Thursday, November 4, 2010

Readers and Learning Curves

Reading thuRsday
I once heard an author of epic fantasy say, during a panel, that writers should give their readers "a gentle learning curve." Of course, the point he was trying to make was that being able to ease your reader into the world of the book is a key skill.

Many people, not just writers, misunderstand the concept of a learning curve. In a graph that shows learning (on the vertical axis) over time (on the horizontal axis), a gentle curve actually means that it takes the subject a long time to learn. A steep curve, by contrast, means that the subject quickly acquires the knowledge and information that constitute learning.

As with many things, however, when we examine the notion of learning curves more carefully, we find that for both different kinds of stories and different aspects of stories we want different kinds of learning curves.

For example, the best otherworld stories have fairly steep learning curves. Paranormal stories, on the other hand, only need gentle learning curves because they're not too different from the world with which the reader is presumably already familiar.

Within a particular novel, the backstory should have a gentle learning curve. That is, a reader should be given a little at a time instead of a bid info-dump. On the other hand, the basic information about setting, character, and plot should have a steep learning curve so that the reader is grounded and oriented in the story as quickly as possible.

Image: Michelle Meiklejohn /