In yesterday’s post, I mentioned that authors often tap their own experiences and prior knowledge as they create new stories. That’s only natural if, as the research suggests, knowledge comes from associating new things with what we already know. But what about readers? Readers come from a wide variety of different backgrounds and have a wide variety of experiences. So how does an author invite readers to tap their own life experiences to make meaning from what they’re reading, and thus connect with a book at a deeper level?
I think it’s important to start by saying that readers enjoy using their imaginations. Wise authors respect their readers, and give them credit for the ability to imagine things they may not have experienced. Just because a reader hasn’t, say, been to Canada’s Ellesmere Island doesn’t mean that he or she can’t fully enjoy M.J. McGrath’s Edie Kiglatuk novels, which take place there. Authors who assume otherwise either condescend to readers, or provide so much ‘information dump’ that it distracts from the story.
That said, though, there’s also research that shows that readers engage more with stories, remember them better and make more meaning from them when they can identify in some way with a story. In other words, when readers can tap their own backgrounds, they’re more likely to enjoy and remember what they read.
If that’s true, then how does the author accomplish that? One effective way to go about this is to focus on things, events and feelings that most people can identify with and connect with their own lives. For example, one plot thread of Paddy Richardson’s Swimming in the Dark concerns Gerda Klein and her daughter Ilse. Originally from Leipzig, in what used to be East Germany, they left there during the 1980s, during the Cold War, and ended up in New Zealand. That’s where their lives intersect with the life of fifteen-year-old Serena Freeman, who is one of Ilse’s most promising students. When she loses interest in school, Ilse becomes concerned. And everything changes completely when she disappears. Not all readers have experienced life under a totalitarian regime. Not all readers know what it’s like to move to another country. But just about everyone has had the experience of being in a new and unfamiliar place, where you have to get used to where everything is, how to get things done, and how to fit in. On that deeper, human level, it’s easy for readers to identify with Gerda and Ilse Klein.
Today’s readers never experienced the Victorian Era – not on a personal level. So why do Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories still resonate the way they do? In part, of course, it’s that the mysteries are interesting. But more than that, there are common human experiences and themes woven throughout the stories. For instance, in The Adventure of the Dancing Men, Holmes and Dr. Watson solve the mystery of a strange set of coded messages sent to Elsie Cubitt. Her husband Hilton is concerned about them, mostly because of the change he sees in his wife. She’s obviously frightened, although she won’t tell him why, or who sent the messages. Not all readers are interested in or good at ciphers and codes. And as I say, today’s readers can’t identify on a personal level with the Victorian Era as a rule. But we can all understand at a deep level what it’s like to care about someone who’s hurting or frightened. And it’s not hard to understand the feeling of wanting to protect a loved one, as both Elsie and Hilton Cubitt try to do.
There’s another way in which authors can invite readers to tap their world views and knowledge and engage in a story: helping to build background knowledge. Some authors tell stories about places or times or particular events that others might not know very well. In those cases, giving the reader some information can be very helpful.
Of course, there’s an important caveat here. Too much information (and not enough story!) can pull a reader out of a novel. So it’s got to be done carefully. That said though, giving some background information can be helpful.
That’s what Stan Jones has done in his Nathan Active novels. Those novels take place in Chukchi, Alaska, and feature several characters who are Inupiak. Readers may very well not be very knowledgeable about those people and their lives. So Jones provides some really interesting information to help in forming some background knowledge. Yet, he doesn’t distract the reader from the story and the characters. Instead, the information is given as it’s relevant to the story, in pieces at a time. I hear you, Tony Hillerman fans…
That’s also true of Faye Kellerman’s Rina Lazarus/Peter Decker series. Those novels feature an ‘inside look’ at Orthodox Judaism, since Lazarus is an observant member of that community. Several plots in this series involve Jewish observations, history, customs, and so on. And yet, Kellerman doesn’t overload the stories with facts, background information or long-winded histories. Rather, she provides information as it’s relevant to the story at hand. So readers who don’t have background knowledge can build it and can use that understanding to make meaning for themselves.
And that’s another aspect of inviting readers to connect with a story: trusting them to make that meaning. Authors who don’t assume that readers are active participants in the reading process risk several things. First, they risk insulting those readers. Not a good idea. Second, they risk boring those readers. If an author spells everything out (rather than trusting the reader to use her or his background knowledge to ‘fill in the blanks’), readers quickly lose interest. That’s also not a good idea.
It goes without saying (or should) that readers will engage themselves more in novels with effective writing and interesting plots and characters. But there is another, deeper level at which readers can also choose to identify with what’s happening in a story. That comes when the author provides characters, events and things that readers can connect with in their own lives, no matter their background. It can also be helped with the author provides some background information when it’s less likely readers would have it.
More than anything else though, at least in my opinion, it’s important to remember that readers bring their own backgrounds and experiences to the reading process. Trusting them to use that knowledge and giving them some points of connection can make the difference between a good book and one the reader will always remember (and hopefully recommend).
What are your thoughts on this? Are there books you’ve connected with on that very deep level? What’s done that for you? If you’re a writer, what do you do to invite readers to make those connections?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Anna Nalick’s Breathe (2 AM). Best understood if you know that the preceding line is: ‘Cause these words are my diary screaming out loud.