Reader versus Story

Yesterday Philip Pullman (author of His Dark Materials series) tweeted an observation that, when a ‘children’s book goes wrong, it’s often because the author is thinking of the readers and not the story. That might be true of other books too.’ While I would agree this can happen, I would also argue that sometimes a book ‘goes wrong’ when the author fails to pay sufficient attention to his or her readers – particularly in genre fiction. I’m talking about reader expectations. Stories can run aground (particularly during the publishing process) when authors fail to consider (or live up to) reader expectations.

When we critique first pages here, we often (consciously or not) consider the conventions of the genre we are considering. A couple of weeks ago we critiqued the first page of a fantasy novel that was a prologue – a device that is both familiar and welcome in the fantasy genre but which, in many other genres like mystery and thrillers, is less enthusiastically embraced. Mysteries and thrillers have a number of so-called conventions which are really more about reader expectations than story structure. Similar conventions abound in other genre fiction like fantasy and romance. When I wrote my first novel, I didn’t consider genre or reader expectations (except my own) but once the book was sold as a mystery, I needed to make revisions to make sure that it conformed to what readers would expect from the start of a historical mystery series with a female amateur detective. Now, I’m more likely to subconsciously take into account reader expectations while I’m writing an initial draft – but that doesn’t mean I artificially try to change the story to suit what I think some hypothetical reader will want. Nonetheless, reader expectations still play an important role in the revision process.

Failure to live up to reader expectations could be the reason a novel doesn’t get published or doesn’t sell as well as it could once released. Similarly, especially in the children/MG/YA space, even though a writer should never underestimate their readership (after all, nobody wants to read a book that talks down to them), failure to take into account the age of the target audience can make a book hard to position in the marketplace.

I think Philip Pullman was probably trying to highlight circumstances in which a writer focuses too much on what they think a reader will want from the story, rather than letting the story unfold. I have heard of some cozy mystery writers who have tried to tailor their stories to what they think publishers (and, by default, readers) want, in an effort to make their story more marketable/publisher friendly. This rarely succeeds unless the writer is authentic in their story choices – you can’t manufacture a story to suit what you think are the publishing trends or reader likes/dislikes.

So TKZers what do you think of Philip Pullman’s assessment? How often do you think stories ‘go wrong’ because writers are thinking of readers rather than the story?

11 thoughts on “Reader versus Story

  1. Like almost everything else, it’s a balancing act between what I want and what others should be given.

    It may be MY story, but it’s THEIR time (and money).

  2. First, I don’t think the “story” necessarily goes wrong, but whether readers will appreciate it (meaning buy it, recommend it) or whether it will be published depends a lot on genre (unless it’s “literary” fiction, which JSB covered in an earlier post), I think readers’ expectations have to be considered

    I write romantic suspense and mystery, and I have to approach “relationship” aspects differently, even though I call them all “Mysteries with Relationships.”
    My first mystery was rejected because the publisher didn’t like that it had both police procedural and cozy aspects. (I published it myself, and the series is doing well–BUT, mystery readers dinged me vehemently because there was a page of foreplay in the book. I took it out for the second audition, and that eliminated those “this is porn” reviews).

    So yes, I do think you have to consider who is reading the book. In a mystery, I want the crime solved/bad guy caught; in a romance, I want the hero and heroine to have at least the promise of their HEA.

  3. It’s important to be true to the story. Yes, reader expectations are important, but I believe that’s actually part of the story. I’ve been in several critique groups, and I’ve seen many writers who worry too much about what readers *might* want. They read reviews to find out what readers think and publishing articles to find out what agents and publishers are looking for. They write the story they think readers want to read, rather than the story they want to write.

    When the story is constrained by external opinions, it loses passion and originality. If Anne Rice had believed ‘Vampires are dead’, she wouldn’t have written the books that made her famous. If George RR Martin had followed the expectation that favourite main characters won’t die, his stories might not have been as popular.

    Reader expectations are one thing. They’re a framework for the story, and they move the story forward. They compell the reader to keep reading. Reader opinions – especially imagined opinions – can imprison the story, creating false limitations, and may lead to a less compelling story.

    • BJ, I think you’ve hit on what Philip Pullman was alluding to in his tweet. I do hear of some writers trying to tailor their mysteries to what they ‘think’ readers want, rather than focusing on the story they want to write. This rarely works out well!

  4. Interesting post, Clare. Thank you.

    I can’t say that I specifically think of readers while I’m creating a world or my characters. I believe that since I am an avid reader, that I represent the market. So if I can get drawn in & entrenched in my fictional world, I just have to please myself, as a voracious reader.

    But when I create twists & mystery elements, I think of tricking the reader & do it in different ways from my other books. I don’t want to do cookie cutter formulaic plots. It’s fun to trick myself by a surprise twist I didn’t see coming until I get immersed into the story.

    • Thanks Jordan – As a fellow voracious reader I try to please myself first and foremost too:) I’m not as clever at coming up with twists but I love that you try to surprise your readers each time by surprising yourself:)

  5. In countless seminars I have taught and panels I’ve served on, I give new writers the same bit of advice: think less and write more. Write the damn story. Have fun with the plot and the characters and take them on a Great Pretend. If it’s a thriller, start out fast and keep the story moving. If it’s a mystery, find the body and solve the crime. In 18 books over 20-plus years, I have never once thought of an inciting event or a tipping point or a three-act structure. Truthfully, I don’t think I could find those things in the books that I’ve written.

    For me, here’s the structure that matters:

    EVENT ONE happens, causing EVENT TWO. If my GOOD GUY doesn’t somehow interfere with the BAD GUY’s plan, then EVENT THREE will happen, and that will have a CATASTROPHIC RESULT. Because the BAD GUY is as committed to his dastardly plot as the GOOD GUY is to stopping him, NOTHING IS EASY. STORY STUFF happens, and that leads to the FINAL CONFRONTATION.

    As for taking readers’ expectations into account, I think that comes more into play after a writer has a fan base. I know, for example, that my fans expect violence in my books, but they don’t expect gore porn, and they’ll pull away from graphic sex or really bad language. That’s fine with me because I’m not inclined to write that stuff anyway.

    And none of those considerations get in the way of storytelling. I say write the story you’d love to read.

  6. Geez, this is a tough one. I’d have to agree it’s a balancing act. But the first consideration is always your own passion for the story at hand. If you don’t love writing it, no one’s gonna love reading it. It goes to authenticity. Readers can smell cynicism in fiction a mile away. They know when you’re phoning it in. But for those special stories that pull at your own heart, they know and feel that, too.

    I just got a really great review for our new one The Damage Done from Criminal Element magazine. The reviewer called it “emotionally compelling” but added she felt an extra emotional pull because she had boys of her own. (the story is about two little boys left to die in a box. It took us over a year to finish this one.)

    So, yeah, you have to be smart about the market. You still have to be unique and fresh. But your voice has to be true and you have to love your story.

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