumination, that this doesn’t imply.


Isn’t that great stuff? Both from Bruce and Tim.  A couple years back, I read Tim’s Edgar-nominated book The Queen of Patpong. Normally, I don’t go for Asian settings, but I really was transported by his rendering of his location and the arc of his character Rose, village girl turned sex worker. Her story reminded me of another book that took me east, Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden, another tale of a girl sold into sex trade. (Click here to read the opening of The Patpong Queen to get a taste of of what it’s like in a Bangkok lap bar. Tim’s latest release, by the way, is coming in November — Fools’ River)

I’m also a big Springsteen fan. Not just for the tunes. Mostly it’s because he’s a great storyteller. So many of his songs are short stories, filled with damaged characters and locations painted with Van Gogh virtuosity. With just a few quick impasto strokes, Springsteen makes me see his places —

New Jersey Turnpike riding on a wet night
‘Neath the refinery’s glow out where the great black rivers flow.
License, registration, I ain’t got none
But I got a clear conscience ’bout the things that I done

And makes me feel for his people —

My name is Joe Roberts I work for the state
I’m a sergeant out of Perrineville barracks number 8
I always done an honest job as honest as I could
I got a brother named Franky and Franky ain’t no good

Now ever since we was young kids it’s been the same come down
I get a call over the radio Franky’s in trouble downtown
Well if it was any other man, I’d put him straight away
But when it’s your brother sometimes you look the other way

Me and Franky laughin’ and drinkin’ nothin’ feels better than blood on blood
Takin’ turns dancin’ with Maria as the band played “Night of the Johnstown Flood”

I catch him when he’s strayin’ like any brother would
Man turns his back on his family well he just ain’t no good

Like a good novelist, Springsteen honors the covenant between writer and reader. He makes us feel at home in his genre and his world, yet his song-stories can surprise through their ability to ignite a memory, touch a heart, or thrum a fear.  I’ve cried listening to him perform Independence Day, a song about a son’s inability to connect with a father. This is what great books do as well — they resonate, they connect, they make you think when you read them, yes, that is exactly how I feel!

As Tim so nicely puts it, a novel “is a handshake in the first few pages” that the writer will do everything in her power to keep up her side of the bargain. And as for that element of surprise both Bruce and Tim talk about, well, that’s the magic, isn’t it.

“Surprise” isn’t just a mere plot twist (though that can be fun). It isn’t just the final revelation of who did, indeed, do it. (though that can be satisfying). It isn’t the colorful rendering of your location (though who doesn’t want to visit far away places with strange-sounding names, like Bangkok and Bayonne?) “Surprise” is, as Tim says, the magic dust you spread throughout your entire book, from the care you put in your plotting, to the love you invest in your characters, even the bad ones, maybe especially the bad ones.

I’m one chapter shy of finishing the latest book.  This book has taken my sister Kelly and I “home” in that we have returned to our series character Louis Kincaid, and I am hopeful this story will make Louis’s fans feel a comfort that maybe they didn’t feel with our previous stand alone thriller. And we’ve worked really hard — and long — on this one to strengthen the covenant by producing what we really hope is a subtle and mutli-layered psychological mystery.

But I also hope the readers will be surprised. We’re taking them up to the wilds of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where small skeletons are found buried in abandoned copper mines, and into the arcana of the Catholic religion, where good cops struggle to reconcile the sanctity of the confessional with their need for justice.

This is why Tim’s post resonated with me. It is also why I started out today with one of my favorite quotes from Styron. We’re about ready to type THE END. I’ve had some experiences. I’m a little exhausted. And I’ve lived a couple lives while writing it. I can only hope the readers will feel the same.


19 thoughts on “What Do Readers Really Want?

  1. I’m a fan of Louis Kincaid and a fan of Michigan. Can’t wait to read this new one when it comes out!!

    • Thanks Nan! This one’s been a while in the baking machine. We took some time off to do our stand alone last year then got back to this one but it was slow going for some reason. Will keep you posted on publishing progress.

