Mark Terry

Thursday, November 15, 2007

What Readers Want

November 15, 2007
I was giving this some thought the other day and, after all, novelists should ask themselves this question: What do readers want?

The simple answer is to be entertained. Anything else is probably a bonus. There's a wonderful exchange in Dick Francis' novel "Straight" between the main character, a beginning adventure novelist, and the grand dame of British literature, where she demands to know why he writes. He says "to entertain. How about you?" To which she responds, with a stuffy British sniff it is suggested, "To enlighten."

I'm not nearly that much of an egomaniac. Keeping readers entertained for 350+ pages is enough. Anything else they take out of it is the cherry on top. That isn't to say that I don't want to put in as much "stuff" as I can within the framework of the story I'm telling. But lengthy digressions about the meaning of life don't have much place in a fast-paced thriller. 

This is all a digression. It wasn't where I planned on going with this. My brother, who is a music professor and composer, studied composition a few years ago with some reasonably well-known classical composer in California, and we discussed the goal of the composer's teaching because it closely applies to the novelist. And you can sum it up in two words:

Surprising inevitability.

You have to surprise the reader who at the same time has to say, "Oh yeah, that makes sense." No deus ex machina, no left-field solutions. Yet we don't want to see it coming.

One of the things about books (and TV and movies) is it's safe to say there's precious little new under the sun. I have a friend who was always whining that books and movies always seemed "formula." I think he's right, but not in a denigrating way. That formula's been around since the beginning of story telling. Every now and then somebody does something different like telling a story backwards or entirely through dialogue ("Vox") and the big critics act like it's the second coming of Christ and people talk about it for a few days and then promptly go back to reading books that don't feel like they were written with Martians in mind.

And in genre fiction in particular, creating "surprising inevitability" is no small task. In mysteries the sleuth almost always solves the crime. In thrillers the hero almost always saves the day. In romances after disagreements, the main characters fall in love.

That's your formula. In the mystery, there's usually a dead body and the sleuth usually goes about finding out who did it and some version of justice is or is not meted out.

We've all read it a million times. There are about 180,000 books published each year that fall into that category. I could read a mystery a day, never repeat myself, and do so for the next fifty years and not come to the end of what's already been published in this genre, and yet, often times, if the writers did their job, even though I know that, yes, in most cases the hero will solve the crime and justice will be meted out (usually), I will be satisfied in how this happened.

That's what readers want. Surprising inevitability. The same, but different. 

Mark Terry  


Blogger PJ Parrish said...

Good entry, Mark. I love that phrase "surprising inevitability."

8:49 AM  
Blogger spyscribbler said...

One of the most important questions to ask, I think! Although, I think they yearn to be understood, too. But that might be more in my genre.

I like surprising inevitability! So many writers try to write to the genre, rather than writing the genre with their own twist.

I love this post. Sometimes we all talk about craft and the business so much, we forget the point of all the craft and all the business is reaching the readers and giving them an experience.

2:39 PM  
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