Thursday, June 16, 2011

Roller Coaster Stories Redux: Engaging Your Audience

Reading thuRsday

A roller coaster story is one in which readers aren't able to do anything other than sit back and enjoy the ride. I've argued that we don't want roller coaster stories, but I wasn't convinced my argument was compelling.

Then I came across a post on the Guide to Literary Agents blog by agent Jon Sternfeld called, Engaging Your Audience. He said:
"What ‘engage’ means here, and it may come from my teaching days, is give your reader something to do. Readers are not passive vessels looking to be dragged somewhere and told a story. They’re looking to get involved in a storycaring about the protagonist, wrestling with any issues that the narrative brings up, and most importantly, guessing what happens. This is not just an issue with mysteries or thrillers but with all narratives. All genres are mysteries, in one way or another; don’t forget that.

"A reader that is not doing anything is a bored reader. Not only should a reader never be ahead of the author, he/she should be engaged in a back and forth with the author. Readers want to take what is there on the page and extrapolate, use their imagination, draw conclusions, make assumptions. It’s why they’re reading a book and not watching a movie."
The idea of giving your readers something to do nailed the issue for me. I trust if you've read a few posts here you won't be at all surprised if I confess that I like to think about things. Much of the enjoyment I get out of a good book comes from all the things it gives me to think about, not only while reading but in the times in between when I can't read.

Boring a reader by not engaging them is bad enough. But letting a reader get engaged and then invalidating their efforts with a sudden twist is, in my reckoning, bordering on the criminal.

You may object that such things happen regularly in the movies. If so, reread Sternfeld's last line in the quote above.

I have good reason to suspect the roller coaster books I've read recently were written by authors who look to movies for their inspiration. I like a book with a cinematic feel, but there are important differences between the experience of watching a movie and reading a book. Reader engagement is the key to understanding those differences.

It all comes down to respect: crafting your story so that it is, in effect, a conversation with your reader (the back and forth Stenfeld mentions) is the best way to steer clear of the roller coaster.


Image: Michelle Meiklejohn / FreeDigitalPhotos.net