Thursday, May 20, 2010

Thinking Readers are Engaged Readers

Reading thuRsday

Continuing the theme of Thinking Readers we started last week, I want to make the case that thinking readers are engaged readers. At least the books I enjoy most are the ones that invite me to think about the story both as I read and when I have to stop reading.

I had a peculiar experience reading the recently-published dystopian YA novel I mentioned yesterday: I didn't like the beginning, I liked the middle, and I didn't like the end. More often than not, it's the middle that's weak. [The only other case I can recall where I liked the middle act best is Star Wars, episodes 4, 5, and 6-- I like The Empire Strikes Back a bit better because I think that's when I felt most fully engaged in the story. But it's not really comparable because I liked A New Hope and Return of the Jedi very much too.]

The first act seemed like a parade of contrivances to withhold information from both the protagonist and the reader.

In the second act, the protagonist finally gets some information and acts on it. I became engaged because I wanted to see how the experiment played out and what information that gave us for subsequent efforts to solve the problem.

Then in the third act, through a series of startling reveals, I the reader, am effectively told that everything I know is wrong, there's no way I can figure out what's going on based on the information I've been given, and so the only thing to do is hang on for the wild ride to the startling end.

So what does this mean for those of us who want engaged readers?

I think the fundamental lesson is that reading is interactive; that your readers want to participate in the story. So the best way to alienate them is to say, in effect, "Shut up, sit still, and let me take you for a ride." Put another way, except for the middle, the author didn't show me how to enjoy his story, he told me how to appreciate his cleverness as the designer and operator of the roller coaster ("Please keep your hands within the vehicle at all times.")

Image: Michelle Meiklejohn /

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