Reader Satisfaction

You've got your big idea, you've worked through a few scenarios in your head, you reckon you're starting to get an angle on your main characters, so, you're ready to sit down and either:
  • start writing
  • start planning out the story
Before you do, you still gotta ask yourself one question:

"Why am I writing this?"

Very very very very broadly speaking, I find three main reasons for writing, as follows:

  • I wanna sell books and make some money
  • I wanna write a great work of literature
  • I wanna be a great author
These three are not mutually exclusive, but let's face it, if you mean to write a work of great literary fiction, even if you succeed in writing the next Alchemist or Captain Corelli, satisfying your readers is still elusive. No matter how many people declare that you have given them a new and special experience, there will always be plenty for whom your book just doesn't work. If you want to write literary fiction, please please do. There isn't enough of it out there. But you will find reader satisfaction very hard to plan for.

If you want to make money, you will have to give the reader an experience he already knows he likes. If you're really good, you can surprise and challenge him occasionally, but the readers who buy a lot of books (who are also the ones who buy the most literary fiction) mostly buy genre pulp.

Don't get me wrong – I love genre pulp. And indeed, book lovers love genre pulp. Only snobs and old school critics look down on it. More fool them. Graham Greene wrote pulp. Michael Moorcock wrote pulp. I bet you can think of more examples.

In genre pulp you can aim for reader satisfaction. Each genre has its conventions, its cliche tropes, but that isn't what I'm talking about. It's part of it. The part that the writers of television dramas trying to emulate Joss Whedon understand.

Writers of television drama want to squeeze as many episodes out of a good idea as they can, and keep the audience figures as high as possible for as long as possible. Sometimes the audience sticks with them a lot longer than they expect, and because they aren't Whedon, they run out of ideas and things either get silly (Lost) or endlessly reboot (Heroes).

And if you want to make a living out of writing, isn't that exactly what you want to do?

Where novel writing differs is that you aren't a faceless team of contracted writers. You're one writer, speculating. And inevitably, putting yourself into your work. And, I hope, caring about your readers and their satisfaction. You care what they think of you.

At the same time, you aren't beholden to studio execs and their shareholders. So when an idea has run its course, no matter how successful it is, you can let it go, and move on. Same if it doesn't work.

So you can produce pulp, but you can afford to care about it, to be personal, to be literary.

Great novels don't arise from great ideas. They arise from great stories.

In the same way, great pulp arises from complete stories. Stories that are "tight". A tight story is one whose narrative follows a strict path; nothing is missing, nothing is redundant. It need not always be clear to the reader, but by the end of his journey, the end of the experience, the reader must feel that not a single moment has been wasted; there have been no blind alleys, no tangents, no holes – no matter how often he might have thought something was a blind alley or a tangent or a hole; at the end, the reader has to realize the reason for it, and the reason must be part of the story.

Often, tangential episodes are justified by writers as "character establishment/development".

If you want reader satisfaction, character must be subordinate to story. Don't be lazy: tell the story through character development and develop character through the story.

Tight stories also don't have anything essential missing.

Identifying what's missing can be the hardest part of the literary editor's job, but more often than not, it consists of the following: somewhere between seven tenths and nine tenths of the way through, the crucial events of the book reach a sort of partial closure resembling an interlude: a big battle has been won, but the Big Bad is still at large; the terrorist plot has been thwarted but the corrupt politician behind it has yet to be unmasked; the party of adventurers have managed to get through the Fire Swamp, through the Maze of Death, across the Bottomless Gorge of Probable Doom, defeated the Dragon, but now they have to work out how to get all that treasure back home, and when they get there, they still have to depose the Wicked King who sent them on this suicide quest in the first place. You get the general idea.

At this point, time suddenly jumps forwards. Sometimes it does this through a nice neat plot device, like the protagonist spending a few days in hospital, or an Uneventful Journey™. You can get away with this from time to time. Not more than once every three books. Often, though, it happens in fits and starts throughout the last quarter of the book. I call this 'end in sight' syndrome. The author knows what happens at the end, and knows that he's on the home straight. And as everybody knows, the biggest rush and author can get is having written. If you did your word count for the day, you feel awesome. If you completed a book, you feel awesome for several days. Authors chase that high. I see them doing it, when I read the last four chapters. You skip merrily through, ticking off the checklist of what has to happen to make the end happen. And you sell the readers very short.

I sometimes think that authors should, when they have about 15% left to go, leave it, and start work on the sequel. They should then re-read everything, and write the ending slowly and carefully, maintaining the same pace and excitement that they had before.

Very few readers will like you if you rush the ending. Plan the ending for maximum reader satisfaction. Execute it with precision and care. Readers don't get their kicks from finishing a book. If they really like your book, they aren't in a hurry to see "the end". The increasingly common practice of putting the first chapter of another book as a promo at the end takes advantage of this; the reader who is enjoying himself wants to keep reading.

How do you go about planning for reader satisfaction?

That question is for a creative writing course, rather than a blog post. Possibly it's for an editing session; certainly it's for your writing club/group/whatnot. What you do depends on your genre and on your story idea.


I give free advice on designing a story for better reader satisfaction. Send me your story outline via my website.

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