  2. Love how you wove together the insightful wisdom of Springsteen and Hallinan and added your own. This post caused me to reflect on what I want as a reader, what home means to me in that context. Your reference of Hallinan’s Asian novel got me thinking that, yes, I like to be transported by a novel into new places and experiences–physical and psychological–and yet feel like I am home in those worlds. That feeling occurs when the writer does exactly what you and Hallinan say is necessary: doing her level best to bring a level of commitment to the story, setting and characters such that I can immerse myself fully for a time and have a vicarious experience that I wouldn’t have had on my own. For me, the best surprises are the emotional ones where I’m caught off guard but that feel exactly right.

    • Morning Jag! Yes, exactly what you said! As I said, I don’t gravitate to novels set in Asia or the Mideast, yet when a writer is successful at making me feel “at home” in these places, I love them. (See The Kite Runner). But if the opposite is true, that the writer seems to be using the locale to be merely exotic, I feel like I need to get on the first plane out of there.

  3. My favorite blogs at this site are when one of the regular contributors bared a little of their soul in the process of teaching us something about writing. So thank you for that and for the great perspective. I haven’t read your series but from what you’ve written, I’d like to read this latest one, knowing you put extra care to develop the psychological aspects of the story. Plus Michigan is only a hop away from Wisconsin.

    • Thanks Maggie. This new book is what one of my editors called “a quiet mystery” as opposed to the usual slam-bang thrillers we often try to write. I didn’t take that as a compliment when he said it, and I still think it’s a misnomer in that a deep dive into the psychology behind a crime and its effects on victims is the best kind of thriller, imho.

  4. I might tweak it this way, Kris—the reader wants a journey home. That journey can take all sorts of pathways, but in some sense the paths must be through a forest where anything might happen … except the expected.

  5. Another good blog, PJ. Love the quote, Bruce Springsteen “Mr. State Trooper, please don’t stop me . . .” and all you’ve added to it. Congratulations on another Louis Kinkaid novel. Please keep us posted on when and where we can get it.

  6. PJ.
    This is a terrific post and rather lyrical in its own right. So often we are focused on hard craft, but this is a layer deeper. It’s an inspiration for me.

    Springsteen is also very good at the opening line, our equivalent of the opening sentence. Her is the opening to Hungry Heart.

    Got a wife and kids in Baltimore, Jack
    I went out for a ride and I never went back
    Like a river that don’t know where it’s flowing
    I took a wrong turn and I just kept going

    Spartan, but a complete image of the character. I love it.

    • Good example, Brian. I also like the lines in Thunder Road, especially this one:

      Screen door slams, Mary’s dress waves. Like a vision she dances across the porch as the radio plays.

      It is interesting to go back and read the lyrics of Springsteen’s first album…they read more like a novice writer, sort of punch-drunk on imagery. Examples:

      “Well, I’m just a lonely acrobat, the live wire is my trade
      I’ve been a shine boy for your acid brat and a wharf rat of your state.”

      “I had skin like leather and the diamond-hard look of a cobra
      I was born blue and weathered but I burst just like a supernova
      I could walk like Brando right into the sun, then dance just like a Casanova
      With my blackjack and jacket and hair slicked sweet
      Silver star studs on my duds, just like a Harley in heat.”

      Springsteen learned what to leave out. A good lesson for novelists.

      • He also wrote ‘Blinded by the Light’ the Manfred Mann song. It is really word salad but a lot of fun

  7. “Springsteen learned what to leave out. A good lesson for novelists.”

    And an even better lesson for someone struggling to write a novella. Someone whose first drafts of novels usually exceed 100K words.

    As always, a great post with lots of brain fodder.

    • If it’s any consolation, Terry, my first draft clocks in at 117K. I have done two rewrites already but next week it’s time to take out the scalpel. Or maybe the Weedwacker and chain saw. Will have to see how gnarly it is…

  8. Looking at a Minnesota sunset and listening to another gifted story teller-musician. One that left us too soon.
    “You don’t know how it feels. You don’t know how it feels. You don’t know how it feels – to be real.”
    But the truth is when listening to Tom Petty we do know how it feels because we share it with him.
    And maybe that’s something like feeling at “home ” as mentioned in your post. The authenticity and clarity of writers and artists like Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty allows us to fully experience the wonder of story.


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